In song, to gather: Singing the praises of singing

by John Mason

“The activity of singing together unfolds for its own simple and delightful sake. To join in is to be party to the gift and the giving. There is no one who can lose out here.”

We experience in our time as in no other the dichotomy of being alone and being one among many. On the one hand, we are pressed into our selves by forces outside our control through a process of growing individuation that can be traced back through centuries marked by global conflagration, industrialisation, enlightenment, revolution and religious fragmentation. On the other hand, we are now acutely conscious of our position as alienated individuals in a globalised world. We are, in other words, no longer members of a small tribe, each of us with an allotted place and purpose in this life and the prospect of receiving our just desserts in the next. Instead we struggle individually to find our identity and our place in a heaving mass of humanity.

In our everyday existences – and this is especially true of young people – many of us are typically members of an extended, fluid and sometimes fragmentary family; increasing numbers no longer look forward to the stable professions of the past but flit from job to job, often on zero contracts, acquiring new skills as the winds of fashion demand; and many live isolated in smaller units than ever, increasingly alone, moving from one domicile to another and rarely forming part of a neighbourly community. The more fluid and uncertain the world is, the greater the need to find an anchor, a social space to call our own, a group in which to belong. While relishing the capacity for individual freedom and self-expression, we also long for containment and contentment, to be part of something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Communal singing is not the only means to achieve this, but it is one that has qualities that set it apart from, for example, the experience of attending a church service or a football match. In what follows, I shall try to present those qualities and to give a brief idea of how they might affect the participant.

To start with, communal singing can be seen in two lights – as participatory or presentational. In the former, there are “no artist-audience distinctions, only participants and potential participants performing different roles”, while in the latter, “artists prepare and provide music for another group, the audience, who do not participate in making the music or dancing” (Turino, 2008). The distinction is important. Firstly, while presentational music may often be elaborate, involving a test of the singers’ performative skills, in participatory singing the music is typically repetitive, metrically and melodically simple and without ornamentation. This, clearly, ensures that everyone is and feels able to join in. Secondly, while the experience of participatory singing may be more enjoyable if the singing is going well, the priority is for everyone to join in regardless of the quality of their contribution. Since the aim is not primarily to serve the music or the audience, we have to ask what function the singing is serving.

This leads me to make a second essential distinction, namely that between communal singing whose purpose lies beyond the singing and that whose purpose is contained within it. Communal singing or chanting creates or cements a sense of oneness or solidarity within the group. That oneness can either be a means to achieve something extraneous to the song or chant or it can be an aim in itself. Communal singing that has a goal beyond itself I call ‘purposive’. Such singing can be used, for example, in the service of learning (in the chanting of mathematical tables or the alphabet), or for religious devotion (in the singing of hymns or psalms), for demonstrations of solidarity (in political demonstrations or football chants), or to propitiate or invoke divine spirits (in shamanic rituals). In each of these cases, the singing has a purpose beyond simple participation in song.

To take a familiar example, most of us have witnessed the rousing chanting of fans from the football or rugby terraces. As Les Back points out (Back, 2001), “it is primarily through songs and banter that a structure of feeling is produced in stadiums”. What we have here is what Christopher Smart calls “musicking” – a musical act that “establishes in the place where it happens a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies” (Small, 1998). As Ian Collinson also points out,

“singing a football song marks one’s membership of a community, it produces that idealised community and it also celebrates that community, one that includes the team.” (Collinson, 2009)

The act of singing is invested with a meaning, has a desired outcome. Often the “meaning of the act” is to declare solidarity with their team to assist it to victory. Beyond and behind the ‘act’ is the confrontational nature of a football match that demands a winner and a loser. However, as Collinson goes on to show,

“… ritualised football singing can exclude as well as include, as songs reflect and produce the self/other, insider/outsider binary that defines football culture.” (Collinson, 2009; see also Armstrong & Young, 2008)

At its most extreme, football plainchant can become what he call “a form of symbolic violence” (Collinson, 2009). In other words, the chant here is an instrument to create a oneness whose purpose is to consolidate and celebrate identity and otherness and to reinforce division and polarity.

