Ecclesia Cantat Aut Non Est - Norma Kobald

Taken with permission from the Reformed Music Journal Vol. 9, No. 2, (1997)

One increasingly hears complaints from parents, teachers and ministers about the participation, or rather non-participation, of the young people in the musical part of the divine service. Reasons (excuses is a better word) for this kind of behaviour are: peer group pressure, puberty and change of voice, a mere phase of growing-up and so forth. To say that it has always been with us, is evading the issue. Rather then saying youth is and always will be a problem, it would be far better to say youth is positing a problem; youth is placing us all before the problem of non-participation. And before the singing stops altogether, we should face the fact that part of the Church of Jesus Christ does not sing.

Songless Birds [1]

A conclusion reached in French ornithological study, namely that "the eggs of song birds hatched under silent foster mothers produce songless young", prompted Dr. A.A. Tomatis, a Parisian ear and nose specialist, to investigate whether or not the phenomenon would apply to humans. The results of his experiment indicated that this was so. He discovered that the ear of the foetus is "functional from the fourth month; from that time it can hear the mother's voice and registers all the sounds of her vegetative life." These sounds were rich in the upper harmonics and contained unusually high frequencies. Much of that which is heard in utero is lost at birth and in the process of growing up the infant tries to recover the early audition, but in many instances falls short of recovery. If, however, little or no sounds were perceived by the foetus, the result would be similar to the bird experiment. In both cases, one more than the other, it results in "injured ears".

Further experiments with singers gave rise to Tomatis' First Law. "The voice contains only what the ear hears". Singing, therefore, is in the first place hearing, for the true singing voice depends on a wide range of harmonics. When these are not present or rather when these are not perceived, singing becomes a tiring, laborious business, and consequently any desire to raise one's voice in song is effectively killed.

Dr. Tomatis' Second Law states: "If the possibility of correctly hearing the frequencies, that are lost or compromised, is restored to the injured ear, these frequencies are instantaneously and unconsciously restored in the vocal emission".

In addition to the biological cause for injured ears, there is an environmental one. We are surrounded by a barrage of sound, mostly made up of low frequencies. In order to counter these we compromise our hearing. Any kind of sound at too high a level will damage the ear. We hear of young people destroying their hearing, or what is left of it, by playing record and cassette players at top volume. The effect of rock music, at the volume that it is ordinarily played is known to damage the ears. It is, therefore, not difficult to arrive at the following equation: Damaged ears = impaired voices = no singing.


Record and cassette players easily lead into the subject, technique and music and its relation to singing in church. Dr. Wolfgang Herbst, in a paper presented at a church music symposium, poses that "the hi-fi listening habits with its technical perfections make the church song more than in time past an aesthetical abomination [2]? This according to Herbst is one of the greatest causes, if not the greatest cause for the demise of congregational singing not only among adolescents but among adults as well.

It is only a few decades ago that the art of music became technicized, and that in a double measure. First through the application of the technical spirit of engineering to the field of music, and secondly through the electronic production and transmssion of sounds - the record, tape, disc, radio, and so forth. Those results, perfectionism and the recording medium, bring about the hatred for the uncultured church song mentioned by Herbst.

It is indeed true that behind the perfectionism in music stands the spirit of technicization. The aim of all musical performances is "an expressionless objectivism, following directly the model of machinery set in motion and whizzing through its task." [3] Even composition did not escape this all pervasive spirit. "Play this piece very savagely, but always severely in rhythm, like a machine", Paul Hindemith wrote above one of his compositions. He, and others with him, were trying to transform traditional music models in the spirit of the technical age.

Constructivism, a not unusual by-product of technique, brings about an increasing artificiality. As Heinrich Strobel writes: "Artificial is a consequence of ars [skill], a not 'artificial' art is simply no art ... In music this means turning away from the naturalistic principle of tonality, from rhythmic symmetry, from the thematic scheme. Thinking in terms of sonority has taken the place of tonal painting and status of soul". [4]

A few comments on Strobel's statement are in order, for the sentiments expressed are not exclusively Strobel's but represent an exact verbalization of a wide spread notion. Strobel's "turning away from naturalistic principles" in essence means a turning away from God. (Nature = Creation = Creator). The Roman poet Lueretius (96-55 B.C.), placing the social origin of music in a teleological frame of reference, wrote: "Nature expresses the will of the gods; it has no will of its own. Music can, therefore, only emanate from the gods, even though man acquires it from copying natural sounds. A song that wells up from the throat of a bird and in time is shaped by man into a structured work still has its origin in the gods." [5] "Thinking in terms of sonority" means thinking about music in terms of sound as aural sensations perceived by the ear only for it cannot (may not) contain tonal painting (metaphysical symbolisms) nor states of soul (emotions or feeling). In other words the quality which makes music music has no relevance to science except as another possible object of study, never as a source of knowledge.

There are obvious benefits associated with hi-fi recording, but these should not blind us to the negative aspects of this medium. Records are not - as in score - set before us to sing or play, but are presented to us already fully sounding. That means that it by-passes the mind and body of the listener and directly addresses the ear. Passivity in any form produces atrophy. The problem becomes more complicated if we care to remember that in the recording industry the optimum in sound quality and the perfection of performance is sought. In technological terms this means objectivity. If one applies these aesthetics to church song, it falls miserably short. It is neither perfect in its performance nor is it mere sound. Without its true object/subject it is an abomination to the "cultured" ear.

Information, Please!

Under the onslaught of science and technology, wisdom became knowledge and knowledge in turn was reduced to information. In our computer age information is the big thing, if not everything. It should, therefore, not surprise anyone that the decline of the church song is approached from the information angle.

