What is UU Music?

Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

David A. Mix Barrington and Mike Nagy

11 December 2011

Here is the third reflection, "Why Do UU's Make Music?", for the service of 11 December 2011.

Music can make us laugh, make us cry, make us think, or make us marvel. Humor, overpowering emotion, profound ideas, sublime beauty -- all of these can be conveyed in words alone, but all can be conveyed in a different way, perhaps a more powerful way, by music. Listening to Arjuna's song, we can laugh at our old political enemy Jerry Falwell getting his comeuppance, cry at the idea that maybe love really does win in the end, think about what the inherent worth and dignity of our enemies, or just loving our enemies as ourselves, really means, and marvel at the artistry and construction of the music.

Why does music have such an effect on us? Pete Seeger tries to explain it in the passage we read earlier. Primitive humans sang as part of their daily lives, "while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys", and their lives were "all of a piece". Making music is part of being human. I think most anthropologists would agree with Pete about that. Evolutionary theory tells us that humans developed language originally because it was useful, but once it was there and our brains expanded, language expanded as well into channels both obviously practical and not. The paleolithic people of Europe, seventeen thousand years ago, made cave paintings that have survived to this day. Those paintings of animals are beautiful, the product of effort and insight far beyond anything that would help them hunt better. Those people appear to have had the same appreciation of visual art that we have, which suggests to me that they also sang for fun, and for beauty, and perhaps for religion, along with their practical singing to keep the rhythm of their pounding or paddling. That is what human brains do.

Music reaches something deep within us, and Pete Seeger goes on to say that making music in groups reaches something even deeper. "When one person taps out a beat while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world." When you sing in company you listen while you sing, and your consciousness of what you are hearing makes it possible for your singing to contribute to something bigger than itself. In our services, we sing hymns together so that we can hear each other, and know that we are among people who are feeling what we feel as we sing. It's a very powerful tool to create community.

Finally, some music connects us to the long struggle for human freedom and dignity. When we sing the hymn "Bread and Roses", we are reminded of the women in Lawrence, Massachusetts a century ago who marched for fair working conditions. Woody Guthrie's music connects us to the plight of ordinary Americans during the depression, "We Shall Overcome" to the civil rights struggle of African-Americans, and the song we are about to sing, written by Holly Near in the wake of the murder of Harvey Milk, to the fight for the freedom and dignity of LGBT people.

There is another protest movement taking place in our country right now, and our congregation is already part of it through the guests on our front lawn. Yesterday morning the Occupy Boston encampment was closed down by the police, and last night there was a meeting on Boston Common (next to King's Chapel) to decide what to do next. It remains to be seen what the Occupy movement will accomplish, or even what lasting music will emerge from it. But as we sing our final hymn, listening to each other as one body of people, let us keep in mind the campers and marchers all over the country, who are standing on the side of love.

Last modified 5 January 2012