What, then, of participatory singing that is not purposive? This I will call ‘non-purposive’ communal singing, for its sole purpose – if, indeed, it can be said to have one – is to nurture itself.

When I went to school and, indeed, when I taught in English state schools, the day started with an assembly. All the pupils filed into a hall and sat facing a stage where there was a piano. The teachers stood against the walls on two sides, watching, ready to pounce on any pupil found whispering to a neighbour, gazing out of the window or, when the hymn was introduced, not singing. And we are talking hymns – all with a Christian message, some militantly so. ‘Onward, Christian soldiers’ was a favourite. The piano would bang out the tune, a couple of teachers’ voices might be heard, as the pupils bowed their heads and paid lip service. Occasionally, the music teacher might bang the lid of the piano down and stand up. Silence and lowered eyes met his voice as he bellowed out his fury at the poverty of the singing and spent ten minutes forcing sounds out of unwilling mouths. The following day all was forgotten and forgiven, and the singing relapsed into a dull murmuring between drawn lips. I hope things have changed, for this is demonstrably a form of purposive communal singing that does nothing but damage. I relate the story as it points to the intended function of such hymn-singing as this, which was, surely, to force obedience and coerce young minds into a particular set of beliefs. It is an attempt to measure up to the official circular from the Ministry of Education, written in 1994 and still applied, which stresses the legal obligation of school assemblies to “promote [pupils’] spiritual, moral and cultural development”. By contrast, the Danish education minister from 2005-2010, Bertel Haarder, writes a personal letter to pupils, which translates as follows:

“When we sing together, we can both hear and feel what it means to have togetherness.

To have a common culture, in which the text and melody of the song creates a common content. To have a common experience, in which we sing along, relaxed, as naturally and spontaneously as when we breathe.

When we sing along with others, we are not sufficient in ourselves. We transcend ourselves and become part of something bigger. When that succeeds, you can hear it!”

We are clearly in a different cultural environment, and one that respects both the delight and the power of singing together for the sake of it. Indeed, we are very close here to Victor Zuckerkandel’s description of how singing can create “an enlargement, an enhancement of the self, a breaking down of the barrier separating the self from things, subject from object, agent from action, contemplator from what is contemplated; it is a transcending of this separation, its transformation into a togetherness”. (Zuckerkandel, V., quoted in Basso, 1981)

The idea of transcendence features in these two descriptions of communal singing. And we are back where we began. The self can be a heavy weight to carry around, and it can be a relief to let go of it. At the same time, while we sing, our perception of ‘the others’ – which can be dominated by a sense of otherness, alienation, or even hostility – is altered. We find ourselves surrounded by faces, open-mouthed as we are, struggling, perhaps, as we are, delighting as we are to be part of the music. Each participant joins in, sharing a common rhythm, a common in- and exhalation, with a common voice that together creates a unique sound. Each singer is supplemented and fulfilled by all the others, the totality being impossible without each individual voice. It is not by chance that the word for ‘breath’ in so many languages is the same as for ‘spirit’ – the Germanic Atem derives from Sanskrit atman, meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’, while in Romance languages (and English) ‘spirit’ comes from the Latin spirere, ‘to breathe’. There is an inspiration, an aspiration, even, we might say, a conspiration. In singing together, each participant leaves behind the singleness of self and the fear of the other and is allowed to flow into a union of ‘we’. In non-purposive communal singing, there is no ‘they’.

It is, famously, impossible to be unhappy while you sing. To sing together is to join in a communal world of pleasure, which, once the singing dies away and the group of singers disbands, retains echoes of that delight in togetherness that can continue resonating for each of them in that other world outside. As the poet and hymn-writer Brian Wren put it:

“…as we sing together we belong to one another in the song. We agree… to compromise with each other, join our voice as if joining hands, listen to each other, keep the same tempo, and thus love each other in the act of singing” (Wren, 2000).

The sense of togetherness experienced in the act of singing together in this way is, sadly, something many people never experience. It is qualitatively different from other forms of being together and it is worth considering why this is so.

