Music is used by the Church and liturgical participants to give our spiritual agency liturgical structure that orders us towards appropriate ways of praying and being in the liturgy.
Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) by Tia DeNora
- How does music gain meaning in the liturgy?
- How does music effect how we pray?
- How do people use music to pray
EFORE YOU START reading this article, think back to a time when music was part of a liturgy in which you were participating. Who chose that music? Why did they choose it? How did it affect you? How did you use that music? These are some of the questions Tia DeNora asks in her book Music in Everyday Life. They can lead us as liturgical musicians to ask other questions. Did it change how you felt? Did it affect how easy it was to pray? Perhaps the piece of music was particularly meaningful for you: what and why was that? Would the environment have been different without music? Would you have acted or felt different? In short, what difference did music make in that context and who was deciding that?
What is a musical act that we can experience it as sacred? DeNora’s central concern is agency, the ability to act and choose freely, and how it relates to structures which limit that agency. For her, music is tool that people use for the project of self-definition, emotional and physical entrainment, and extending agency. It can also be used as a tool of agency over us, creating a structure which facilitates some modes of being and action while discouraging others. We can interpret meaning into music because it exists in a social context. We transfer meanings from the context in which musical acts are undertaken, and from the history of those musical acts within society and project them onto our experience of our own musical acts. The liturgy is one such context, and so, like music, it is a structure for human agency.
Music can be used to render “places and spaces hospitable to some types of action, inhospitable to others” (DeNora, 2000, p. 112). It promotes forms of spiritual action and discourages others. We transfer meaning from the context and history of the Christian faith and its liturgy, interpreting those meanings into the music we associate with that context. “Music can be conceived of as a kind of aesthetic technology, an instrument of social ordering” (DeNora, 2000, p. 7), it is “a dynamic material, a medium for making, sustaining and changing social worlds and social activities” (DeNora, 2000, p. x). The question is how the structure of the liturgy and the agencies of those who contribute musically to that structure interact with the agencies of the liturgical and musical participants.
But what are we that we can experience the sacred in music? DeNora talks about music being a “technology” of the “self”. By using the word “technology”, DeNora highlights music’s ability to extend our natural capacity for action (for example, as I write this I have Shostakovich playing in the background to help me concentrate, but I am a peculiar person). By “self”, she means the personal project of self-definition in relation to a “fragile conglomerate of social, material and discourse practice” (DeNora quoting Giddens, p. 46). This is a postmodernist anthropology, which focuses on the personal choice to be what one wants to be and rejects universal descriptions of the human person. This is not compatible with a way of thinking that looks for the origin of a “self”, not within the person, but in a creator God who has created the human race in our commonality and the human person in our individuality. To study the liturgical participant as a postmodern anthropologist requires the inclusion of the opinions and perspectives of the liturgical person, which preclude a postmodern anthropology. Postmodern anthropology ties itself in knots when it tries to study a faith that proclaims the objective reality of the person and their relationship to God.
A lazy attitude to scholarship too often evident in the Church would be to discard the insights DeNora offers us from her postmodern approach because we cannot immediately reconcile them to our worldview. In the liturgy and its music, we participate in objective truths, but our experience of them (and the means of experiencing them) is socially constructed. We therefore need to adapt this postmodern outlook to a Christian anthropology. With this in mind, I suggest that we should talk of liturgical music as a technology of the soul.
Following Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas takes the soul to be the substantial form of a person’s body. The soul is the source of a person’s essential properties, a person’s intellect and (in a Scotist reading of Aquinas) individuation (ie the haecceity of a person being a particular person and not another). It is not itself our essential property, intellect or identity; rather the soul is the “form” (morphe) that configures our matter (hyle) into the persons that we are (Stump, 2012, p. 464). If you had my soul on its own, you wouldn’t have me; and if you had my body on its own, you would not have me. If you have both together, you have me, a person, a hylomorphic unity. Eleanore Stump calls humans the “amphibians” of the metaphysical universe because the unique immortality of our soul gives us a share in both the material and spiritual realms in a way not granted to angels, animals or plants (Stump, 2003, p. 17). The soul animates and configures the body, individuating the person and the only thing that divides the soul and body is death.
Because the human being is indeed this material composite of body and soul, the soul that configures the body is itself configured by the material world inhabited by the body. When the body does something, it is animated by the soul, but we must avoid any Cartesian dualism that would imply a ghost in the machine or pilot in the body. To borrow Robert Kilwardby’s image, “it is as pointless to ask whether soul and body are one as it is to ask whether the seal and the wax are one–they are”. (McInery & O’Callaghan, 2014, §8). There is a connection between the aspects of our lives that are lived in the realm of matter and those lived in the realm of the spirit because we are, in fact, living just one life in one reality.
