On a January night in 1536 in Vienna, the schoolteacher Jeronimus Käls and two friends were arrested in a pub after refusing to join in a drinking game. Their refusal had raised the suspicion that they were Anabaptists, part of the radical wing of the Reformation; by imperial mandate, Anabaptism was a capital crime. “Praise be to God, we are indeed the right men!” Jeronimus told the officers who arrived two hours later to take them away.
Jeronimus and his friends spent the next three months in prison, where a team of judges and clergy interrogated them about their beliefs, including nonviolence and community of goods. A sympathetic judge appealed to Jeronimus to recant, urging him to remember his wife and children. When that effort failed, the three men were subjected to repeated torture and kept in separate cells to prevent them from speaking with each other. But they found a way to evade their jailers’ restrictions: they sang.
“I rejoice with all my heart to hear you sing in the Lord, especially you, my dear brother Michael, when you sing evening songs,” Jeronimus wrote to his fellow prisoners, in a letter he somehow persuaded a guard to pass to them. “I can understand almost every word if you are sitting right by the window and I listen carefully. … I love hearing each one of you, for I rejoice when I hear the Jerusalem song being sung, dear brothers. The very fact that it hurts Satan so much is a sure sign that it is pleasing to God; for they think they have prevented us from talking and comforting one another. So let us shout until we are hoarse!”
When he wasn’t singing, Jeronimus composed songs himself. He managed to send one of his songs back home to his wife, Traindel, to share with their children. It was a nine-stanza acrostic of his name Jeronimus, declaring his joy at the privilege of suffering alongside Christ.
Songs like these formed the social media network of the Radical Reformation, whose underground leaders wrote relatively little in the way of systematic theology. What held the movement together, despite arrests, informants, and thousands of executions, was their culture of singing: hymns, versified Bible stories, and ballads of the heroes of the faith.
Such Anabaptist songs were just one stream in a massive musical outpouring in sixteenth-century Europe. Martin Luther pioneered singing as an instrument of social and religious change, using chorales and hymns for the common man and woman to accompany and propel his Reformation. Soon Catholic, Anglican, and radical reformers were offering their own musical innovations and revivals. As millions turned to faith with new fervor, they created a participatory culture of music-making that, though it evolved and secularized, has endured in various forms for five centuries.
In many places today, the culture of singing inherited from the Reformation remains robust, despite pressure from the commercial music industry. In the United States, group singing remains the most popular arts activity, and the number of people of varied ages and backgrounds who participate in community choirs is growing. While it’s true that the number of church choirs has dipped as more congregations embrace band-driven worship music, the more remarkable fact is that almost half of the nation’s 380,000 churches do boast a choir.
Or they did until the Covid pandemic hit. In spring 2020, church and community choirs shut down, concert halls went dark, and congregational singing became potentially dangerous to oneself or one’s neighbor. It was as if all the pre-pandemic nightmares of music educators, churchgoers, cantors, and performing artists had suddenly come true. Under lockdown, we glimpsed what a world without communal music-making was like.
To underscore the loss, research showing the benefits of communal music has been steadily piling up. One study, for example, shows the power of group singing in building social relationships – no small thing when almost half of Americans say they are lonely. Another documents how group singing helps children develop their brains, emotions, and lungs. For adults, it is apparently as effective as light exercise in providing a sense of well-being, plus it’s therapeutic for those with dementia and Parkinson’s. As a 2020 Nature article summarizes:
A growing body of evidence points to a wide range of benefits arising from participation in group singing. … Group singing might be taken – both literally and figuratively – as a potent form of “healthy public,” creating an “ideal” community, which participants can subsequently mobilize as a positive resource for everyday life.
Well, yes, as Plato knew long before the social scientists arrived. As he wrote in the Republic: “Training in music is most important, because rhythm and harmony permeate the innermost element of the soul, and affect it more powerfully than anything else.” Music has a power of direct access to our emotional life; it gives us the ability to communicate with others in a way that goes beyond what we can conceptualize or verbalize. This is why, according to Plato, virtuous music is vital for building a virtuous community.
