Singing with all your heart

Jan van Eyck: Singing Angels, from the Ghent AltarpieceAttracting widespread news coverage today: a report that singing in unison synchronises choir members’ heartbeats. As Björn Vickhoff, leader of the Swedish team that carried out the research, puts it:

We already know that choral singing synchronises the singers’ muscular movements and neural activities in large parts of the body. Now we also know that this applies to the heart, to a large extent.

Now, even taking into account the science news cycle, it’s easy to see why this has captured people’s imaginations: the power of unison singing has long been recognised. For starters, this report is as good an excuse as any for us all to read G.K. Chesterton’s great essay, The Little Birds Who Won’t Sing. In this essay, Chesterton bemoans the decline of public singing since the middle ages, which leads him to conclude that “there is something spiritually suffocating about our life”. Though even now the occasional air-vent still exists:

As I passed homewards I passed a little tin building of some religious sort, which was shaken with shouting as a trumpet is torn with its own tongue. THEY were singing anyhow; and I had for an instant a fancy I had often had before: that with us the super-human is the only place where you can find the human. Human nature is hunted and has fled into sanctuary.

It was a similar building, no doubt – though made of a “last-century greyness” of stone, rather than tin – that R.S. Thomas was writing of in his poem The Chapel, whose occupants once:

                        …sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.

That “narrow but saved” being, as Thomas sees so well, a communal experience.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, speaks passionately on the need for congregational singing to be unison singing:

The purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity of and frugality, the humaneness and warmth of this way of singing is the essence of all congregational singing. […] This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word; this is singing in unity.

So important is this for Bonhoeffer that he insists, in pungent terms, on no exceptions to this rule:

There are some destroyers of unison singing in the fellowship that must be rigorously eliminated.

I can sort-of see where Bonhoeffer is coming from there – he was certainly prophetic in his next sentence, where he observes that “There is no place in the service of worship where vanity and bad taste can so intrude as in the singing” – though I wouldn’t insist on unison singing quite so strongly as that. Harmony singing done well can itself be a powerful expression of the church’s unity-in-diversity – perhaps even an echo of the Trinity itself.

Anyway, always good to see science and the news cycle catching up where the church and the poets have long trod – and let’s just ignore the bit in that linked report where the researchers hypothesise that it is the “regular, controlled breathing” required for singing, rather than the singing itself, that has these effects…


2 thoughts on “Singing with all your heart”

  1. Richard Neuhaus quotes Bill Sharpe “When both I and the century were young, we boys did a lot of whistling. So did grownups. It was the most natural thing in the world to walk down the street whistling a tune. I would awake mornings and hear somebody whistling his way to work. I’d walk to school and meet a man cheerfully whistling. Today, folks would be astonished and, perhaps, alarmed at such a sight. Some people were so talented that they could fashion trills and tremolos, like Cornelia Taylor, who was in demand for our amateur theatricals.” I had never thought about that, but he’s right. I honestly cannot remember when was the last time I heard somebody whistling, as in really whistling a song. When I was a boy up in the Ottawa Valley, we all did all the time. People thought I was pretty good at it, and I was inclined to agree. I just tried and I can’t do it any more. I’ll work on it. Not on the streets of Manhattan, however. “Did you see that crazy whistling priest?””

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