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December 19, 2014 | 27th Kislev 5775

How Does Music Function For Us As a Praying Community?

by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller

Each of us responds to music in our own way. Music offers a variety of paths to God and to meaning. It is difficult to talk about music since we tend to describe it with words. But music is a prayer itself, beyond words.

There are three ways we might begin to talk about music. Each way begins with an “M” and describes how to understand how music makes us feel, by analyzing what music does. The three ways are: Meeting, Meditative, and Majestic.

Music that unites a group of people and brings people together is Meeting. It invites all people into the group. It doesn’t matter whether we can carry a tune or not. For example, on Pesach when we sing “Dayenu,” what is important is that we sing the same song together every year. Music need not be particularly inspiring or well performed to engender Meeting; it need only be understood and shared. Meeting moments include tapping, clapping, swaying, as well as singing together.

A second function of music, Meditative music, leads us inside ourselves to the still, small voice that is real, honest and encouraged by the sounds around us. Meditative music, such as an instrumental piece played at the end of a silent prayer, leads us to an inner “letting go.” Meditative moments include davening, silent prayer and soft lyric singing, closing our eyes, or placing a hand over our eyes when we envelop ourselves in prayer.

The third function of music, Majestic music, evokes awe and a sense of grandeur. In the presence of Majestic music, one can imagine that one can reach almost to the unreachable. In ancient times, Majestic music served as a grand offering to God. Today our prayer language includes glorious sacred music sung by cantors, choirs and by all of us. We bow or stand high on our toes as our prayers, through the music, reach heights expressing our yearning to reach toward the transcendent.

Please understand that the three “M’s” do not describe the musical style of a piece, but rather how it functions. Folk music can be majestic. Meeting music can be in the form of a grand “Sh’ma.” The sounding of the shofar can be Majestic, Meeting, or Meditative, all at once. Music can and should overlap in its function.

A service succeeds when it has all three of the “M’s” in a healthy balance. Each congregation decides its own balance. Sometimes the service itself dictates the balance because of its mood. For example, a Friday night Shabbat service may be Meditative, simply because people are tired from the week and in need of a contemplative mood in order to gradually enter Shabbat. By Saturday, people may be more energized, ready to reach toward majesty and to sing out together with fervor.

Some Talking Points to Help in Our Discussion of Music
Questions and comments by Benjie Ellen Schiller, based on notes compiled by Joyce Winslow

  1. How does meaningful prayer evolve from the way music interprets text, or does music create meaning on its own? Can you think of music that “speaks to the soul” without words?
  2. What is the balance of the three “M’s” in your congregation? What songs or melodies does the congregation find the most affecting and moving?
  3. Consider creating a balance between our tradition and our current needs. “Authentic” music is not necessarily always the most effective.
  4. Cantors, musical leaders and the congregation need a common vocabulary when discussing music. For example, when congregants ask for participatory music, do we always assume that it is of one certain style? Consider having an occasional sermon or seminar on music by the cantor so that we can become more informed partners in its discussion.
  5. To help people become familiar with congregational music, count on their memory. The repetition of music week to week and the balance and flow of music in a service can enhance both meeting and memory. The momentum of the music can often help to offset objections of using something new.

A cantor or musical leader needs to teach music to the congregation and lead it, but also needs to listen to the congregational voice and understand it. A leader knows how to include others’ voices, and when to hold back to allow the congregation to take the lead. Similarly, the congregant knows when to sing out loudly or to softly harmonize, when to sit back and listen, or when to be willing to learn a new melody.


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Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller is Professor of Cantorial Arts at the Brookdale Center of HUC-JIR in New York City.

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