This intuition is widely shared across cultures. The Confucian “Record of Music,” a text included in the Li Ji (Book of Rites) that may be contemporary with Plato, similarly links well-ordered music to a well-ordered society:
Let music attain its full results, and there would be no discontent. … Violent oppression of the people would not arise; the princes would appear submissively at court as guests; there would be no occasion for the weapons of war, and no employment of the five punishments; the common people would have no distresses, and the son of Heaven no need to be angry – such a state of things would be a universal music.
Jewish and Christian traditions take the same insight even further: communal music serves to shape and build up the people of God. The Hebrew scriptures call dozens of times on the congregation of Israel to “sing to the Lord,” with the Psalms playing a central role in Jewish liturgy to this day. The New Testament letters to the early churches repeat the same command: “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Col. 3:16).
To the early Christian writers, singing – along with the act of gathering, the breaking of bread, the common prayer, the laying on of hands, and the fraternal greeting – is a physical action that helps establish the fellowship of believers. In singing together, individuals who may be neither kin nor kind are welded together as one body.
This insight turns out to be true quite practically. I grew up, and still live, in a culture where communal singing feels natural. One of the side effects of being raised in a Bruderhof community is that by one’s twenties, one can sing a couple of thousand songs by heart – folk songs, spirituals, hymns, carols, oldies, protest songs, and chunks of the big oratorios by Handel, Bach, or Mendelssohn. This memorization occurs whether one likes the songs or not, through repetition. As an Anabaptist church, we don’t have a lectionary, prayer book, or much of a liturgy. But when we meet, which we generally do daily, we sing.
Yet singing isn’t just a filler for awkward silences when no one has anything worthwhile to say (useful as that sometimes is). Far from being accidental, it is a communal habit that was cultivated by preceding generations, for reasons Plato would likely recognize. Consider the songbook I have from my grandmother, copied out on cheap paper in the 1940s, when she and her community were pioneering in Paraguay as refugees from the Third Reich. Hand-bound and rain-damaged, the book contains songs for every occasion: for the seasons and for stormy and sunny weather, work songs, fun songs, birthday songs, songs about Jesus, songs about Mary, prayers, lullabies, and songs to sing when someone dies, as two of her nine babies did.
She, like many Bruderhof women of her generation, wrote out her copy of the community song collection during moments snatched from chores during her weeks of maternity leave. At times, the ink color changes partway down a page, perhaps when she was interrupted by a baby’s cries.
These are the songs she sang to her children, my mother sang to us, and we sang to (and still sing with) our kids. The books my grandmother and other mothers of those early years created are evidence that the gift of communal singing didn’t come automatically. They’re the basis of the printed songbooks the community still uses today.
One of the songs inherited from my grandmother’s generation is a light-hearted setting of a rhyming German proverb: “Where people sing, you can happily relax – evil people have no songs.” It has a catchy tune, and the proverb sounds true: if people are making music, that’s got to be good. But the proverb is false, as people who had fled their homeland to escape song-singing Nazis surely knew.
Plato knew it too. The fact that music is so powerful in shaping our souls, he believed, is precisely what makes bad music so dangerous. Bad music feeds vices such as sloth, drunkenness, degeneracy, or cowardice. Plato linked it with particular rhythms and harmonies, which he proposed banning. In fact, the only music he wanted to allow would promote either martial courage or temperance and proper worship.
Luther, the great musician of the Reformation, agreed with Plato, at least on the general principle. One of his motives for composing his glorious hymns was to supplant the “bad music” of his day – secular folk songs and the courtly romances of the Meistersinger, which he thought fed sensuality. To that end, his “cantica nova” frequently stole the popular melodies of the “old songs” he sought to drive into extinction.
It’s fun, and a little too easy, to mock would-be censors of bad music. After all, condemning whole genres usually proves to be folly. We can’t judge the vanished Mixolydian melodies that Plato wanted to ban, but we can still listen to the Renaissance love songs that Luther frowned on. They are lovely – some are in my grandmother’s songbook. More recent moral campaigns against pop or punk or rap may look no better with hindsight.
