Tapping the Sacred Power of Song

MUSIC IS OFTEN regarded and consumed as something that fills a space—the chords of an organ resounding off the walls of a sanctuary, the beats of a drum circle riding on the breeze through a park, the harmonies of an orchestra flowing from my headphones into my ears as I write. Music even transcends physical spaces to permeate the heart and the soul with emotion.

In Music as Prayer, pastor and musician Thomas H. Troeger invites the reader to cherish and engage in music as an act of prayer. Taking into account the metaphorical, scientific, and practical aspects of music-making, Troeger illustrates the power of music to not only fill a space but to also clear a way for meaning and creativity. Building upon Henry Ward Beecher’s metaphor of a boat stuck on the shore, Troeger describes how the “mighty ocean-tone” of a church organ brings the “tide” needed to lift up the members of the congregation and set them free from the shore.

In what Troeger calls a “dialogic process,” music lends rich metaphors to language and changes the effect of language upon the listener. The same song played in two distinct styles can convey two completely different sets of emotions.

From the ancient flute invented 35,000 years ago to today’s smartphone streaming songs on demand, music has occupied a central part of the human story. The mystery of music lies in the way that sound waves can blend into melodies that speak directly to the human yearning for wholeness. Creating space for both celebration and lament, music has the capacity to hold opposing emotions in the same breath. Music can provide release from suppressed inner tension and give voice to even the most unspeakable emotions.

The versatility of music makes it all the more important in the midst of despair. In times of trouble, the present reality often overshadows beauty as an unattainable luxury. Especially for people in privileged positions, to seek wonder while knowing that others undergo unspeakable suffering almost induces a sense of guilt. When there are so many children in need, forests to preserve, and injustices to overturn, it feels insensitive or even unproductive to pause the work at hand and enjoy music. But Troeger insists that beauty does not neglect suffering but in fact fuels compassion and advocacy. He writes, “By renewing within us the irrepressible resilience of the divine vitalities, beauty supplies energy to deal with the strenuous challenges of our time.”

In pursuit of that beauty that inspires change, musicians labor to produce the perfect sounds and pitches. But flawless performances, while possible, are never guaranteed. Subject to variables outside his or her control, the musician must be willing to adapt and to accept mistakes. Troeger acknowledges the desire for musical precision as a reflection of the wholeness in which creation was made, but also affirms the dynamic nature of life. Just as a musical piece may require loud octaves at some parts and subtle trills at others, life presents a vast range of scenarios that call for different responses. The answer to the complexities of life is not perfection; it is courage to keep pursuing beauty in the midst of imperfection.

To ignore or dismiss emotional responses is to forfeit Christ’s gift of abundant life. The irony of the gospel is that the divine—infinite beauty and perfection—took on the fullness of life among the finite and redefined humanity. Music as worship invites God’s children to engage the fullness of their humanity in its joys and sorrows.

In less than 90 pages, Troeger captures the nuances of music-making with relevant research and keen perception interlaced with personal anecdotes and insightful questions. Geared toward students of music who have devoted significant time and energy into mastering their art, Music as Prayermay have varying degrees of impact and appeal for other readers. Individuals who enjoy making music but may not have necessarily done so in a worship setting or classical-performance context may also feel distant from some parts of the book. The final section offers practical insights into the seasons of the liturgical year.

Even as Troeger lifts up music as inspiration, his words inspire hope for the healing and transformation of our world. 

Sophia Har is the advertising assistant at Sojourners.

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