When the music swells…

I recently encountered two examples where an increase in volume of music portends something important is happening:

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-In watching The Truman Show for the umpteenth time, I noticed at one point director Cristof points to the live pianist to increase the music. The musician obliges and the melancholy music swells. (Bonus: you can see composer Phillip Glass playing piano in this scene as Truman sleeps.)

-In a chapel service, the organist played a quiet piece underneath a prayer, but as soon as the prayer ended, the volume and activity increased as the congregation moved to singing together.

This musical signaling is common in live events, religious services, television and film, and elsewhere. When the music increases in volume and/or activity, something important is happening. It is a cue to the events unfolding in front of the participant or the viewer.

Is it emotional manipulation? Can we be pushed in directions we may not even be aware of just by the musical vibrations around us? Perhaps. Yet, humans have done this for centuries and millennium as music has a long and rich history not just as an individual activity but a collective tissue and performance where tone, volume, timbre, and more contribute to life together.

The consequences of losing the physical dimensions of religious and spiritual rituals

A psychologist encouraging people to adopt religious rituals – though not necessarily the religion associated with them – highlights the physical dimension of these rituals:

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One thing that does worry me is a move toward doing these things online. We had to do it remotely because of covid-19. But these rituals are designed to happen and work best in the presence of other individuals. When we’re together, our heart rate synchronizes our breath. These mechanisms are leveraging our minds and bodies. Why do people kneel in church? There’s research showing that if you show people information on a screen above them, they place more emphasis and believe more on the higher screen because they’re looking up at it. Physiologically, we interpret something higher verticality as more authoritative. If you’re sitting on your computer or watching on your phone, I worry that we’re going to lose a lot of the power and majesty of certain rituals because we’re doing them remotely. That’s not how they were designed to work.

It is hard to overstate the communal factor of physical rituals. As sociologist Randall Collins describes in Interaction Ritual Chains, the bodily presence of others enhances the individual and collective experience.

This train of thought is also part of the reason sociologist Robert Brenneman and I wrote Building Faith. A recent trend is that people interested in religion or spirituality do it on their own and in secular settings. But, this is not what numerous religious traditions have highlighted for thousands of years. They have buildings that are intended to enhance the experience of the transcendent as well as enhance fellowship among believers. They may structure this space in different ways – whether to emphasize the preached Word, music, prayer, viewing other attendees, etc. – but they generally agree that buildings shape religious faith. Move those beliefs and practices to other spaces or to no spaces and it is something different.

Could people eventually have a faith or set of spiritual beliefs and practices and no common rituals whatsoever? Remove the physical structures and a group of people around them doing something similar and it is easier to imagine.

Rituals to mimic the valuable aspects of a commute (without the actual travel time)

COVID-19 has disrupted the work patterns of many and this included the commute to and from work. Even as some relished the opportunity to work from home and avoid the time and hassle of a commute, the pattern could offer some advantages. Enter in alternative rituals to mark the beginning and end of a work day:

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I sought the advice of Ezra Bookman, a corporate-ritual designer (yes, this is a real job) based in Brooklyn. His work includes coming up with ideas like “funerals” for failed projects. “Every single conversation I have with corporate clients is the same,” he told me: “Employees are burnt out and have no separation between home and life.”

Naturally, he has come up with some rituals to replace the commute and mark the beginning and end of each day. The ideas he’s proposed to clients include lighting variations, warm-up stretches, cellphone-free walks, and, as he demonstrated to me over Zoom, shrouding your computer in a fine blue cloth when you log off, as if it, too, needs a good night’s sleep.

“Rituals are friction,” he told me. Like the commute, “they slow us down. They’re so antithetical to most of our life, which is all about efficiency and speed.” One ritual that worked for Bookman was changing his laptop password to “DeepBreath”: “It helps me to locate myself in time and say, ‘Okay, what am I here to do?’ ”

Iqbal, the Microsoft researcher, said that this was the same idea behind a “virtual commute” that her company has just released. An onscreen tap on the shoulder—“Ready to leave for the day?”—signals that it’s time to knock off. The shutdown sequence has you bookmark what you were working on. It invites you to “take a minute to breathe and reset,” in sync, if you like, with a calming meditation video. Because work is done.

The stark physical distance in the modern world between work and home is one that is relatively unusual in human history. In communities prior to the 1800s, many workers lived and worked in close proximity, often on the same property or land. The availability of new transportation options plus burgeoning populations and industries separated the two such that the physical distance between home and work increased.

These rituals hint at these physical distances while emphasizing the broader dimensions of not living and working in the same place. Humans fall into and often enjoy routines/rituals. Even if they are stressful – and commuting can be both in the moment and long-term – they can become needed.

At the same time, how exactly does replacing one ritual with another work? Here the issue is work and home life, trying to recreate patterns that allow for decompression and shifting focus. Yet, the new ritual is quite different: it does not involve the body in the same way – less motion, more emphasis on breathing – and happens at a different speed – commuting involves the possibility of higher speeds via car, train, and other means.

Does this always work? I am thinking of T. M. Luhrmann’s book on religious kindling which involves a lot of discussion of rituals. Replace a religious ritual with an action that tries to invoke something similar – say mindfulness – and does it replace the previous ritual or is it deficient or even better? How much time does it take to adjust from one important rituals or set of rituals to another?

Add technology to this mix – which could help pattern and establish new rituals as well disrupt old patterns such as making work possible at all hours and in all places – and lots of rituals may need reinforcing or replacing.

Not hearing the same 20 Christmas songs over and over in public spaces this year

Part of the collective effervescence of Christmas activities involving other people is the music. If people are out shopping, eating, looking at lights, watching festivals and tree lighting and other Christmas and winter activities, they are likely to hear Christmas music. The sounds are unmistakable and are a key part of the holiday season.

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At the same time, many of these locations play the same songs – and even the same versions – of Christmas songs over and over again! How many times have you been shopping and heard “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “All I Want for Christmas is You”? Or heard the same songs on the radio? Or on TV or in movies?

Why this happens makes some sense. Many of these Christmas favorites come from an era, the 1930s to the 1950s, that induces nostalgia. Music helps bond people together. The familiar can be comforting. When people think of Christmas, the music is part of it. The ritualistic nature of the holiday where patterns repeat year after year is part of the appeal of Christmas and rituals.

As sociologists argue there is “civil religion” in the United States, perhaps these popular songs reflect what we might call “civil Christmas.” The songs are generally about good cheer, parties, happy characters like Santa and Rudolph, getting together. The songs played in more public settings tend not to refer to the religious nature of Christmas but rather elements of the holidays that could appeal to many. The songs are about a lengthy celebration…and who is opposed to at least a month of cheery music and festivities right around the darkest days of the year?

Perhaps the Christmas public music canon will expand in the future. New songs might be added here and there while others let go (see the debate over “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in recent years). There is no shortage of songs to choose from or artists and styles for familiar songs. (I say this after working for years at Wheaton College Radio where we featured over 2,000 songs in our 24-hours-a-day Christmas music rotation. Listen to a reconstituted live stream of WETN Soundtrack for Christmas.) Regardless of whether the music stays the same or we all retreat to our headphones for our personal Christmas playlists, the music will continue to matter as we prepare for and celebrate Christmas.