Musical instruments (for holy purposes)

Angels playing musical instruments

I suspect we get most of our ideas about holy musical instruments from pictures rather than from the Bible or devotional literature. Christmas card pictures show trumpeting angels, sometimes angels with lyres, occasionally a shepherd with a pipe in the crowd scenes. Scenes of heaven in altar pieces and illuminated manuscripts show orchestras of angels as well as the usual choirs, and some angels clearly have very good flying muscles, as they are supporting little organs which must be quite heavy (perhaps there are a couple of cherubs round the back helping, like the organ blowers in Victorian church pictures).

Real angels, real instruments

There are a couple of really encouraging things about this. One is that music is seen as such an integral part of the Kingdom. Another is that they are using real instruments most of the time. The lyres can look a bit ethereal, but the trumpets and the lutes, trombones and serpents must be drawn from life and they aren’t instruments to make quiet little polite noises but a group that would make you pay attention.  And a third thing is that singing is an integral part of all this, which is very encouraging for all singers.  It should be encouraging for non-singers too : just as I look forward to eyes and ears that work properly when I get to heaven, so someone who has always been afraid or ashamed to sing will be given a most beautiful voice so that they will really enjoy using it to praise God.

Instruments in the psalms

There aren’t any illustrations in the Bible, so where do painters and illuminators get their information from?  The answer of course is mostly the Psalms, the original hymn book for the people of God.  We have a different musical culture from that of the countries where the Bible was written, so we don’t sing them the way they were originally sung, but we do have many of the same instruments.

Some time ago I started keeping a list of instruments in the psalms as they were mentioned. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is quite extensive.  I’m not going to give the references because they come up repeatedly, and also it varies between Bible translations, but we have mentions of harps, lyres, ten-stringed lutes, ordinary lutes, trumpets, horn, pipe, viols, psaltery, tambourines and cymbals (those are in the Judith Canticle, but I’m including it because we sing it as a psalm), timbrels and tabrets.  I had to look the last two up, but as you might expect they are percussion, versions of mini-drums and tambourines.  One of the sources of information says sniffily ‘popular with women’, which I think means light enough to play while dancing.  I am slightly sorry to have to let go of my mental image of a timbrel as a small musical cart, but there you are, sometimes knowledge comes at a price.

Human voices ever singing

As well as all these, the psalms give pride of place to the human voice. ‘Melodious song’ is an expression used as another instrument, and quite right too.  Singing a new song was the way to celebrate a victory or an achievement, and that’s why so many psalm start with a call to ‘sing a new song’, and feel so fresh.  There are shouts of victory included as part of the musical offering, and if they were rhythmic like the British three cheers, you can see how that would work.

More unusual instruments

There isn’t a mention of drums as such in the Bible (not in the King James version, anyway; I was so surprised that I checked in Cruden’s Concordance and it’s not there).  I still think they are probably the oldest instrument, but I think they don’t qualify as a holy instrument because big drums sound bellicose and/or were used in other cultures for worship of idols or for orgies.  They aren’t seen as a desirable accompaniment to the psalms!  But you do need rhythm instruments, especially if you are dancing, and we know David danced and sang at the same time, so we can think of his psalm tunes as also dances.  So this is why we have the tabrets and the timbrels: they are rhythm instruments, but smaller ones with no martial overtones.

However, there’s no shortage of big instruments with a deep sound.  ‘The mountains and the trees of the fields shall clap their hands’ and the rivers too, and it’s wonderful to think what that would sound like if we had ears to hear.  The Lord can send out thunder and the mighty winds from his treasuries whenever he needs them as part of the chorus.  It’s not just in the psalms, too;  you can hear, in the account of God coming to talk to Elijah in his still small voice, that the whole sequence is built up like a film score.  God knows how deeply music affects our nature because he made us to be like him; and music would not be so fundamental to us if it were not to him.  We can’t hear the music of the spheres (one of the great disappointments of my life when some scientist pointed out that there’s no atmosphere to transmit the sound), but I bet God can.

What about harps?

I don’t think any instrument is intrinsically holy, any more than any language, but most people would reckon on the harp as the quintessential instrument for holy purposes.  I think we can blame St John for the emphasis on harps and heaven, because it’s in Revelation, but I’m not sure how musical he was because the songs he offers us (also in Revelation) would be extremely difficult actually to sing (which is why Handel only took little bits of them for Messiah).   These would be small hand-held harps, so a bit more like ukuleles, really, rather than those enormous concert harps that you see in nineteenth-century orchestras (usually women playing those too, but you absolutely couldn’t dance carrying one of those!).

I think it’s interesting that the picture of utter desolation involves hanging up your harps and refusing to sing (Psalm 136/137) ; this would be unthinkable unless all hope were gone, and that is why it is so poignant.  I’ve never been that keen on harps myself, so I’m hoping there will actually be a choice in Heaven.  If we have a choice of a stringed instrument,  I’d like a theorbo (and the ability to play it).

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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What comes first, the rhythm or the melody?

