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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  • Stupid Atheist

    You run the risk of inspiring “Revelation: the Musical”, Brother McGrath.

    Should that ever come to fruition, your ticket for opening night is on me.


    • Cuttlefish

      I interpret your post to mean questioning of biblical scripture has an effect on a monetized apocalypse and that you have an inside source for purchasing tickets. Obviously, atheists are not the stupid ones.

      • Stupid Atheist

        “I interpret your post to mean questioning of biblical scripture has an
        effect on a monetized apocalypse and that you have an inside source for
        purchasing tickets.”

        I would love to ride the connect-the-dots coaster that brings us from my original post to that conclusion. But please, allow me a moment to affix my neck-brace, first.

        = = =

        “Obviously, atheists are not the stupid ones.”

        I can only speak on behalf of one of us…


        • mantisdragon91

          Amusingly the real idiots seem to be the ones still clinging to a Bronze age book of Jewish fables never meant to be interpreted literally.

          • Stupid Atheist

            And why might you be directing this observation my way, if I may ask…?

          • mantisdragon91

            Your clinging to a simple honest error shows the dishonesty of your posts

          • Stupid Atheist

            I’ll defer to our benevolent moderator as to the substance of that charge.

            But I do sincerely appreciate you taking the time to reply…

        • Cuttlefish

          You are a stupid atheist?

          • Stupid Atheist

            Was the bio I’d linked to unclear? If so, I’d appreciate any tips on making it more remedial, if need be…

          • Cuttlefish

            I don’t click on links by people I don’t know or who are suspect.

          • Stupid Atheist

            I don’t blame you. That’s prudently cautious.

            Were you to Google “about the stupid atheist” you can see the content via Google’s secure cache of the content by utilizing the link shown below.

            You’re also invited to peruse my (unhidden, mind you) Disqus profile which demonstrates the level of my participation in thousands of messages. Had I abused the privilege, it’s a safe bet the mods would have shut me down by now.

            But in a nutshell, I had the faith beaten out of me at an early age by an over-zealous nun or two, and the elaboration can be found on my website.

            I fear we might both be batting for the same dugout, in which case I’m tempted to urge you to consider giving church another chance, if only to clean up the roster for my bench…


  • floridalegal

    I find it interesting that your specific words are spontaneous “singing”. Have you identified one reference in scripture to anything other than “singing” in the New Testament? It is historically accurate to say that it was centuries before anything other than a Capella / singing was used in Christian worship. It was only in Roman Catholicism that instrumental music was introduced. Eastern Orthodox still doesn’t have instrumental. In the 1800 John Wesley was denouncing instrumental music.

    Instrumental music in Christian worship is a “newer” more recent centuries phenomena.

    • Do you find it interesting because you come from a tradition that rejects the use of instruments?

  • Cuttlefish

    It is a myth. It will be interesting to understand the “singing” in an anthropological sense after we get past the notion that it is history. The Seraphim continuously sing holy holy holy flying around the thone of God. The Hebrew god was surrounded by singing at every moment.

  • guest

    I didn’t realist ‘Jesus Christ: Superstar’ was such an accurate version of the Bible.

    Love the video clip at the bottom. It’s possible to imagine people breaking into song like that, after victories or at emotional moments.
    However I tend to see the bible as a collection of stories rather than historical documents, so I think most of the songs were written to highlight important passages, or maybe to make things easy to remember. I’ve read somewhere that setting things to music makes them stick in your mind better.

    I have heard as well that the song of celebration that Miriam sings after Moses has free the slaves is one of the oldest parts of the bible. I know that ancient poets used to recite their works to music- maybe some of the ‘songs’ in the bible were first performed that way before being written down later?

    By the way, speaking of music, I came here looking for a song you posted a while back. It was like a folky, gypsy version of the canticle of Mary- do you remember it? Now seems like the right time of year to hear it again.

    • A gypsy version? I don’t remember that, but I’d like to hear it (again) too! Can you provide any other clues?

      • guest

        I belive it was an israeli/palestinian band, playing with a lot of tambourine, which is what made me think of gypsies. It was a translation, or an interpretation, of the words Mary speaks when she’s visited by the angel gabriel- the magnificat. It was a kind of joyful version, like a bazaar. I tried searching on youtube for magnificat but to no avail.

        I did manage to find this though, which I’d never heard before and find quite beautiful:

        • Thanks for sharing this! Sorry that I can’t recall the rendition of the Magnificat that you are thinking of…

  • arcseconds

    I don’t think I ever thought about the matter closely when I first read the bible when I was 12 or so, but even then (when I was rather more inclined to think the bible was telling me about things that actually happened) I don’t think I thought these cases were recording actual events.

