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The Experience of Singing Together in Christian Worship


Adnams, Gordon


Read these words out loud. What do you hear?

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Now do it again. Read the words out loud. Did you change a modulation of your voice or the way you put rhythm to the words? Perhaps you tried some variation in the syllabic emphasis. Does it sound like poetry? Do these words speak for themselves or is some sort of extrinsic direction needed as to how to give them a more meaningful voice?


What if we were to sing the words? What would change? In fact, these lines are meant to be sung. They are the text of the opening of the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Handel’s great oratorio “Messiah.” When we sing them or hear them sung, we instantly sense that there is a world of difference between spoken and sung presentations. What is the difference between speaking and singing words? What is it that makes singing “sing” and not speak?

Sometimes in the liturgy, we will say the Lord’s Prayer, and sometimes we will sing it. When we say it together, I feel like I am at the bottom of a pile of low mumblings. There seems to be a dragging weightiness to the recitation. It sounds like a thick conglomeration of words moving clumsily forward. We as a congregation find a certain cadence, pausing together, but I am always aware of how heavy it is. But when we sing it, it seems so much more buoyant. The music is really simple and free flowing, following the natural stresses of the words. The organ helps to keep things together and support the pitch and the movement. When we say it, I usually try hard to make my words have something personal in them, so that as I hear myself, I’m not just rattling off the prayer, but giving it meaning. When I sing it, this seems easier to do. The music lightens the prayer, as if it is freeing it to float up to heaven.

When words are spoken or sung, we encounter language-as-sound; words are heard. The manner in which words are sounded carries implied meanings. For example, the simplest “yes” can be laden with meanings beyond an affirmative by the manner in which it is said. Throw the voice down, condense the duration, and “yes” becomes stern, brusque, emphatic. Elongate the word, with an upward change in pitch and “yes” becomes something quite different. In speech, we have full freedom to choose the shape of the words in this way. And yet, usually we do not seem to exercise that freedom to shape our words in a fully self-conscious manner. Words tend to flow out of our mouths without conscious attention to their intonation. Yet, we voice words in “musical” ways: slow words, fast words, loud words, quiet words, high voice and low voice. We find an internal rhythm, a cadence, which gives a flow to the sentence. We sound words in these and many other musical types of modes. But is this singing? When we sing a song, is it words spoken musically, words put to music, music with words or the fusion of words and music?


We do not experience singing as a recitation of words in a musical manner, or an “uttering with musical inflections of the voice” (Hoad, 1996). When we sing, we experience word and music together: “Take the tune away and something entirely different remains.” (Zuckerkandl, 1973, p.26). In the “Hallelujah”


Chorus, we hear that sung words come from us in an entirely different manner than when they are spoken. “Music alters the dramaturgy of voice.” (Ihde, 1976, p.159). Compared to speech patterns, sung sentences can be elongated or made more compressed by the dictates of the melody. The pitch inflections in the words are not entirely ours but are constrained by that of the song. The moods evoked by the words are shifted by the music and at the same time given a more permanent yet less defined state. The experience of this altered presentation of words is enrichment, an expressive shaping directed by the music.


On the one hand, the words in hymns that are sung do matter. Certain meanings are expressed and evoked by the propositional or poetic narrativity of the words.

Some of the old, traditional hymns such as “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” leave me cold. I just find them boring and stodgy. But some of the newer choruses are just fluff, all about feeling good about life, with nothing of substance to say about God.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the narrative meaning of the words recedes into the background or becomes dissolved into some other kind of experience of meaningfulness that has less to do with the words than with the more primordial significance of the singing experience of hymns itself. Perhaps when the hymnic quality of the text becomes more musical then the “message” or the meaning content of the hymn loses its prominence. Music by itself draws attention to itself as sound without any articulated reference that words bring (Ihde, 1976). We experience music alone in ways that transcend accurate description, as we quickly discover when we try to describe our feelingful responses to music by itself. But song is not music alone; song is the inseparable experience of music and word. What happens to words when they are sung?

Singing enables us to step back from the word’s immediacy as communication and to make it an aesthetic object; it allows us to contemplate and to celebrate the word rather than simply hear or speak it. It does not simply convey the word but places it in the context of “something for which there are no words.” (Viladesau, 2000, p. 48)

So, in a strange way, words may turn wordless in song. They may lose their propositional linguistic significance. When we speak a sentence propositionally we may state, claim, argue, ask, or explain something; or we may urge, admonish, or persuade someone to do something. But in song, these intentionalities may change. The words may become largely expressive and thus let go of their narrative role.


