A View of Liturgical Music from “Downstairs”

A few months ago, a fascinating article was shared via npr.org on Facebook entitled, “When Choirs Sing, Many Hearts Beat as One.” It was an interesting research study done at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden on the heart rates of high school students as they sang together in a choir. The study findings confirmed that choir music has a calming effect on the heart.

In one of the responses, Frederica Matthewes-Green commented, “When people sing together, their heartbeats slow down and synchronize almost immediately. It's obvious, but I never thought about it: singing is a form of guided breathing; we inhale and exhale together, and on the long exhales the heartbeats slow down, become calmer.”

For my husband and me, who grew up in the Evangelical Covenant Church, music was a big part of the service. We always sang in congregational settings and unconsciously experienced this phenomenon in the hymns we sang. We are still experiencing this effect, having now attended services in the Orthodox Church for the past 20 years, but it wasn’t always that way.

While my husband converted almost immediately after we began attending Orthodox services, I am still not Orthodox. I mention this because I can nonetheless participate in the liturgy, as it naturally draws one in through singing. I remember thinking, during the first service we attended, ‘this must be what angels sound like in heaven!’ We quickly learned that nearly everything is sung: by the clergy, or choir, or the chanter and, as we became more familiar with the divine liturgy, my husband – being caught up in the service – just started singing along too! It felt right and I joined him.

At the time I'm sure many people looked at us wondering what we were doing. It’s true, in the early days of attending services at our parish, I almost never noticed anyone else in the congregation “downstairs” singing. In fact, I more often heard them complaining about the length of the service. I was seeing ‘spectators’ with what looked like a lack of interest. My initial thought was, ‘don’t you know how beautiful, deep, and meaningful these words are? If only you knew what you have here, that you won’t find elsewhere… ‘

The services made it very easy for me to become comfortable singing with the choir while standing downstairs – offering my voice in response to the petitions. Eventually it became my own “music ministry” to make it comfortable for others to join in as well. While it’s not a one-to-one causal relationship, I’m happy to say that today it’s more common for a goodly percentage of the congregation to sing along. Maybe all they needed was someone bold enough to dare do it first, because it’s pretty easy to know where we can add our voices.

In my estimation, it's hard to stay focused without participating. And now we have evidence that there’s also a health benefit to singing. I believe Frederica Matthewes-Green is on to something when reflecting on the tradition of the early church – people were encouraged to participate in various ways, because “the prayers are the prayers of *everybody*.” These hymns become embedded in our memory, which can only be a good thing. They become our prayers to God.

So, go on. If you’re “downstairs”, follow the lead of the choir and sing. Whether you have a large choir in a cathedral, or a makeshift choir in a small mission, let the music fill you. Because you’re not singing for the person near you, you’re singing to God!

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