Spontaneous Singing in the Bible

Spontaneous Singing in the Bible December 5, 2016

As I prepare to teach my course on the Bible and music next semester, I’ve been thinking more about the music behind and in the Bible, as well as music that takes up the already-existing Bible and works with it.

As I think about the depictions of spontaneous singing by individuals (or what is often so construed by interpreters), I began to wonder what this actually envisages. Was there a custom of spontaneously composing song on the spot, in ancient Jewish or other societies? Does the unlikelihood of full-fledged song composition (in our sense) taking place in such instances indicate that the “singing” was more like poetic speech, or rap, or something different from any musical genre one might hear today on the radio?

In some instances, it is in fact merely the headings of the passages that suggest someone “sang,” when in fact the text itself merely has “said” (so, for instance, in the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in Luke 1, and the prototypes that these are patterned on in the Hebrew Bible, such as “Hannah’s song” in 1 Samuel 2). But in other instances, such as the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15, there is explicit mention of singing – and in many of those instances it seems that others joined in.

When it comes to depictions of groups spontaneously breaking into song, that is not hard to envisage – if the song is an already-existing one that is well known. But is that what Exodus, or the Book of Revelation, has in mind?

If we treat the stories in question as “musicals,” then these things make a certain kind of sense. The songs are not depictions of what happened, but ways of highlighting the significance of key moments in the drama. If we insist on reading them as depictions of historical events, including the musical numbers, then making good sense of them becomes problematic.

What is your view of the “songs” that appear within narratives in the Bible? Are they best understood as spontaneous musical compositions, musical numbers that the author of the narrative had no expectation that anyone would think reflected what was said on the occasion depicted in the story, or something else?

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