James Croft

What is the role of Music in an Ethical Society? What optimally should it be?

The Music of Ethical Culture

What role should music play in Ethical Culture? There is no one answer. As a non-creedal, anti-dogmatic movement, we must be open to many different expressions of our perspective, and that means that the music in our Sunday Platforms might look very different from one Society to the next. Already there is welcome diversity in how different Societies approach music. Some use it to punctuate the experience, placing music at strategic points to separate one part of platform from the next, while others incorporate music more fully throughout the morning. Some Societies embrace group singing, while others avoid it. Some stick generally to one style or genre of music, while others explore many different forms. This diversity is to be celebrated, as far as each Society’s approach to music is an expression of its particular character and of the desires of its members.

This is not to endorse a musical free-for-all, however: in my view, Ethical Societies can incorporate music in their Sunday platforms in whatever way they choose, as long as it is the result of a conscious and thoughtful decision. When we incorporate music into platform, we should know why we are doing it, and why we choose specific pieces and styles of music. Use of music should be intentional, rather than merely a result of unthinking routine.

The result of this thinking may be different on different weeks. Some platforms may demand a surfeit of music, while others might be better with none: it all depends on the needs of a particular platform, and what the Society wishes to achieve. We must remember that platform exists to excite people to ethical improvement and action, and all elements of a Sunday platform–including music–should be directed toward this goal.

In my experience, music best serves Ethical Humanism when it reinforces the message of a platform address, emphasizing the themes and feelings central to the topic of the week. I recall a powerful moment at the Ethical Society of St. Louis when the music perfectly matched the mood. In the Opening Words a member related her struggle to accept that she had a terminal illness and was going to die, and this was followed by two other members singing Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

The sorrowful beauty of the song gave extra emotional weight to the Opening Words, and brought everyone to tears. It was a sublime moment. A platform at another Society, in which my address about the future of Ethical Culture was preceded by a Brahms funeral dirge on the piano, was more ridiculous than sublime. The lesson: the right piece of music can lift an entire program, while the wrong one can deaden or even shatter the mood.

Ideally, then, music should be selected with an ear to how it will move the audience and prepare them to hear the ethical message of the week. This means close collaboration between those choosing the speakers and topics for platform and those tasked with finding or providing music–something which can be difficult, but is definitely not impossible. It means flexibility and a willingness to explore music of different styles, genres, cultural backgrounds, and levels of audience participation. And it means a thorough consideration for the role of a given piece of music in a given platform, to ensure that it aids (rather than hampers) the overall message for the week.

One final consideration: music is one significant way in which we can show our commitment to diversity and the celebration of difference. If we only present music from the western canon, or only music from the classical tradition, we show ourselves to be unwelcoming to other cultures and to people who swim in a different musical milieu. For centuries, music has been used to assert the voices of oppressed people and to uplift marginalized cultures, and we can show solidarity with those on the margins by consciously presenting music from all time periods, all over the world. One of the strengths of our Ethical Culture tradition is that we are not bound to any particular style or time period when it comes to music, and we should harness that strength by making our Societies a welcoming home for music of all types, wherever it comes from and whoever it was created by.


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