Singing a song gives us an aesthetic and artistic location, a place for us as singers to engage in musical creation. It is true that the words of a song grant us a known vocabulary, a link to our life-world, a familiar utterance within the more mysterious and less definable musical realm. Yet, in this musical experience of vocal music, words sung seem to take flight, as if being carried on the melody. They are now sculpted and directed by the music, released from their everyday semantics. Singers give breath to this non-semantic freshness of sung words. And in so doing are able to articulate some sense of meaning that is other than the word.

The church was filled with mostly college aged youth. I was still in high school at the time. I remember that I was standing in the aisle, jiving a little, singing “We will Worship” with my hands raised as if I was reaching up to heaven. At a climactic moment, I went up on my tiptoes, trying to reach as high as I could. I felt so engaged in the worship of the Lord that I wanted to reach higher. I had a feeling of awe; I wanted to see more, know more. I had an incredible peace and comfort but still that wanting of more. I was content with where I was at, but striving for more. It was an indescribably good feeling. The music ushered me into the experience.

Here we see how singing seems to transform the experience of language by evoking a prelinguistic, more primal experience. The singer was literally ushered into an experience that transcends everyday reality, or perhaps he was propelled toward a more originary realm from which our everyday experience is transcendent.



In a spoken conversation, words add up into sentences. These are predicated on thoughts generated by an interchange between people. These words ebb and flow, changing in an improvised stream of ideas. There is unpredictability in conversation that sharpens the attention and demands some originality and care as to what and how words are delivered. There is no predetermined beginning or end to a conversation – it drifts in and fades out according to the whim of the participants.

When I enter the church, I see that most people in the pews are sitting and talking to their friends, probably getting caught up on the news of each other’s lives. It is an interesting sight and sound; a sort of giant living room with people relating politely to each other, their voices creating a gentle rumble. At 11:00, the worship leader announces, “Let’s stand and sing our praises to God,” and the musical introduction begins. It’s amazing the change in atmosphere as the chatter stops and we begin to focus. One kind of sound stops and another begins as we start to sing. The individual conversations stop and we sing the opening hymn as one great, united proclamation.

Singing a song together is different from talking together. A song is a fixed roadmap indicating exact directions and boundaries; we must use it if we are to travel together, all obeying the signs and signals. We don’t each make up our own song as we go along, each singer contributing whatever comes to mind. We adhere to as pre-existing construction that is not necessarily our choice, but given to us.


Just as music is not dots on lines in a songbook, but sound, likewise, to be a song, a song must be given a voice. A song therefore calls to singers for its own sounded existence. It demands to be sung and we sing in obedience. In this way, a kind of conversation takes place between the unsounded song and the singer. In silence, the potential song offers symbols or musical ideas to be changed into physical sound. In a simultaneous translation, as it is being sung, the unsung song merges with the singers.


Sound is part of the world around us. It is hard to escape from sound: the noise of the crowd, the roar of the traffic outside, the background music in a store, our own breathing and heartbeat. Even if we are not “attending” to it, we still “hear” it. Sound is constantly impacting our ears. In this way, we are always a part of a soundscape (Schafer, 1969). We experience it as ambience. Stop reading and listen. What do you hear? Did you hear it while you were reading? How much noise is there in the background? We may hear a bird in a tree or the children across the street, the hum of a heater, an airplane going overhead, or the bell of the front door. We selectively layer our sonic environment, bringing nearer and clearer the most important and relevant sounds. Listening is an intentional kind of hearing. And by taking notice of (discovering) what we were hearing, we discover how we are in the world. For example, I may notice the quiet footsteps outside of the door when I am expecting company. But when I am reading a book or making a cup of coffee, I may be totally oblivious to these sounds. Each mode of being probably has its mode of attentiveness to sound.


These notions of attentiveness are also enacted as we begin to sing; we “tune in” to the musical environment and listen to and for specific sounds or patterns of sound. They might be the instrumental introduction to the song or the melody that is being sung around us. We begin to sing by “paying attention” to these, not to the many other sounds that are present that may distract, mislead or interrupt. We draw the relevant sounds into nearness by this selective mode of being in the world. For potential singers, they are cues, sonic pathways that we follow, leading us to the experience of joining in the song.


Sometimes the sound of singing itself may issue a call to us. For example, a person standing outside a church hears the congregation singing and says that it was the singing that pulled me in. The quality of the singing might be so magnetic that we cannot help ourselves. We are caught by the mood of the song as it matches ours at that moment, or our mood is swayed by the singing so that we take up the song as ours. We turn our attention to singing, or our attention is turned by the singing.



