The Physics of Congregational Singing, Or Why I Go To Church

When I was a kid, especially in middle school, I used to love to sing. To myself. All the time. It was in junior high that my depression first manifested, tied with fears of inadequacy and failure – but the act of singing lifted my spirits, momentarily melting away whatever cares I had. Even when I graduated to high school, I still loved to sing. Until one day my mother said to me, “You have such an awful voice. I don't know why your voice is so hard to listen to; your father and I both have good voices.”

It didn't happen immediately, but over time I sang less and less, becoming more and more self-conscious about it, and eventually stopped. The things I struggle with – perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish – these are things that I know many of us struggle with to varying extents. And sometimes, unfortunately, these fears cause us to give up things that we actually enjoy doing.

For years, I avoided singing at all except for the obligatory “Happy Birthday”, and even then I'd mumble along hoping others would pick up my slack. Better to not sing than to ruin the sound with my awful voice.

I stopped singing until the Fall of 2003. That's when I first stepped in to All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC and was so moved that I immediately committed to becoming a UU.

At first the hymns were painful. It'd been so long since I'd sung, and as y'all probably know, like everything else singing is a skill that requires practice. The less you do it, the worse you are at it. I could hear my weak voice wavering. I could feel as I ran out of breath before the end of a note. But something about doing this painful, potentially embarrassing thing in the context of a UU church made me want to persevere.

See, I had bought in – heart and soul – into the vision of the Beloved Community that All Souls preaches, the vision that Unitarian Universalism preaches, that UUSF preaches – come, with all your imperfections, your weaknesses, and still be embraced into community. The only thing that we ask in return is that you commit to creating this community with us.

So I sang, without fear of judgment, and without judging others. And lo and behold, together the congregation actually sounded pretty good. The All Souls Choir even recorded a CD that included the entire congregation on a couple of tracts.

There's a scientific explanation for why untrained people singing as a group sound better than untrained individuals. In physics, when two sound waves vibrate in the air at the same time they get "added" together. The parts of the two waves that are in sync with one another get amplified and the parts of the two waves that are out of sync get canceled out. (As an aside, that latter part is how noise canceling headphones work.) If instead of only two sound waves, we have multiple waves, the same thing happens to an even greater extent. When a person sings, especially an untrained person, there are usually fluctuations in the pitch. But with a whole group of people singing together, all our fluctuations happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas the good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. The over all effect is that weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I think that is a good metaphor for a congregation in general, not just while singing hymns.

Some of my unchurched, “free-range” friends sometimes ask me about my involvement with a congregation. “Why do you bother going to church?” It's a legitimate question. After all, I can hold the same UU values by myself, and be able to sleep in on Sundays, and not have all those committee meetings....

I go to church because it's in church that we actually get to practice living those values, knowing that we'll make mistakes. If there is any place in which it is safe to make mistakes, then church is it. (Or at least it should be.)

In community, all our fluctuations – our momentary lapses and bad days - happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas our good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. Weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I go to church because we have the potential to be better together than apart.

Comments

Thanks for this very well-written piece which reflects much of my own experience and motivations for full church engagement- including singing in the church choir!

Hi Dan, namaste.   I am *so sorry* to take months to respond to your kind comment.  I rarely blog and do not expect comments, but will endeavor to be more mindful of checking in the future.  Thank you.  Kat

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