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The Lord of Song
 

I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

— From “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen

I love many kinds of music, but I can’t sing a lick. Growing up, my mother told me I was tone deaf. Much later in life a music teacher assured me that if I were truly tone deaf, every musical tone would sound the same to me, which was not the case. I just couldn’t reproduce it with any fidelity. To drive home this point: I remember singing to my older child while he was still in the crib. Just learning to talk, he told me, “Don’t sing, Daddy.” Out of the mouths of babes.

The 100th Psalm admonishes us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” which I guess lets me off the hook, since noise needn’t be tuneful. Still, I can’t help noticing that King David, one of the Lord’s favorites, was a song-and-dance man. David, among other things, was reputedly author of the Psalms, which were originally set to music. He got his start playing his harp for his predecessor, King Saul, who was tormented by an evil spirit. When David played, the evil spirit would leave him for a time and the king would get some relief. Even then, the therapeutic properties of music were evident.

Some of the earliest verses in the Bible, later incorporated into the Book of Exodus, were from the song the prophetess Miriam sang to celebrate the Hebrews’ crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the pharaoh’s army: "Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea." She was accompanied by dancing women and timbrels, which are a kind of tambourine. King David likewise danced when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. His wife Michal chided him for what she regarded as his undignified behavior on such a solemn occasion. But David rebuked her, saying, “I will make merry before the Lord!”

The music that was used in ancient religious celebrations was probably closer to joyful noise than the sacred music we are accustomed to. There are, of course, no recordings or musical notation from that period, so we can’t be sure. The instruments mentioned in the Old Testament included harps, lyres (a stringed instrument), tambourines, cymbals, trumpets and the shofar, or ram’s horn. They were meant to be played at full volume, as Psalm 150 instructs: “Praise him with loud, clashing cymbals!”

It is anyone’s guess how music came to be viewed as a godly activity, much less how it emerged as a distinguishing characteristic of our species. You won’t find it in any other primate; indeed, songbirds are the only other creatures in the animal kingdom with this ability. Male songbirds make music to find a mate, and Darwin speculated that something similar might be at work in humans. Others have suggested music may serve a bonding function that aids in the survival of the species. I look to the biblical creation story rather than the theory of natural selection to explain the emergence of musical ability in humans. According to the Book of Genesis, we are created in God’s image, which is never explained. I like to think it has at least something to do with our musical nature. Not that God himself ever sang a note, but then he didn’t need to. Think of him as the choirmaster, and us as the chorus.

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