Music is Language

I had to write a one-page paper this week that will be included in the summer ministry packets for our Summer ministry teams. Here’s my first draft. We’ll see if Andrew Stern approves.

Music is Language. When you play a note or a chord, you communicate with someone who listens and processes that information to derive meaning. Even without lyrics, a song can make you laugh or cry, get angry or feel at peace. Language is universal, but languages are born in the context of specific cultures. In order to communicate to a specific culture, you have to learn the language, and it follows that when you perform music in a specific cultural context, you have to make sure that you can speak a little bit of that culture’s musical language.

Here’s an example, from our experience at New City Fellowship. African music is composed an performed in a cyclical pattern. Like a turning wheel, a song continues through time with very little variation or development. To Americans, this music can sound coarse or even annoying  like a skipping CD or a car alarm. However, to the African culture this music speaks clearly of the beauty of the cyclical nature of history and time. Americans can grow in their understanding of that dynamic through participating in African music.

In the summer, we have teams of youth groups and family groups that come here from all over the United States, to grow and learn through visiting some of the inner city communities of St Louis. We have “Backyard Bible Clubs” in which local Christians invite these teams to come to their block to play games, do crafts, and to share simple Gospel presentations for the children. The teams also participate in our summer tutoring programs. Both of these activities involve some music for fun and for worship. However, many of these teams bring songs from their cultural context which can fail to communicate effectively. A song that works in a suburban context might not speak in the same way in an urban context. When a team comes to stay in our community this summer, they need to come prepared with music that will communicate in a conversation.

I have created a demo CD of songs that in my experience have been very effective (fun and engaging) for kids in the inner city. These songs incorporate ingredients from the music of the inner city culture (minor tonality, syncopation, repetition, call and response, back beat, rap, hip-hop). In anticipation of how these songs will be used over the summer, they can be performed unaccompanied, or on acoustic guitar if necessary.  This CD of songs will be included in the packets that are sent to the teams for this summer.  My hope is that these teams will try to learn 3 or 4 songs from the CD in order to not only communicate love to the kids who they are going to be interacting with, but to also grow in their appreciation of this culture learning more about the process of becoming the reconciling Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus.

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