Dr. Eggebrecht of the University of Freiburg, Germany, thinks that the cause for the decline in singing lies "in the old information-poor, forms and contents of the church song itself!' This means that the traditional hymn qua form, predominantly musical, and content, both musical and verbal, no longer carries any information for today's youth. Messrs. La Voie and Collins, writing in the "Journal of Youth", appear to agree with Dr. Eggebrecht. "Rock music", they write, "offers resources which are not available in the adult culture... Classical music has little or no information about adolescence and life". A resource, literally to rise again, is an aid or support, and information leads to giving something form. The traditional song of the church, then, does not provide contemporary youth with a life support system, neither does it give them an identifiable form. Rock, read contemporary music, does. It gives the adolescent an identity through mode of dress, manners, speech and living. However, this stress on the outward, the external, is conformity (See Rom. 12:2).

How did this youth-adult antithesis develop in the church? Dr. Eggebrecht, without exonerating adolescents, blames the older generation. He writes, "Our renewal efforts and insight are shipwrecked on the need for security. Therein lies our difficulty. For many people the church service and security are one and the same thing." Certain musical styles, particularly those of the - spiritual atmospheric" variety, are enshrined, and modernity in any form is frowned upon, if not identified as creeping secularism. It destroys our equilibrium, and that is a function of the ear. That music indeed plays a dominant role in this security syndrome, Eggebrecht makes clear. He writes, "It is easier to alter the text of a given hymn that its tune". [6] The debates engendered by the proposed tune changes in the Book of Praise (official book of the Canadian Reformed Churches) bears this out. In the final analysis the committee opted for the traditional i.e. that which pleases the ear.

Much truth as all that may contain, what perturbs me is the fact that the song of the church cannot inform (give form to) nor that it can function as a resource (aid, support) for life. "Listening", Dr. Tomatis states, "is really wanting to take information and listen to it.[7] There is then first the wish to take information and then act upon it. At this point a little digression on hearing and listening becomes necessary. The great organist, composer Marcel Dupré, when asked what to listen for in music, said, "when a man listens to great music he listens in three ways: (1) he recognizes the tones as being pleasing [or unpleasing] to the ear, (2) he hears and notes the structure of the piece ... ; (3) he is moved by the music". [8]

What begins as an auditory sensation is rationally analyzed and then listened to for information. Thus it becomes a resource. However, this hearing in the process of listening often gets no further than the hearing, either on the elementary level of ear tickling or on the more advanced level of intellectual musings. Listening hardly ever is given a chance, because it is unsettling, it disturbs the security. "Listening is to reach towards that to which one listens. In Latin that is oboedire, that translates into French as obeir, to obey. Unfortunately that is seen as a constraint, and man does not want cconstraint. To obey is to let oneself go completely in listening ... to the Logos". [9]

In this context Guenther Baun's remarks, made in "universitas", are worth repeating. Baun maintains that most people make no effort to understand the rational elements basic to music. Failing to understand it, they refuse it. [10] Baun is right. The public wants to "enjoy" music, as it enjoys food, drink, a movie, T.V. or for that matter even a sermon.

"Qui bene cantat bis orat"
Singing well is praying twice - Augustine

"In planning the worship of the Reformed tradition", writes Cecil Northcott, "John Calvin with ruthless logic struck to the heart of the abiding truth of the Revelation of God. It exhibits the great truth that it is God who approaches man." [11] The character of this worship service, called "the descending movement in worship", makes it plain without any shadow of doubt that it is God who speaks and man who responds. The word "respond" is an interesting and significant one. The "re" signifies a return, or echo, and "spondere" conveys the idea of a pledge. Now it stands to reason that only those who are responsible can respond. Man was made responsible, i.e. he was created able to answer to God and obliged to do so. Man was created with the ability to speak the praise of God. Man lost it through the Fall. Man regains it through his conversion, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, and through God's forgiveness, which is by faith in Jesus Christ. Man, as a child of God, is therefore gladly responsible - i.e. able to answer God.

The nature of this response is prayer. Calvin, as did Augustine before him, equated singing in church with public prayer. He emphasized this further by saying, "the chief part of his (God's) worship lies in the office of prayer." Rev. Roger Shultz of the present day Swiss Reformed maintains this essential approach to singing. To him prayer and singing are not only inseparable, but also "singing is the highest moment of prayer". "A truly praying heart continues to sing long after the service has ended", he is quoted as saying. [12] Prayer is the "voluntary sharing on the part of God with man of His will, His power and His love through the medium of the human voice." Phrased differently: "Prayer is proof that the believer is truly saved, and that he can really live out this salvation. It is and must be his chief activity, the main expression of his faith". [13] Without that kind of singing the church is not!


[1] Information re Dr. Tomatis transcribed from a C.B.C. broadcast, December 1980.

[2] Wolfgang Herbst, Zur Cegenwärtigen Situation des Evangelischen Kirchengesanges (Stuttgart: Musickwissenschaffliche Verlags - Gesellschaft mbH, 1975), p. 125.

[3] Walter Wiora, The Four Ages of Music (New York.. Norton & Co . 1967), p. 183.

[4] Quoted by Wiora, p. 184

[5] Julius Portnoy, Music in the Life of Man (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), P. 25-26.

[6] Drittes Colloquim der Waleker-Stiftung, January 1974, p. 130f.

[7] C.B.C. Broadcast, December 1980

[8] Michael Murray, Marcel Dupré (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985), p. 124.

[9] C.B.C. Broadcast, December 1980

[10] Universitas, July 1960, p. 773.

[11] Cecil Northcott, Hymns in Christian Worship (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), pp. 35f.

[12] Christianity Today, December 13,1985, p. 74.

[13] J.J. von Allmen (ed.) Vocabulaire Biblique (Neuchâtet, Delachaux & Niestlé, 1954), pp. 329f.


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