Why do we sing?

18 December 2020

John Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to ‘sing lustily and with good courage’, an instruction that became a characteristic of Methodism. Dr Martin Clarke, author of British Methodist Hymnody, explores why singing is so important to our expression of Christian faith.

Christmas carols are part of our soundtrack at this time of year, from Nativity plays, to door-to-door singing, and from our local church to King’s College, Cambridge. The lyrics capture so many aspects of the Christmas story and the ways in which it has been interpreted, from the childhood innocence of ‘Away in a manger’ to the glory of God coming among us, ‘Word of the Father/now in flesh appearing’.

For Methodists, several of Charles Wesley’s Christmas hymns provide memorable lines that help us to ponder the mystery of the incarnation: ‘Our God contracted to a span/incomprehensibly made man’ or ‘being’s source begins to be/and God himself is born!’.

The musical settings of the lyrics, however, are so often completely bound up with our experience of them. I recall a soprano in a choir I used to conduct remarking that she couldn’t sing the ‘Sing, choirs of angels’ verse of ‘O come, all ye faithful’ to the regular melody, as she associated those words completely with the famous descant written by Sir David Willcocks.

Whether it’s the gentle, lilting rhythm of the opening lines of ‘Silent night’ or the emphatic declamation of the refrain in ‘Hark! The herald-angels sing’, the music shapes the ways in which we understand and interpret the meanings of the lyrics. John Wesley understood this, and it’s something that’s informed Methodist practice since the movement’s earliest days. Wesley’s famous ‘Directions for Singing’, published in 1761, demonstrate this. His first six points, including the well-known injunctions to ‘sing lustily and with good courage’ and to ‘sing all’, are essentially concerned with promoting unity of practice and mind among the congregation. The final point, though, is the most significant:

"Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your Heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven."

Here, Wesley emphasises that words and music must work together. While Wesley expresses musical caution, it is nonetheless singing that he encourages us to offer in worship to God. Perhaps in this strange year, in which we’ve not been able to sing together in our congregations, there might be something new to reflect on here. Carol services are, just possibly, times when it’s easy to get ‘carried away with the sound’. As we’re forced to engage with and experience carols in different ways this Christmas, may we use that as an opportunity to ‘attend strictly to what [we] sing’, pondering afresh what it might mean that God in Jesus ‘sojourns in this vale of tears’, or that ‘He deigns in flesh to appear/widest extremes to join’.

Dr Martin Clarke, Head of Discipline (Music), The Open University.

Read our blog on the history of 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! ' here.

Image courtesy of the New Room, Bristol. Read our blog about Christmas at Charles Wesley's house in Bristol here.