Imagining a Musical Culture

We’ve forgotten the ways that music shapes souls and communities.

In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder remembers her Pa playing his fiddle as she waited to fall asleep. She “was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” This mingling of music and memory in time is key to a musical culture; and it’s the kind of experience we would all want for our children. But we often don’t realize what we have lost.

Once upon a time, people would gather around the piano in an evening to sing together. House concerts were common. Small towns would gather for the biggest social event of the season — Singing School. Amateurs would play chamber music, just for joy and friendship, sight-reading their way along new music together. While we can dismiss these examples as quaint or nostalgic, when we allowed our shared musical culture to slip away, we lost a rich heritage, along with the ties that music once formed within our communities. In the age of Spotify, we don’t even know what a musical culture would look like. How would we even begin to re-create such a thing?

A musical culture needs music made to last and music made for everyone. It must be made to last, because culture passes through generations (not just through radio airwaves for a few months). It must be made for everyone, because we share this music in community — with old and young, rich and poor, even living and dead. It is meant to transcend us. We cheat ourselves, and our children, when we live only with music that is made for the moment, for the individual, by the experts.

Today, we generally experience music as a product to be bought or sold. Like fast fashion and fast food, the large-scale music industry churns out songs to be used and discarded – bland music dressed up with celebrity or scandal. It’s not crafted to last or to become part of a greater conversation. It’s thrown together with hooks to catch our fancy, and then any life is played out of it, so that we will keep coming back for more.

Additionally, music has become the niche of professionals. The produced sound that we hear recorded has become the standard of excellence, undermining unpolished family singalongs or congregations singing with hymnals. I’ve been in many worship teams which are, essentially, K-Love cover bands. I’ve sat through many Sunday services with a worship leader singing like Mariah Carey, while the congregation murmurs along, trying to follow improvisation together.

For many, music has become a tool to curate personal identity — a way to find ourselves and our (mostly online) subgroup. When finding esoteric bands first becomes the high point of life, music can become self-absorbed and isolating. Music still brings people together, but they’re mostly strangers at infrequent shows, not the family and friends we see daily.

Meanwhile, if our musical tastes are questioned, we become defensive. It’s understandable: music is tied to our core. Music shapes identity and creates community. But the kind of music matters: Is it music that lives up to its potential? Is it music made to last and made for everyone?

Music that lasts contains transcendent possibilities. Like all great art, it takes us out of ourselves and gives us glimpses of man and God that shake self-absorption. Music that is made to last, and made to be shared — whether homely folk music wearing the aural patina of generations, or art music daring to aim for Platonic forms — contains intrinsic power. Though unseen, it is substantial. And, as the ancients taught, it has the power to shape the soul and community. Plato wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything; It is the essence of order and lends to all that is good, just, and beautiful.”

When we recognize the possibilities of music and experience it together, we build musical culture. This post is an introduction to a series on Musical Culture. We will look at the possibilities of music to teach us about the world, to draw communities together, and to maintain our shared knowledge and experiences. And we’ll suggest practical ways to build musical culture in homes, churches and wider communities.

What we know in song remains. What we keep together and pass down is culture. To have a musical culture we must attend to music that is capable of keeping. But it won’t keep still. It rises to the surface: to our minds in the long loneliness of the night, to our hands in the rhythms of a work song, to our feet as we walk life’s journey, but perhaps, most of all, to our lips in lullabies we didn’t know we remembered, as we give our songs to our children. May our children receive the gift of music that is made to last and made for everyone. And may that music be kept in them — a heritage of common song to pass down to their own children.

Amanda McGill

Amanda McGill is a freelance writer, the music director at Christ the King Anglican Church in Dayton, Ohio, and an editor for The Homely Hours (a liturgical living resource). She seeks a simple, well-read life with her young family and likes to make bread so her husband doesn’t have to win it.

3 Comments

  • June 30, 2017

    Ted Larson

    Amanda, very well stated and thought provoking. It is interesting to note that on your Great Grandma Larson’s side of the family, her father and siblings, although untrained musically, were very musically talented and it had been said that they could take any instrument and learn to play it. And I remember family gatherings where they gathered together and played instruments and sang, usually spontaneously. And we had some of that around our piano at Christmas times with either you are Grandma playing the piano. Unpolished, and everlasting memories.

  • July 7, 2017

    Mary Prather

    I am SO looking forward to this. As a homeschooling mother, lifelong musician and music teacher, and now the author of a music appreciation curriculum for children, I will be following your series and cheering you along every step of the way! Thank you!

  • July 7, 2017

    Bley

    We are SO blessed to have you, Amanda, as our music director at Christ the King. The Irish folk-sing-a-long you and Jon did for St. Patrick’s Day was a highlight of our family’s year! My five children (ages 8 and under) still sing the songs we sang that evening. Memorable!