I get frustrated when we are asked to sing a new hymn, one that is brand new to me. I get so involved in the mechanics of the music and text that I can’t get into it. I want to be aware of what I am singing, not how I’m struggling to follow the tune and the words, or how I don’t know what is going to come next.

The kind of effort that is necessary to engage with a new song seems to disallow us from “entering” the song and the singing. How are we to understand this experience? It seems that the more we think about the song, the more we are bound by it. When a song is new, our level of interaction is too much about the notes of the music and the letters of the words. It is present to us as something that has to be learned and this becomes an end in itself. We are called upon to engage in the act of singing, but in order to get there, we must in some sense forget about some of the very things that make singing singing – music and word. This rather paradoxical relationship is paralleled in other expressive activity. For example, we are free to dance once we have learned the steps; we don’t think about our feet or the pattern they should follow. When we “forget” about the notes and the words, the song is now ready to be sung. We can now “enter” it being free to experience something else.

It is not unusual to see some people in church that seem to be singing as something that has to be done, as if they don’t much care. Others seem to really get involved; I can hear the difference in their voices and see it on their faces, and in subtle ways by the way they use their bodies to sing.

As we join in, we give something of ourselves – at least our voice. However, when we hear ourselves or others sing, we have a notion about the quality of the singing voice as a depth of engagement. We might comment that the singing was not enthusiastic or, by contrast, “they are singing with all their heart.”

I was in church, singing the hymn, when from behind me came the most captivating voice. This woman was singing the hymn in such a way that I was melting! She seemed to be so enraptured with God, but not in a gushy sort of way; she expressed a meaningfulness that came from somewhere in her soul and that spoke to me more than what she was singing.

When we really enter “into” singing, we dig deep within our cavities to change the spirit of our singing. Roland Barthes calls this quality of engagement the “grain” of the voice. “The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs” (1977, p.299). This kind of involvement seems to connect to the song all that our “being” can offer – a presence that makes the song shine with human realness. Our singing becomes vibrant with the substance of our lived life. In so doing, the singer becomes an incarnation of the essence of the song.

The singer is in a dialog with the song; in singing, the singer is being sung. The song resonates with life, with the inner life of the world:

it is the not the inner life of the self, but of the world, the inner life of things. This is precisely why the singer experiences inner life as something he [sic] shares with the world, not as something that sets him apart from it. As he sings (and hears himself sing), he discovers that the things of the world speak the language of his own inwardness and that he himself speaks the inner language of things. (Zuckerkandl, 1973, p. 23)

In singing the language of our inwardness, we are turned inside out, so to speak. What was inside is now outside, for all to hear, including ourselves. Our deepest emotions seem to be caught in the net of our singing and propelled to the surface where they are tossed in the waves of the song. It is a kind of confession, a public declaration of who we are as bare, sung lives. As we sing together, we hear our vulnerability in each other’s manifest humanity. “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7) and we respond in kind.



I didn’t want to quit singing that song; I wanted it to go on forever. I had no sense of time. I wanted to go to heaven right then. I had a mental picture of the angels around the throne of God. I was totally thinking of things outside myself.

When we really “get into” a song, we sometimes seem to enter another place and another time. This other time is called into being by the very existence of the song and our permissive engagement with it. Schutz (1964) calls this other temporal realm the “inner time” of music. “Outer” time is time that can be measured by clocks or metronomes, that is, the time that the musician “counts” in order to assure the correct “tempo” or the measure of the duration of a song. Using “outer time” to measure a song from its beginning to end is a paradoxical activity. “We can only hope to measure it as it passes by, because once it has passed by, there will be no measuring; it will not exist to be measured” (Augustine, 1997, p.262). By contrast, “inner time” is the step-by-step, ongoing articulation of musical thought (Schutz, 1964, p.171). This inner time is experienced when

the consciousness of the beholder is led to refer what he actually hears to what he anticipates will follow and also to what he has just been hearing and what he has heard ever since this piece of music began. The hearer, therefore, listens to the ongoing flux of music, so to speak, not only in the direction from the first to the last bar but simultaneously in a reverse direction back to the first one. (Schutz, 1964, p.170)

How is this kind of time consciousness different from getting “lost” in a book – being engrossed by the flow of words from which we construct the story? The story in a book has a different kind of temporal existence. We can close the book, thereby interrupting the flow of the story, only to open it later and re-enter the world created by our reading. The printed words are still there, unmoved. Singing in community, however, cannot be stopped in the middle of a song by our will. It “travels” having been given energy by many more that just one person. We can attend to it or not attend to it as it moves through time. It is our choice, but we will be “left behind” if we ignore the sound experience – it goes on without us. Meaningful convocative coherence is given to singing together by this dependence on the temporal flow. Thus, the singing brings together into convocation those who practice it.


