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Music & Worship

Oct 21 2011

When Christians get together to worship there’s always music. There’s choruses, songs, musical interludes, free-worship – psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19). In fact, musical worship is so ubiquitous and feels so “right” that we need to keep reminding ourselves that worship is more than the congregational singing we do in a church service. So, what is it about music that makes it so right for worship? This is a fascinating question.

Music, like language, is one of the few universal human cultural activities. Its use transcends religion, economics, social organisation and ethnicity. It is found in the most primitive isolated jungle tribes and the most advanced, wealthiest and congested cities. It’s woven into the everyday fabric of life of every human culture throughout history. Music is popular, but also powerful. Our most important personal, communal or national events nearly always employ the power of music – weddings, parties, celebrations and funerals. It is used in entertainment, sport, war … and in worship


Music is Emotional: Music aesthetics studies and explores what makes music “work” and what makes for “good” music. It suggests that music is powerful because it is emotional. This doesn’t mean that music is about emotions, but that it expresses and engages the emotional life. Psychology and neuroscience would agree, with studies showing both creating and listening to music engage the emotional centres of the brain. And it is not that music evokes the emotions it expresses (after all, why would we like sad songs if all they did was make us sad) but that it evokes a heightened emotional state. And as emotional creatures, we like that.

Music is Physical: The rhythm of music resonates with the body in spontaneous foot-tapping, finger drumming, clapping and dancing. This reveals a subtle but important link. Music is an auditory experience that the mind seeks to echo and express physically. And it’s not just the rhythm. How many times have we found ourselves conducting an imaginary orchestra or playing the air guitar as we’re captivated by a melody. And, of course, the making of music – playing or singing – is a physical activity.

Music is Cultural: We probably all have those songs that when we hear them we are automatically “transported” to a particular time and place, complete with the feelings and circumstances of the moment. (For me, “Bohemian Rhapsody” always takes me back to a milk bar in northern NSW in 1976, leaning on a pinball machine, listening to it on the jukebox. I was 13, it was summer, it was late afternoon and I was wearing a yellow t-shirt). Music has this incredible ability to evoke and express times of great and vivid personal meaning. Music becomes enmeshed in an event or entwined around a cause, weaving together our thoughts, emotions and senses into a poignant, resonant and memorable moment. Our cultures are full of such music-charged commemorations. The “Last Post” played on a bugle on Anzac Day, for me, is one such moment. An evocative tune already, it gets wrapped up in stories of sacrifice, courage and loss, and notions of freedom and loyalty. The effect is almost mesmerising.

Music is Social: As powerful and as meaningful as all these things are to me individually, they are magnified when shared and experienced with others. Shared melodies, lyrics and rhythms have the power to unify a crowd around a deeply felt cultural moment. Think of the national anthem or football songs that fill a stadium. And when that happens, each one of us brings all of our individual experiences of music, merging them together into a captivating corporate experience.

Music and Worship: All this all gives us a clue to the connection between music and worship. As believers, we love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. And music uniquely has the power to engage the entirety of who I am in that moment of expressing my devotion to God. When I sing in worship I am engaged emotionally, physically and intellectually. It’s like “all of me” is caught up in this act of love. It’s music that makes this happen. And because I’m holistically and completely engaged, the words I sing are pregnant with meaning in that moment. I pour myself out in a song of worship, and feel that I’m finally able to get close to expressing all that is in my heart to say, but for which mere spoken words seem insufficient.

But more than that, it’s not just me who is having this experience. The person next to me is too. And our experiences are in unison. The same words, the same rhythm, the same melody. The same emotions, the same holistic engagement, the same rich cultural memory. We are here together, in one voice, around one cause, focussing all of who we are in an outpouring of deep devotion to the One who has saved us so thoroughly. Times of corporate worship are one of those moments when “we” can truly become “one.”

And it’s music that makes that happen.

Duncan Corby
(Hillsong College Academic Dean)