Because the soul is the “configured configurer” (ie it configures the body but is itself configured by the material word. Stump, 1995, p. 514), active participation in music (an aesthetic material) has a structuring role to play in our spiritual agency. It is used to structure particular personal and communal acts of worship; and to structure the liturgy in general in which we personally and ecclesially worship God. Music is a technology that facilitates particular spiritual actions while discouraging others.
How do people use liturgical music?
The worship of God is not an easy thing to do; it requires a particular spiritual state. Objectively, this is achieved by being in a state of grace. However, because the state of grace is more than the absence of grave sin, or even of personal attachment to it, the way in which that state of grace is achieved and experienced involves our subjectivity, Grace is God’s communication of himself to us. How we receive His gift of self is important, and relies on us ordering our spiritual states and capacity towards God. God offers us his grace, but we have to respond as humans to his action.
DeNora (2000, p. 21) proposes a theory of musical affect in practice: how music provokes particular affective states in the people participating in music. In social theory, “affect” refers to “a pre-personal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body [including the mind] to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (Delluze & Guattari, 1987, p. xvi). These experiential states include spiritual experiences. Yet, in this non-discursive complexity, “there is a reflux back from conscious experience to affect” that draws on one’s past (Ticineto Clough, 2007, p. 2).
Musical forms are associated with particular affective states, functioning as “devices for the organization of experience, as referents for action, feeling and knowledge formulation” (DeNora, 2000 p. 24). The affect in music is not located in anything that can be analysed in the score, but rather in the interaction between the human and the music (DeNora, 2000, p. 21). It is in the interaction that music comes into being. Its “semiotic force – its affect upon hearing – cannot be fully specified in advance of actual reception. This is because musical affect is contingent upon the circumstances of music’s appropriation” (DeNora, 2000, p. 33).
DeNora recounts the story of a participant in one of her research projects, “Lucy”, who regulates her emotion with music. Lucy explains her choice of music on a particular morning as follows.
It was a choice because I was feeling very stressed this morning because we’re in the throes of moving house… so I actively decided to put on Schubert’s Impromptus because they were my father’s favourite – you might want to come along to that again, because Schubert’s Impromptus have a long history with my life… I sit in a rocking chair facing [the speakers], so I get the sound in between the speakers, and I just sat there and listened [sighs, gentle laugh]. But I needed it. It was only ten minutes or so, you know, I didn’t listen to them all. I just listened to the bits I wanted to listen to. (DeNora, 2000, p. 17)
Lucy uses music to move her from an affective state of stress to one of calm. The semiotic content of the music is determined by a particular piece of music’s “long history with [her] life”. The context she establishes to listen to listen to the music helps this transition. The participant in the liturgy can use music in a similar way, treating it as a technology to help them move between affective states.
The liturgy communicates what it contains: the objective realities of Christ’s incarnation, passion and resurrection. Through the liturgical calendar, these mysteries are presented to us for our participation. To participate in the liturgy is, therefore, to participate in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Certain affective states that facilitate this spiritual participation, and so are desirable if our participation is to be full and conscious. These states would not necessarily be desirable in life outside the liturgy.
As one affective state ceases to be desirable and the next becomes so, the liturgical participant can use the liturgy itself (ie aside from its music) to make this transition. However, appropriating the meaning that sits in the relationship between the liturgical participant and liturgical music is an additional way of achieving this transition. “Music’s semiotic force can be seen to be constructed in and through listener appropriations” (DeNora, 2000, p. 24), so music has some role in determining its resultant affect, without prescribing it. In this sense, music is a “technology” that makes the “act” of liturgical affect easier. DeNora (2000, p. 102-3) likens musical affect to a prosthetic that “affords capacity, motivation, co-ordination, energy and endurance”, it extends what its user can do.
In the Eucharist, moments of transition are marked by music. In general we could speak of the entrance chant and the music that is played before the service helping people adopt the affective state that is going to serve them best for the liturgy. The penitential rite is confirmed by the Kyrie, which gives way to the Gloria. The listening promoted by Gradual chant or responsorial psalm affects a receptive mode for the Liturgy of the Word. The transition into the Offertory is marked by another chant, and the affectivities that serve the participant best through the Eucharist Prayer are each marked by song. The intensity of the Preface that circles around the same few notes is emotionally performative. The affective state of thanksgiving and meditation necessary for a good communion are facilitated by music, as is the transition away from the affective modes of the liturgy if there is music at the end of mass.
