All Communication Carries A Contextual Element
Let me illustrate that point with a relevant musical example.
In an article on, How To Impersonate Elvis Presley, the following six suggestions are given . . . .
- Watch old video footage. Learn the King’s moves
- Practice makes it perfect. Stand in front of the mirror so you can work on your dance moves.
- Do the talk. Use a low voice when you talk. Have a slight drawl.
- Buy the costume. Find Elvis outfits at costumes stores . . . . A jumpsuit is most popular, but try to be in good shape when you wear it. The collar has to be sharp and pointed, and the pants have to be bell bottoms. Don’t forget his boots.
- Don’t forget the accessories. Carry a microphone with you. Wear the large frame aviator sunglasses. Wear gold jewelry as well as the white or red studded cape.
- Do the ‘do. Grow sideburns and style your hair in a bouffant manner.
Let me assure you, that for those who lived in that era, you cannot imitate Elvis Presley by . . . .
° imitating his moves
° adopting and adapting a low southern drawl voice
° wearing the jumpsuit and Cuban collared shirt
° carrying a microphone
° wearing aviator sunglasses
° “doing the do”
(AND we might add)
° #7 — donning a guitar
° #8 — singing one of his most famous songs, “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.”
While you could duplicate the externals (and apparently many people attempt an impersonation, such as Jim Carey), I would like to suggest that you cannot duplicate the Elvis Presley experience today — BECAUSE his music, performances, style, and appearance were in a historical context — that of the 1950s-1960s.
Elvis was far more than just a uniquelooking person, singing words, accompanied by rock music, playing a guitar. It was that, but it was far more than that!
It was that — all within a context.1
BECAUSE . . . .
A “song” / “hymn” is not only lyrics.
A “song” / “hymn” is not only a musical score.
A “song” / “hymn” is also a context.
You cannot dismember the lyrics and musical score from the traditional context in which it was learned and sung, and come to believe that you have the same effect.
You cannot dismember the lyrics and musical score from the traditional context, which helped the listeners come to appreciate the “song” or “hymn.”
You cannot merely duplicate the externals of lyrics and score, and duplicate the depth of the musical emotions which accompanied and accompany them.
You cannot separate the lyrics and score from the emotional context, which drove and influenced its deep affectations and connections.
A “song” / “hymn”
is more than the sum of two parts:
A song brings one back to the context,
the days it was first
heard, learned, loved, memorized, and FELT.
The rhetorical counterpart of such attempts is found in reading great speeches of history. But that is just the point, “of history.” They have a context, which, when added to the equation, creates a speech that is more than the sum of its two parts (words & verbal/non-verbal speech).
One cannot divorce the lyrics & musical score from the context in which it was first and foremost heard, repeated, learned, and felt without losing the richness which that “song” / “hymn” carries to its listeners and/or singers.
Ask anyone who lived in the ’70s — ’80s — ’90s about the music of their time. When one of those “songs” is heard, they are brought back to more than the lyrics and notes, but also to the feelings which accompanied their hearing and learning that music — the context of that era.
We may well find it curious or “strange” as to how or why someone could love the music of a particular “decade.” It was not our decade — the decade of our growing awareness of life and living in our late teens and twenties — and therefore we lack the context of the feelings, thoughts, connections, and life events which marked that era.
From my perspective, that reflects a problematic change that is occurring in the hymnology of today.
I am not speaking about the different arrangements of traditional hymns. There are some absolutely beautiful arrangements of traditional hymns. Arrangements still carry much of the original melody line. If one only played the musical score, they would be recognized.
However, there is a trend today which believes that if the lyrics/words are maintained, yet the musical score is changed, that the song/hymn carries the same audience meaningfulness, feelings, or weight.
Sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (11,10,11,10) to the musical score of “O Zion Haste” (11,10,11,10). I say that although it is absolutely doable because of the matching meter, it is far from the same.
While singing a different “tune” of a well-known hymn may have value in any particular scenario, I would suggest that it doesn’t carry the same strength with an audience — an audience who learned this-or-that great hymn of the faith in the context of their early and continued years of faith and local church congregational singing.
Take any well-known hymn and have only a musical instrument performing, no matter the variation of the arrangement, and you will see a congregation interact mentally, emotionally, and worshipfully.
Try that with an alternate musical score which may fit a well-know hymn, — were it sung.
Read the poetic lyrics of a hymn, with any “music.” It may be well-written poetry, but it is far different than singing that poetry. Song and hymns are a combination of two arts –and also carry a listener context.
Lyrics and “music” cannot be unhinged from each other and accomplish the same ends.
Nor can lyrics and music, be unhinged from the “listener context” accomplish the same ends.
I am not arguing for the position that there should be no songs/hymns which change up the musical score. Rather, I want to point to a trend in hymnology, which is far too often ignoring and abridging the listener’s context.
If one were to push back by arguing that over time the listener’s context will match the new musical scores, the revised ways of hearing the great biblical truths found in the traditional hymn — I suggest not! — For at least three reasons . . . .
#1) The changes are occurring more in the performance arts, not the congregational. It is not that the congregation is learning these revised musical scores.
#2) The possible rewriting of the musical score of a well-known hymn is endless. It only takes another songwriter/hymn-writer to come along and offer his/her creativity in revising the music. Not only are arrangements of traditional hymn seemingly endless (and very varied in quality), so are the potential musical scores of well-known hymns of the faith.
#3) Not all “musical-score-rewrites” are faithful or expressive to the lyrics, musically. A simple example would be going to a minor key in scoring the hymn, “It is well with my soul.” I’ve heard it done, and it deconstructs and damages the rejoicing which the hymn was designed to carry in its original written score. 2
Sometimes, “lovers of music” may be moving towards a similar, though different, hazardous church cliff — on several different levels.3
√ They may be more enamored with the “greatness of the music” in all of its depth of tone, movement, richness, etc. — and forget that congregational music is by design to be a far simpler experience than that of attendance at a symphony.
√ They may believe that lyrics, musical score, and audience context can be separated without the loss of adoration, affection, or personal emotion.
√ They may fail to take into account their audience and perhaps are no different than those music leaders who are charged with the same “musical church crime” of foisting on an audience their personal musical taste, composers, and templates.
√ They may decry the shocking changes which have/are taking place across congregations across America but may well be contributing to the loss of a musical/hymnody heritage in a more subtle way!
They may be part of the continued loss of deeply meaningful hymns — Hymns which have been and are — buried deep within our souls — during and throughout the days of our early and continued pilgrimage — in and for Christ — while singing together with a fellowship of fellow believers.
1. An Example: Take a famous song by Elvis Presley — “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.”
♦ Take the same words and put them to a different musical score.
♦ Take the same musical score and put it to different words.
♦ Take the same personal appearance, and sing a song created by Roy Orbison (born the year after Elvis, and whose career paralleled Presley) — “Crying.”
I say it does not resonate because it does not connect with the original historical hearing and context of the listeners. Those who enjoy, feel, resonate, and respond to attempted Elvis impersonations carry a history with them that brings them back to those days, and none of the three options above resonates or connects with those days, in the minds of the listeners.
Music Has A History Which Is Part Of Its Meaning, And Those Who Sang/Sing That Music Also Have A History Which Is Part Of Its Meaning.
2. That is not to say that an arrangement of this hymn could not incorporate a minor key for a portion of the hymn to communicate the “sorrow of sea billows roll.
3. I might add, that many a hymn, even when unclear or difficult to hear, is fully understood when the musical score betrays the song.
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