In the first place, the act of singing is very private and intimate. It exposes our vulnerabilities and, literally, lays us open to the critical eyes and ears of our surroundings. The mouth is an organ with specific functions that for many are associated with deeply personal and closet activities. It is the orifice through which we intake food, drink or air. What we emit through our mouths is typically unwanted matter – saliva, mucus, vomit. It is true that we speak with our mouths, but language is so universal and so normalised that we do not consider words as emissions. Further, our lips and tongues, our throats, our vocal cords, our nasal cavities, our lungs – all these deeply private, even erogenous, parts of our bodies play their part in singing. How surprising is it that adolescents baulk at the thought of opening their mouths to sing? Many will not even sing in front of their family. It is tantamount to stripping naked. At the same time, to cast off concern about being seen, heard, weighed and judged and to join with others prepared to offer themselves into sharing openness is a liberation. Aside from attending a naturist camp, I have difficulty finding an activity that compares.

Secondly, it is worth remembering that when we sing we are also saying. That is to say, a song has words – often very telling and beautiful words – that allow us to express thoughts and feelings in forms that we have not chosen but which we, in the singing, can make our own. In doing so, we have the opportunity to take into our mouths the words of writers and thinkers, to savour and taste them, to adopt them, even, and in doing so to weigh their perceptions of the world against our own.

Thirdly, non-purposive communal singing has no ulterior motive. Many other activities that involve people consorting together, forming bands, gangs, clans, cliques or clubs, are motivated, whether it be articulated or not, by the desire to define themselves in opposition or in contrast to something else. This includes, of course, purposive communal singing. A teenage band may get together to enjoy playing good music but before long the chances are that they are emulating certain role models and pouring scorn on bands whose music they abhor. Religious faith groups, sporting fans, bikers or bird-watchers – all risk developing an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality. Indeed, many groups deliberately set out to demonise or victimise another set of people who represent no threat whatsoever. In non-purposive communal singing, there is no one to sing ‘against’. There is not even anyone to sing ‘for’ or ‘to’. The activity of singing together unfolds for its own simple and delightful sake. To join in is to be party to the gift and the giving. There is no one who can lose out here.

Fourthly, singing together, possibly more than any other form of musical ensemble, cultivates what is known as ‘entrainment’. Entrainment is a relatively new concept and is somewhat akin to synchronisation. Where synchronisation is about doing the same thing at the same time, entrainment is the mysterious process whereby independent rhythmic systems interact with each other. In the 17th century, the Dutch physicist Christiaan Hugyens observed that two pendulum clocks hanging on the same wall would fall into a common rhythm. In the same way, two walkers may find themselves falling into step, two dancers feel their bodies moving inexplicably in time, or a crowd may find itself stepping to a pulse. This was, indeed, the problem with the Millennium Bridge in London, which had to be reinforced when the entrainment of pedestrians caused it to become unstable. Throughout nature, entrainment plays a vital part – in the wingbeat of birds, in the croaking of frogs, the rasping of cicadas, the vibration of tiny particles of matter. There is a harmonisation of pulse that does not always involve finding the same beat but allows a form of rhythmic meshing in time. When people sing together, the rhythms of their breathing, of the beat, the rise and fall of the music, bring about their entrainment, and their brain waves are likely to change from beta to alpha, calming the alert mind and allowing the more intuitive part of the brain greater leeway.

Finally, non-purposive communal singing opens hearts and minds to an inclusive understanding of togetherness. Humans are not designed to be solitary individuals. Nor are they equipped to find – or lose – themselves in a faceless mass of humanity. We are at our best and most content when we form part of a meaningful group of others, where we know our place and feel our value, and where what the group generates is greater that the contributions of each individual and nevertheless without ostensible purpose. We need to feel more than the sum of our parts, and if we can learn what this feels like and how the dynamics of togetherness work through singing together, then maybe this is the one capacity above all others that makes us fit for the world we live in.

Basso, E. B. (1981). A ‘Musical View of the Universe’: Kalapalo Myth and Ritual as Religious Performance. The Journal of American Folklore, 94(373), 273-291.

Lomax, A. (1968). Folk Song Style and Culture (AAAS, 88). New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers

Sugarman, J. C. (1997). Engendering Song: Singing and Subjectivity at Prespa Albanian Weddings (with accompanying CD). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turino, T. (2008), Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, London. University of Chicago Press.

Wren, B. A. (2000). Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song. Westminster John Knox Press