April 7, 2017

Old Notes and New Songs (Psalms part 3)

As discussed in the previous post, modern translations of the Bible preserve only the words of the book of Psalms. The inevitable question which then arises is: "If the Psalms are supposed to be music, why is there no musical notation in the Bible?" 

Good question.  Some of the answers might surprise you.

For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew Masoretic Text actually contain symbols called "cantillation signs" which have been used since ancient times to record music in written form. Sadly, the knowledge of how to correctly read those symbols in order to know what the music sounds like has been lost. But as we know, God is an expert at finding that which was lost! Musicologist Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura (1928–2000) studied these symbols extensively and was very successful in constructing a method to once again bring the music off the page and to our ears.  In particular, Psalm 114 was reconstructed using this method.  The result was a tune recognizable as the "tonus peregrinus," used in the Gregorian Chant of the ancient church. Click HERE to listen to it in English from the King James Bible!

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"OK, that's cool, but if the music was there originally, why is it missing now?"

Another good question.  I would like to offer ONE possible answer...

We are commanded in the Bible to "sing a NEW song" to the lord.  The term "new song" appears nine times in the King James, and six of those are commands! Why is that important?

Because God is a creator. THE Creator, in fact. We know from studying the Bible that God wants us to become more like Him. "Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy." (Leviticus 19:2 and many other similar verses) This being true, it would logically follow that we should imitate God in all the ways we can. Thus, we should be creative, and this includes the realm of music. So when we are told to "sing a NEW song," that means that God really does want us to create new music!

"But... what's wrong with the old songs? Aren't they good enough?"

Writing new songs doesn't mean we should discard our older music - not at all! God didn't discard the earth and the heavens once He moved on to making plants, animals, and people! The creative process is cumulative. Just as God continued to build upon the foundation which He laid in the beginning, we also should continue our acts of creativity with one generation building on the work of the previous generation.

"Alright, fine. But how does this relate to the "disappearance" of musical notation from the Bible?"

Let me answer that question with more questions. Do you like the music your parents listened to? Your grandparents? Do you like the clothes people wore ten years ago? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred? Would you wear an out-of-style hairdo?

The blatant truth of the matter is that humans have short attention spans. We get bored with the same old thing all the time, and as we move on to the new, we often (sadly) abandon the old. Humans just can't sit still! We crave change almost as much oxygen.

But the message of the Bible never changes.

We, as Christians, cannot alter that message, nor should we even consider doing so. However, we do have a duty to communicate the unchanging message of the Gospel in a way that will reach each successive generation and keep all of us - young and old alike - actively engaged in our walk with God.

The messengers come and go, each with their own voice, but the message never dies.

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