Church’s role in this context is dissimilar to that of airlines, which “attempt to mould their consumers, to form them into ‘ideal’ users, into individuals who exhibit ‘preferred’ forms of passenger behaviour” and use music as a technology to do so (DeNora, 2000, p. 9). DeNora recounts a flight she took from London to California on an American airline in which the desirable affect for each section of the process was suggested by the music provided for the context. “The hassle of boarding was musically underpinned… by slow, low pitched melodies and whale song.” The mood for take-off was set by a fanfare of “upward-sweeping and definite-sounding brass” by an American composer (DeNora, 2000, p. 11). The Church uses music to mould the spiritual behaviour of worshippers. Like airlines, the Church uses music “as a resource for making sense of situations, as something of which people may become aware when they are trying to determine or tune into an ongoing situation” (DeNora, 2000, p. 13). It sets the scene in which our liturgical action takes place.
This happens as we move through the liturgical calendar, transitioning from one season and feast to another and, in doing so, we need to transition through appropriate affective states. The Easter Vigil is the prime example. In the Vigil, participants transition from penitential to festive affective states and music and visual cues play a significant part. Mass starts in the dark and with only the simplest chants until the bells, which have been silent for the triduum, are rung. The Gloria is sung and the church is illuminated. We learn to use the entrainment of our spiritual states to participate in the liturgy better. We are helped to achieve particular modes of being by using the music we associate with them. We shift our affectivity appropriately, and therefore participate better. It is no coincidence that many of these moments are marked by processions, ritually enacting the metaphor of movement and transport that dominates the discourse of affectivity (DeNora, 2000, p. 7).
This also implies an augmentation of our capacity for spiritual action, because the states into which we move are those which best suit our desired spiritual activity. In this sense, music is a “medium of describing ‘how’” to accomplish a particular spiritual action (De Nora, 2004, p. 93). In the example of the Easter Vigil, we move from penitence (in which we are humble, quiet and small before God’s mercy) to exultation (in which we are noisy about God’s greatness). Music heightens our awareness of our internal participation by co-opting our sense of hearing.
This is the spiritual equivalent to DeNora’s description of an aerobics class, where music structures the body. An aerobics class has a set structure and music’s role in it is to imply how the “aerobic body is configured, reconfigured, composed and de-composed as it is passed through and transformed by the series of changes that constitute aerobics and its grammar”. In the liturgy, our spiritual powers are extended by appropriating music, just as in an aerobics class one’s bodily powers are extended by appropriating music, pressing it into use.
This might be taken to imply some sort of separation between body and soul, but that need not be so. We use our body, beginning with the ears and ending at the brain, to implement this technology, but it is the soul that is using it. Our bodily actions and receptivity facilitate spiritual states, but participation in the liturgy is principally an internal action of soul. Music is a technology that we can use to entrain our affectivities to our desired spiritual actions and thus extending our natural spiritual capacity.
How does the Church use music?
It is not only a case of the liturgical participant using their agency to press liturgical music into use in ordering the affections; it is also a case of the Church structuring our spiritual action.
“Music’s link to the regulation of self and the configuration of subjectivity and agency is of concern to a range of economically and politically interested actors… [including] churches… seeking to inspire and reinforce ‘devotion’… who at times have exploited music’s powers in their attempts to structure motivation, energy and desire” (DeNora, 2004, p. 130).
DeNora (2000, p. 141-142) recounts an entertaining study by Charles S. Areni and David Kim (1993) in which researchers decked a wine aisle in a UK supermarket in German and French flags to signify where the German and French wines were. When stereotypically German oompah music was played, customers were more likely to buy German wine and when stereotypically French accordion music was played, they were more likely to opt for French labels. The supermarket used music (combined with the visual cues), to structure the financial agency of their customers. The Church does something analogous with our spiritual agency in the liturgy: it’s difficult to affect penitence when listening to a lively Easter piece, and we are guided towards it by pieces whose minor mode, slow tempo, and low pitch we associate with sadness.
This is instantiated on a grand scale with the organic development through history of liturgical forms (latterly reformed by committee) which promote the spiritual affectivity and action broadly considered most desirable. Gregorian chant (for which reason it is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, hereafter “SC” ¶116) and polyphony (Mediator Dei ¶4) are musical forms developed from that liturgy which reinforce its structure for spiritual agency. This orientation towards internal participation is maintained in the chants of the priest in the prayers said as the head and on behalf of the members of the Church. Their semiotic content is derived from the history and context of their use.