And yet Plato and Luther weren’t entirely wrong. There is music that is bad for us. If music can shape our souls and our communities, then it matters where we bestow this power.
So how can we choose good music and avoid the bad? This is a thorny topic, but let’s recklessly sketch out three practical rules. First, some music is bad for obvious reasons – it is, for example, debasing or narcissistic or death-obsessed. Here Plato’s insight holds: people should not feed their minds with “symbols of evil, as it were in a pasturage of poisonous herbs, lest, grazing freely and cropping from many such day by day, they little by little and all unawares accumulate and build up a huge mass of evil in their own souls.” We must beware becoming what we eat.
Then there’s a badness that can lurk in Christian music. It comes from mistaking our aesthetic feelings for an experience of the holy – thinking one is experiencing God when in fact one is experiencing oneself. Obviously church music has always sought to dispose the emotions to prayer. But religious expressions should not be used lightly, especially in worship. The most sacred song can become spiritually dangerous if sung for artificial effect, as a replacement for the presence of the Spirit who originally inspired it. That’s why religious music isn’t necessarily better for us than profane music, and may at times be worse.
A third hazard is uniquely modern, and stems not from the music itself but rather from how we interact with it. It’s a result of the sheer ubiquity of music now available for consumption – its presence as a near-constant soundtrack to our daily lives, thanks to AirPods and Bluetooth and Spotify.
“Every age,” C. S. Lewis writes, “is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” In his time, Plato feared music’s ability to produce excessive or decadent emotions. Our age may be prone to the opposite: the vice of apathy. To borrow the words of Roger Scruton, we hear the music but we don’t listen to it. Digital music on tap is a temptation to chronic distraction of the soul, to a spiritual habit of superficiality and non-attention.
Fortunately, the remedy to this last danger is straightforward, though it takes effort: spend less time consuming prepackaged tunes and more time making music. This will be doubly rewarding if music-making is a communal enterprise – singing with one’s family, singing in church, playing in a string quartet, starting a regular jam session. Personal media players tend to cut us off from the physical presence of others. But sharing in good music together breaks the spell of isolation and disembodiment. It builds friendship and community. It may create a legacy that outlasts us.
When Jeronimus Käls sent his wife his acrostic song from prison, he accompanied it with a farewell letter. “My own dear wife, my most beloved Traindel,” he wrote,
I am sending you a Christian song, which I sang with a sincere heart in my prison through God’s spirit. May the Lord teach you, too, to sing it to his praise and glory. …
I thank God for you; I thank my heavenly Father who in his grace gave you to me and united us through his faithful servants. Now I have given you back to him, my chosen gift from God, and with all my heart commend you to the Lord’s keeping, along with the children whom he in his grace gave us both. …
Where I have wronged you, forgive me for Christ’s sake. … Greet my dear brother Leonhard Sailer from me and ask him to teach you the tune; sing it for my sake.
Shortly afterward, Jeronimus died together with his two friends – “burned to ashes in Vienna on the Friday before Passion Sunday,” as the Hutterite Chronicle records.
Traindel Käls must have learned his song, and taught it to her children and to others. Twenty-two years later and six hundred miles away, another Anabaptist, Hans Schmidt, sang it as he was led through the streets of Aachen on the way to his own execution.
Jeronimus’ song survived almost five centuries among the descendants of the Anabaptist community to which he belonged. It forms part of the Hutterite songbook that my wife grew up singing from with her family in South Dakota. Today it still teaches new generations the joy of costly discipleship for which its composer lived and died.
The Romantics thought that music can enable us to commune directly with the Absolute – with God. Music can’t do that, at least not on its own. But as the story of Jeronimus and his song shows, music does have a power that points to eternal things. It can equip us to face our own mortality with cheerful bravery. And it can draw us into a community in which the living share in the same song as those who have gone before and those yet to be born. That’s reason enough to make music.