This rather mystical, convocative musical time-travel is fragile and not always the experience of singers. Often we “just sing,” not being “moved” by the song. We don’t go anywhere. What is this kind of singing? Sometimes the song does not attract our attention. We say we don’t like the song or “it doesn’t do anything for me.” We might sing a song, but we do so reluctantly, much like when we, as children, were forced to wear our “best” clothes against our wills. We put up with it, knowing it is not our preference. This kind of uninviting song offers little togetherness because we cannot find ourselves in it. Similarly, we cannot drop in and drop out of singing without suffering some degree of experiential loss.


I find it hard to get fully involved in singing the worship songs when I have the children with me. They often need to be supervised; I have to help them understand what’s going on in the service, or they have to be held or comforted. Their needs take precedence over mine, so my attention is definitely divided.


The loss of the inner flux changes our apprehension of the music and the words. Our sense of inner time is broken when outer time takes over, perhaps through a lapse in attention, or an interruption, an unwanted intrusion from “outside,” into the inner temporal sense. We are brought out of the experience of the inner time of the song, back into the world of outer time by this invasion. Whatever the source, it is the destruction of the consciousness of the ongoing flux of the inner time of music.



This was an extraordinary experience. I have had nothing like it before or since. I was in a large gathering and as I was singing over and over, “You are Holy,” I suddenly realized that what I was singing is what the angels are singing in heaven to God, as described in Revelations. It struck me so powerfully; I was taken by the truth of it. I wanted to be one of the angels. I started to cry, not a weeping cry but choking up. Then I lost my voice and I could not move. I was completely out of myself, not worried about anything. I was overcome, awe-struck in the true sense of the word. How I felt was not normal, but not wrong. I wanted to stay there. I didn’t want to quit singing that song; I wanted it to go on forever. I had no sense of time. I wanted to go to heaven right then. I had a mental picture of the angels around the throne of God. I was totally thinking of things outside myself.

While singing, this singer appears to have been completely captivated by something. The experience doesn’t seem to be primarily about the musical aspect of song but a transcendental encounter with some aspects of words in the context of song. There is a profound, concentrated awareness of meaning that is outlined by a single phrase. The repetition of these few words seems to evoke a “truth,” an insight, the realization of which propels the singer through the song and into a place defined by this truth. It is a parallel place, where the same words are being timelessly repeated. The singer seems overwhelmed by the presentation of “truth” and the enactment of it. How are we to understand this mode of being? Heidegger (1971) suggests that words call things into nearness by naming them, yet they are not present among us. This focused and enriched experience of the words is “about” some thing, some person, some place. But in repetition, their conceptual associations and their affective possibilities are compressed, amplified and transformed. Levinas (1989) describes such awareness:

It is a mode of being to which applies neither the form of consciousness…or the form of unconsciousness, since the whole situation and all its articulations are in a dark light, present. Such is a waking dream. Neither habits, reflexes, nor instinct, operate in this light. (p. 133)

This vision of “truth” has a dream-like expression; a truth articulated in such a way that all other ways of seeing pushed aside. From this other “point-of-view,” vivid and deep feelings that surround “truth” form the central significance and meaningfulness of the song, not the immediate sonic environment. In this particular instance, these are notions of intense devotion and worship. Could feelings of human love, peace, joy, or a yearning for a great epic quest be evoked by other songs? An encounter with whatever truth is called and named seems to be a consummation; an affect of having sung a particular song, in a particular place, at a particular time.


Singing – the totality of word and music – is an opportunity to voice our lives in ways that transcend speaking. It is a form of expression rich with experiential possibilities because in singing, words are given special power and quality. We, in singing, are ushered into other times, other places where we can name “truth” and it is ours.




Augustine. (1997). The Confessions (M. Boulding, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Barthes, R. (1977). The Grain of the Voice. In S. Frith & A. Goodwin (Eds.), On Record. New York: Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (1971). Language, Poetry, Language, Thought (pp. 189-210). New York: Harper and Row.

Hoad, T. F. (Ed.). (1996). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Ihde, D. (1976). Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Levinas, E. (1989). Reality and Its Shadow (A. Lingis, Trans.). In S. Hand (Ed.), The Levinas Reader. Oxford: Blackwell  Publishers.

Schafer, R. M. (1969). The New Soundscape. Toronto: Clark & Cruickshank.

Schutz, A. (1964). Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship. In A. Brodersen (Ed.), Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory (pp. 159-178). The Hague: Marinus Nijhoff.

Viladesau, R. (2000). Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric. New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press.

Zuckerkandl, V. (1973). Man the Musician (N. Guterman, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.