I’ve thought quite a lot about this topic over the years. As with many musicians, playing in church was among my first experiences in public performance and was a vital part of my development as a musician. As a young man, when asked to provide a musical number I would usually play a classical piece I was working on at the time. Anything calm was appropriate as far as I was concerned. Once I played Debussy’s Claire de Lune in a sacrament meeting and afterward a sister confided that while it was lovely, she associated that piece with romance – it didn’t prompt spiritual feelings at all: quite the opposite. I was shocked and perturbed at the time, but now in my fifties I don’t think I would play that piece in a Sacrament meeting. Maybe. It’s a grey area for me. But the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, definitely appropriate. I find that brings very calm, spiritual feelings to me. I feel uplifted after playing it. But that’s me.
In many ways it really is a subjective, personal judgement, as with all such expressions of culture. To me, culture is the shared understanding of meaning in human societies. Activities and objects gain significance and meaning beyond their intrinsic attributes through association and tradition taught in various, often ineffable ways. A professor of mine once illustrated cultural sensitivity this way: he picked up an old paperback and ripped a page out of it; then he said, “Here’s an old Bible”, and held it up the same way, grasping a page, and asked if he should rip it out. Interestingly, some students said, “Go ahead; it’s just paper”, while others objected strongly, because that paper represented things that were held sacred by many. Even if it wasn’t sacred to you, publicly ripping it would cause real insult and injury to others in your society.
Culture is how we effectively relate with each other and share our human experience. While meaning may not be intrinsic to an object or activity, the shared meaning makes it no less important to us. Yes, it’s only hair or clothes, but you’re communicating values and attitudes to others in your cultural community by what you wear and how you groom yourself. When it comes to music, I’m skeptical of claims of mystical, innate properties. It’s often said music is the universal language, but what makes us in European cultures feel melancholy or joy or horror or spirituality elicit very different reactions from people in other cultures. I grant that aspects of rhythm can have visceral effects, and perhaps the acoustic relationships of frequencies of a major triad can be argued to be intrinsically harmonious, and perhaps that the symmetries, repetition and logic of musical forms may be intrinsically pleasing to our pattern-loving human brains. But much – perhaps most – of the meaning we experience in music is learned. Just like language and clothing fashion, we are surrounded by music from our birth and come to associate certain emotions with certain musical expressions and certain sub-cultures with certain musical styles.
Even within our broader culture, there can be wide variation in musical association. I remember hearing that early rock-n-rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles were harshly criticized for taking gospel music and putting worldly lyrics to it. Music I associate with light-minded secular fun, others associate with praising Jesus. On that topic, Gladys Knight is quoted as saying, “[Mormon] culture has been so European for so long, the music reflects it, the way Mormons react to things is very reserved. African Americans need fire in our bones—music that puts us on our feet or on our knees. To transform to the European way is one of the greatest obstacles to coming to this church.”
This is a challenge for a world-wide church. Do we allow saints in other cultures to express reverence and spirituality in their own way, or do we impose our European cultural sensibilities on them? The hymnbook – mandated in all church services, and infused as it is with a 19th century European church music aesthetic [the aesthetic in which I was nurtured and which I love, by the way] – is certainly a strong step in that direction. And maybe that’s a good thing if traditional forms of music are too strongly associated with incorrect doctrine or practices. As a bishopric member I once had to argue this point with a member who was an accomplished western music singer and wanted to share in Sacrament meeting her very heartfelt, and (to her) worshipful, reverent music. She was very sincere and I found it a challenge to effectively argue against her strumming a western-style gospel song in church, because as a musician I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically inappropriate about it. But culturally, that’s another story. And while it’s hard to explain, culture matters.