Delivering Messages through Music and Poetry

Martin Luther, a German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk and a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, once said, “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul.” Music is often referred to as the language of the soul, used to deliver messages and stories that persist over time, sometimes thousands of years.

Julie Tatlock, assistant professor in history, said that music reaches people on different levels, especially in younger audiences because they are more likely to listen to a song and be inspired by it rather than reading a book or hearing a political speech.

“It can tell us what was important to people,” Tatlock said. “It is really constant that words, poetry and rhythm have been a means to convey messages and, certainly in religion, the Lutheran Reformation people knew it because of hymns.” 

Reverend Michael C. Larson, pastor at Luther Memorial Chapel and University Student Center in Shorewood, said that singing and music are a big part of what they do as a form of worship.  

“We are a liturgical church, meaning that most of our worship is sung,” Larson said. “We use a lot of Gregorian chants, and, as Lutherans, we are known as the singing church. Lutherans are responsible for reviving singing. In the medieval church, most of the singing was in Latin and that many of those people didn’t understand Latin.” 

 Larson said that Martin Luther took a lot of the liturgical forms and music and gave it back to the people. Luther composed hymns that ordinary Christians could sing in their mother language.

“The reformations and the teaching of the Lutheran church largely spread by singing,” Larson said. “People would sing “A Mighty Fortress” or “Salvation” in the fields and in the houses. That’s how, in many ways, the Lutheran church grew and expanded. It was through singing.”

Larson said that when it comes to an academic debate in theology, a lot of folks had a taste for singing, but in general, people sang, whether it was in the fields or in the bath. Singing was something people could take hold of. 

“In a typical service that is an hour-and-a-half long, I would imagine that an hour and 10 minutes of that is spent singing. It’s the vast majority,” Larson said. “We don’t think about it all the time, but the whole service is generally sung. The only time when we are not singing is when I’m reading the scriptures and preaching the sermon, but everything else is sung in response.” 

Larson said that during communion there is a hymn before the service and throughout the service. There are about eight hymns sung on a typical worship day with a liturgical focus. He is reminded by the old saying in the church by St. Augustine, “He who sings, prays twice.”

Other faiths, such as Islam, have a complicated relationship to music. Zulfiqar Ali Shah, an Imam and religious director from the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, said the heated debate about whether music is permitted in the Islam faith depends on the type of music one listens to. 

“Not every type of music is sinful, and not every type of music is permitted,” Shah said. “Islam wants the human to be disciplined and responsible for his or her moral duties. Now, the music that is violent and the music that takes a person away from their senses or makes them high or uses vulgar language is not permitted because it is just like wine and any other thing that causes imbalance and makes the person imbalanced is beyond what is acceptable.” 

As long as the music causes some type of relaxation, or helps the person in a stressful situation, then Shah believes that it is okay to listen to music. 

When Muslims are together on a day of worship, it is called reciting, not music. There is a difference. 

“When Muslims pray, we are supposed to disconnect ourselves from everything other than God,” Shah said. “Because when we come in front of God, God is the priority. For example, when you are talking to someone you love or adore or highly respect and a child comes and distracts you, or if someone calls you on the phone, you can’t focus and instead what you do is you put that person on hold. So in the same fashion, when we talk to God, the goal is to make him the priority.” 

He said that even when the service is finished, anyone doing recitation of the Quran is not permitted, because it will distract and take away from the dialogue of God. That is when music is not permitted – music can take your mind away and take a person to another scenario. However, there is music in prayer, but it has its own construction.

“When someone recites the Quran, the language is giving you the deepest meanings and you are in a personal experience with God,” Shah said. “And then, the construction of the Quran is giving you a musical construction so that it fulfills your need for love, for language, for dialogue and also for the soul of music.” 

Shah said that Islam has a relative beat, which is a type of riddle that is not as strong as most beats, but it gives you an emotional outburst. Islam wants you to focus more on the words and the message. You are not supposed to gain anything from the beat after worship, only the words and message of the prayer so that you can simulate the message into your daily life.  Shahsaid that reciting is actually a highly effective tool to get the message across.

“Reciting pleases your ears and it is easy on your mind and on your brain and it is easy to digest the meaning,” Shah said. “The rhythm that is in the Quran makes it easy for the mind to digest and at the same time, it doesn’t prevent you from understanding the message.” 

Larson said that when you sing something, you internalize it and it becomes a part of you in a way that is superior to normal speech. 

“I noticed that my little daughter, who may have been 2 or 3 years old, before she could even talk. She was singing the Lord’s prayer in the bathtub,” Larson said. “She was singing it like a song. She could barely talk at that point, but there is a sense that music enters our hearts and our souls deeper when something is sung.”

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