Chickens,  eggs and potato peelings

This might look like a chicken-and-egg question, but I don’t think it is. There are times when both rhythm and melody arrive simultaneously, but for me that is rare, and tends to be when I’m doing something unrelated to work, like peeling potatoes or washing up. Also those tunes do not tend actually to be useful, as they don’t have words, or to put it another way, they do not fit a given line of words that you might need to make a tune for. (And I always worry that it might just be something I am half-remembering.)  I am probably chucking out a string quartet or an organ voluntary with my potato peelings, but when I sit down to write a psalm setting, I have to start with the words, as I have said before.

Learning about rhythm

That’s one reason why the rhythm comes first;  but I think that is where I should be starting, as we learn about rhythm before we learn about melody.  The first rhythm we learn is our mother’s heartbeat; the first counter-rhythm, her footsteps.  When we play with babies, we use rhythm games, patting and clapping.  Lots of nursery rhymes have rhythm but no tune (or a tune that varies widely, as each family has developed its own).  Often the tune is only half there, as the rhyme ends in a scurry of tickling or mock-gobbling up (This little pig went to market, Shoe a little horse, We’re going on a bearhunt etc).  At the risk of stating the obvious, poetry and verse of any kind have rhythm but no tune, and written-out songs are immediately different : compare Hiawatha to Summer is i-cumen in, or a Shakespeare sonnet to one of the songs in the plays, for example.

Rhythm instruments

Drums were surely the earliest musical instrument to be invented.  Almost anything can be a drum or a rhythm instrument (witness the amazing show Stomp which I saw years ago in London, still going strong), and human beings are hardwired to hear a rhythm in almost any ongoing sound just as they can hear a pitch note in a machine noise. Castanets are little tiny drums, tambourines are drums with a tinklefrill. Koreans, Georgians and many other nations have whole concerts of drumming, and they are very exciting.

Lullabies our first melodies

Melody comes a little later, although again it probably originates with our mothers and lullabies (and you may pat and stroke a bump, but you don’t usually croon to it much before it’s born).  Anything more exciting than a lullaby is not necessarily a good idea at this stage, though I would argue that here again rhythm probably comes across to the baby more clearly than a melody.  We were singing Monteverdi Vespers when our middle daughter was on the way, and she would get uncomfortably active in the Nisi Dominus.

The psalms: singing the words

But I’m writing tunes for psalms, and my first ‘given’ is the words.  Spoken words have a natural rhythm, which affects the sense and, even more, affects whether the sense can be quickly grasped (try reading anything aloud on a unaccented monotone, and see whether your hearer can understand; it’s surprisingly difficult).   So I try to find the natural rhythm of the words, and I am grateful every day to the people involved in the production of the wonderful Grail Psalter, especially Philippa Craig, who ought to have been made a saint already.  Sometimes the Response is a special difficulty, if it’s out of a different Psalm, or even from one of St Paul’s letters, for example.  The tunes for the verses and Response need to go together, obviously, but sometimes it can be difficult to effect this.

Tunes need bones

Once I have the rhythm, the tune comes in, and they are both equally important.  The beat is the backbone which supports the flesh.  Without it, the tune wanders aimlessly and lacks shape; and without the tune, the words cannot take shape on the scaffolding of the beat.  You need both;  and the tempo is important too, but I’m lumping that in with the rhythm for now.   Classic jazz works because each musician has a grasp of the shape of the whole phrase and its length – at its most obvious, the actual number of bars.  You can put all sorts of furniture and decorations inside a house, but the walls have to be upright and the roof secure before you start playing with the furniture positions.

Tunes to dance to

This is why I often try to give my psalm setting a folktune feel, because folk music values both melody and rhythm, and is easy enough for everyone to join in.  Many folktunes (and a lot of carols) were actually dances.  Above all, people can work together if there is rhythm : 123, Go! ; sea shanties; tug-of-war;  even the Mak’tar Chant of strength in Galaxy Quest.  It helps a group to sing a rest correctly if they do something bodily to mark the beats when they are learning the music.  Kenyan choirs I have known do this instinctively;  it can be difficult to get a choir of Anglo-Saxon origin to swing its hips (especially the men), but clicking your fingers is just as good, and you need to feel where the rests are just as much as the notes.  Like drawing, when you are supposed to draw the spaces between shapes rather than the shapes (something I am not good at, but I can do it with rhythm).

Pace and piety

I love it when one of the congregation babies starts to dance during the music.  David danced before the Lord, and he started with folk tunes.  I’m not altogether convinced by the sort of liturgical dance I have seen, because it tends to be done at people rather than by people, and I think the point about liturgy is that we all do it together, especially the music.  I don’t think that slow music is intrinsically more religious than fast music, but having spent a lot of time in Orthodox countries, I can tell you that this is definitely a minority view.  It is like the argument that sad poems or novels are basically more authentic than happy ones, which is not true.  Most teenagers write sad poetry.  It is much harder to write well about happy things (one of the reasons why the Bible is a bit unbalanced).

Rhythm as a power tool

Rhythm is a way to make patterns, and this is how humans create art.  Rhythm plus words is poetry, rhythm plus notes is music, rhythm plus movements is dance.  It gives form and shape, it is primaeval as well as artificial in the best sense.  It is creative.  In the beginning, all that there is is darkness and stillness.  Then the Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters, and it is not random, but measured and purposeful. God dances the universe into being, by rhythm.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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