That They May Be One: Multifaceted Musical Unity

Sitting in the midst of the ruins of St Andrews cathedral in Scotland, I can almost envision an ancient ritual being performed by the brothers of the order who lived and served here centuries ago—the chanted recitation of psalms followed by the singing of call and response antiphons.  This ritual, like so many others in the church, was developed and preserved for a number of good reasons; surely among them was the desire to foster a sense of unity amongst the brotherhood.  Then, as now, this was no easy feat (as is evidenced by the multitude of Christian denominations), and yet it is something close to God’s heart.

Jesus, in his last recorded prayer, cries out to God asking for his disciples and followers to be one as he and his Father are one.[1]  The apostle Paul makes clear that, after the resurrection of Christ, this prayer was answered and that followers of Jesus ‘are one body in Christ’.[2]  So, in a way, the chanting and singing of the brothers actually served to foster a unity which was already theirs as brothers united in Christ.  But what kind of unity were they fostering?  Even though Paul uses the language of a body, it is easy to think of Christian unity as a merely spiritual matter.  However, what if the brothers of the cathedral were on to something more than spiritual in their chanting and singing?

Researchers from Gothenburg University in Sweden have recently determined that singing in choirs can serve to coordinate the heart rates of its members.[3]  Apparently this coordination of hearts is largely a function of the fact that, in order to sing in unison, singers must often breathe in unison and that this synchronized breathing eventually results in synchronized heartbeats.  Even more interestingly they found that the effect varied according to the type of music being sung and discovered that ‘Slow chants…produced the most synchrony.’[4]

Now, it’s pretty safe to assume that the brothers did not conduct their own research along these lines and make the same discovery.  And further, even if they did, it would not have been their primary reason for choosing to chant.  It’s much more likely that choral music seemed the most fitting way to express the truths of the faith.  Perhaps part of what made it seem so fitting was the sense of dialogue between singers which characterizes antiphons combined with the recently discovered ability of choral music to bring hearts and breath into synchrony.  Both of these effects could be said to reflect the relationship of the triune God.  Taking God to be a triune community of Father, Son, and Spirit, we conceive of the persons of this Godhead interacting with one another in a dialogue marked by perfect harmony and synchrony.  In this way it might be appropriate to see antiphonal singing, in the language of Richard Viladesau, as a text of theology—a work of art which allows for ‘reflection on and embodiment of Christian ideas and values’.[5]

Given the nature of God, should it be surprising to discover that when humans created in the image of this God engage in creative choral expression there would be a corresponding alignment not only of their minds, but of their hearts and breathing as well?  It’s even possible choral singing allows for a foretaste of things to come.  Perhaps this was what Jonathan Edwards had in mind when he wrote: ‘The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other, is by music. When I would form in my mind an idea of a society in the highest degree happy, I think of them as expressing their love, their joy, and the inward concord and harmony and spiritual beauty of their souls by sweetly singing to each other.’[6]

 

This post was written by Dave Reinhardt who, before pursuing a PhD at the University of St Andrews with a focus on the theological significance of embodied expression, fondly remembers participating in a competition choir during high school, performing with a gospel choir at the University of Wisconsin, and singing in stairwells with friends (amazing acoustics!) at Ohio Wesleyan University.


[1] John 17

[2] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Crossway Bibles, a division or Good News Publishers, 2001), Rom. 12.5.

[3] “Choirs ‘Synchronise Heartbeats’.” 2013. BBC, July 9, sec. Science & Environment. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23230411.

[4] Not only that, there is evidence that consistently participating in choral groups, because of the breathing required, could serve to lower the blood pressure of participants.

[5] Richard. Viladesau, Theology and the Arts : Encountering God Through Music, Art, and Rhetoric (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 124.

[6] The Miscellanies, 188.

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