When Song Breaks Forth

Posted by David
Jan Miense Molenaer (ca. 1610-1668), Young musicians and a dwarf

Jan Miense Molenaer (ca. 1610-1668), Young musicians and a dwarf

I have this notion—whether it is true or not I cannot know—that humans beings sang before we spoke. It may be that I like the idea, so I hope it to be true. It may be that my experience with spoken language makes me desire something more from language.  

Language has been a positive characteristic of my humanity when it was simply about relating to others. In those times when I used my words in context with others for good, it was like touch, like a warming fire or like a satisfying meal. But language has also been a means of pain in my life. I’ve used simple words to hurt others. Haphazardly, I’ve spread gossip’s life-eating fire. I have fought with words, scarring myself and others. Too often in my life this has been the purpose of language.

But on the other hand, song and singing is so elementary, so fundamental that it is more difficult to be corrupted. You can’t make a A minor chord sound like a C major. If A minor notes come out, you’re going to get a solemn feel. The intended feeling within a made-up tune is difficult to disguise. Singing speaks from the heart, especially singing without words. Our personal tunes tell our personal stories that reside in the deepest places.

Why do we have such a range of notes in our vocal chords? Did those evolve for speech or did they develop for our voice of song? I expect the latter. I also expect that human words and spoken languages emerged simultaneously with other forms of human disguise. Like our clothes, words can hide our naked reality, our humility, our strengths and weaknesses. For out of our song we cannot disguise our heart’s story, but with words, we can cloak our heart’s story with various meanings—some true and some false. There was a time in our history when spoken words began to hide the truth of our heart. This is probably why our languages are not sing-songy. Our words have only slight ups and down. For the most part they are monotonal. With monotonal speech we are less likely to give away something that we’re hiding.

The beginning of language was also probably the beginning of History. At that point we could tell stories. Our words could be packed with meanings both true and false.  Our stories could travel through time embedded in language itself. History, once initiated, took to life and we now see it written on our faces, in our stories, and in the landscape itself.  But with that new beginning something else died to make it happen: the free life of the human heart was crushed.  This what happen to us after what the Bible calls the Fall.

History now cloaks the truth. It hides our roots. It covers over what we are intended to be just like words are able to conceal the human heart. But there will be the day when History dies completely and what will break forth will be the most beautiful song you have ever heard.

Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. 

Zephaniah 3:14


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