    I think the ‘musical’ interpretation is a good one. We don’t typically interpret say Les Miserables as depicting events during a French Revolution in an alternative reality where everyone bursts spontaneously into song to describe their innermost feelings (and everyone around stops interacting with them while this happens).

    Rather we just accept that as the artistic form. In the case of the Bible, the writer has a song they want to include, that may have circulated independently, so they just have someone spontaneously sing it at an appropriate moment.

    The closest thing to a literal reading on these passages that makes sense, I think, is that we might accept we’re being enjoined to believe that the song ‘really happened’, but in a mythic past where people occasionally burst spontaneously into song — but they also defeat giants, raise people from the dead, and hold conversations with animals.

    (for a modern analogue, Tolkien sometimes has his characters spontaneously sing. I don’t think he gave a second thought as to whether or not this was ‘realistic’, and it’s hard to see any sense in criticising him for this)

    However, you sound sceptical about the possibility of spontaneous singing. Certainly it’s difficult to believe a large group could spontaneously sing a new song, but with individuals, It is certainly possible for this to happen. You must have seen Who’s Line is it Anyway? or similar improv shows, where people do come up with spontaneous songs? I don’t know I’ve ever seen one where they all sing in unison together, but that doesn’t seem impossible. They certainly sometimes speak in unison (admittedly slowly and confusedly), and sing ‘madrigals’ or take a verse each. So it’s possible for small groups to sing spontaneous songs too.

    One could even imagine a large crowd at least doing a call-and-response thing with new material (like those chants you see in movies where the soldiers are all jogging along chanting whatever the sergeant-major or whoever he is has just chanted).

    I went to a talk given by an anthropologist (ethnomusicologist by training, as it happens) recently where he spoke about a society he researches, on an offshore island in Papua New Guinea. Dreams are quite important in this society, and they apparently sing these dreams, as in “I had a dream about you last night, and it went like this (*bursts into song*)”. So spontaneous singing does take place in other societies.

    ( He has just recently been inducted as a ‘sorcerer’ (‘what I did in my holidays: I became a sorcerer’), which apparently gives him greater control over his dreams. They expect this will help him write academic papers… )

    Hence it’s not at all impossible for spontaneous song to happen, and one way this might work is that the spontaneous song will be constructed out of stock phrases and stock tunes or tune-fragments or chord processions, or bits and pieces the singer has pre-composed. I’m pretty sure this sort of thing is already understood to be the case even in the case of epic poetry in oral societies, and in improvised rap and other such things (and I know it to be the case with auctioneers and race commentators).

    So maybe the Bible is recording things that actually happened, or at least the sort of thing that actually happened. However, given that “I’ve got this song and I want to insert it somewhere” is already an adequate explanation that involves fewer assumptions, I think that’s more probable.

    • Thank you so much for this very helpful comment. I think the Tolkien analogy is particularly helpful – although since Tolkien was influenced by the Bible and other ancient epics, I probably ought to do some more comparative research on ancient literature featuring spontaneous singing, as potential closer analogues.

      And I am particularly excited by the prospect that, if I decide to write an academic article on the subject, it might come about with less effort if I cultivate the practice of spontaneously singing myself…

      • arcseconds

        I think what their understanding is that one uses dreams as inspiration for songs, and that the anthropologist writes books and articles rather than sings, so now he’s a shaman and has greater control over his dreams, he can use that to power his writing!

        So I’m afraid you’re going to have to become a shaman to get that going for you… (and the ordeal is a bit of an, um, ordeal: eat a whole bunch of psychoactive substances, then don’t eat or drink for five days (in 80% humidity))

        • So grad students are basically shamans – they don’t eat or drink for days, in humid student accommodation with no air conditioning, except for the psychoactive substance known as coffee?

          • arcseconds

            When I was a grad student, there were posters on the bus saying “does someone you know started exhibiting any of the following? Social withdrawal, lack of interest in earlier hobbies, strange patterns of thought and speech, obsession… then they may have psychosis” and I thought “or are trying to complete their thesis.”

            Given that there’s a well-known connection between being a shaman and what we would call mental illness but shamanistic societies would think of as spirit possession or something similar, there do indeed seem to be similarities between shamans and grad students…

          • Now all we need to figure out is whether we can turn this into a meme, without treating serious issues of mental illness in an inappropriately frivolous manner.

          • arcseconds

            As far as the comparison of thesis completion and mental illness goes, having known several people to struggle with completing their thesis, sometimes to the point that it’s been a serious negative impact on their life, that comparison could be seen as highlighting the serious issue of thesis study, as opposed to making light of mental illness, although of course this would be difficult to get across in a meme, especially if it also involves shamanism…