With the re-conception of active participation after the Second Vatican Council, emphasis transferred to external participation (SC ¶118). “Cultural change had become one of the major stimuli for liturgical change” (Paton, 2014, p. 162). Musical forms came to the fore that reflected this shift in what was considered desirable: the engagement with contemporary (and transient) culture (SC ¶43), and the expression of the particular cultures of the liturgy’s participants (SC ¶40). In places, the liturgy drifted from its essential nature as the worship of the divine majesty, and was increasingly reduced to its secondary function as the instruction of the faithful (cf SC ¶33). While composers have drawn on popular melodies, musical forms and styles throughout history (altering them as necessary to reorient them towards the essence of the liturgy), the post-conciliar liturgical praxis of wholesale adoption of secular musical forms acted as a model for liturgical action that was orientated towards the world.
This phenomenon takes place on the local scale in specific contexts, where music is used to structure the environment of a particular liturgy. Discussing how couples choose music for sexual intimacy, DeNora (2000, p. 112-3) describes music “establishing as a sense of setting the stage, as it were, of the encounter, structuring the parameters of the happening.” In the example from her research project, this is negotiated between the couple. An analogous negotiation happens in a church community, as a person or group of people in a specific community have influence in the negotiation of how to use music structure liturgical participants’ spiritual activity. It may be the parish priest, or the choir director, or a collaboration between musicians, or perhaps a member of the congregation requesting particular hymns. In this context, music is a technology they use to encourage desirable affective states in others. They also have a significant stake in deciding what affective states are desirable. Therefore, the liturgies are closely connected to the cultures that condition these choices, and the music chosen has meaning interpreted from it as a result of the culture of the participants.
Conclusion: What does this mean for the Church?
Bryan Spinks (2011) draws attention to the way in which consumer culture has effected liturgical praxis. In retail, “music serves as part of a collection of cultural resources that can be used to create scenic specificity, and to place on offer modes of being. Deliberately and de facto, retail outlets seek to foster particular in-store cultures and images of implied clientele” (DeNora, 2000, p. 134). By extension, the same is true of churches. We live in a situation in which there are a wide variety of styles of worship available. Greater access to transport means that people are no longer tied to their local church, but instead can choose a style of worship. Not only can people pick a liturgical structure which gives them the greatest spiritual agency, but the selection of a style of worship is an exercise of that agency. It is possible to use the liturgy and a technology of the self, refining and defining one’s reflexive project of self-making.
The situation in the church risks becoming like that of the clothes shops described by DeNora. She visited a number of shops on the same British high-street, each offering a different style of clothes which marked different modes of being. These shops used music to indicate the mode-of-being desired by the clientele the shop hoped to attract. Music may do the same in the liturgy, telling prospective participants what sort of liturgy is on offer as they “shop around” for something they like. In this sense the liturgy’s objectivity has broken down with only subjectivity available to replace it. The liturgy tends towards becoming little more than a field of human agency. That field of agency is characterised by music that “configures [worshippers] and enrolls them into certain emotional states” (DeNora, 2000, p. 135). Church communities act in the same way that shops play piped music to “delineate retail territory, a way of projecting imaginary shoppers on to the aesthetically configured space of the shop floor” (DeNora, 2000, p. 135). Structure provides order for agency, so it may be wondered whether it the situation in which one is able to pick a structure for the agency one wishes to exercise is desirable, but it is the situation in which we find ourselves.
Mediator Dei (1947)
Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963)
Charles S. Areni and David Kim,”The Influence of Background Music on Shopping Behavior: Classical Versus Top-Forty Music in a Wine Store”, in Advances in Consumer Research 20 (1993), 336-340.
Patricia Ticineto Clough, “Introduction”, in The Affective Turn (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
Gilles Delluze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press, 1987).
Ralph McInerny & John O’Callaghan, “Saint Thomas Aquinas”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Edward N Zalta (2018).
Ian Paton, “Sacrosanctum Concilium: Fifty Years On”, The Expository Times, 125:4 (2014), 157-166.
Bryan D. Spinks, The Worship Mall: Contemporary Responses to Contemporary Culture (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2011).
Eleanore Stump, “Non-Cartesian Substance Dualism and Materialism without Reductionism”, Faith and Philosophy, 12:4 (1995).
— Aquinas (London: Routledge, 2003).
— “Resurrection and the Separated Soul”, in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, ed. Brian Davies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Copyright © 2020 Wilfrid Jones