“The Soul’s Own Speech”: Why God Gave Us Music in Addition to Prayer
Matthew J. Armstrong
Matthew J. Armstrong was a junior in communications when this was presented.
Music today is most commonly used for entertainment and the heightening of emotions, but it is often forgotten as a way to communicate and enhance our spirituality. Since our infancy, music has been part of our communication and emotional development. The infant-directed speech (IDS) and songs that parents use, though they often seem like gibberish, are what help infants develop necessary muscles for speech and cognitive emotional abilities. “Infant-direct speech and singing create a framework in which adults and babies, despite being very different organisms, can learn about each other and establish the earliest building blocks of communication.” Though communication by infants is limited, both speech and music create an emotional bond that will be a source of comfort for the child and a means to convey love and support for the parent. Similarly, in our relationship with our Father in Heaven, both prayers and sacred hymns create a framework of understanding in which parent and child can communicate love, support, and safety. Although prayer is the main source of our communication with God, verbal expression is limited by our vocabulary; thus music is just as critical to our communication with God.
Knowing Our Father in Heaven
Our relationship with our Heavenly Father is important because the level to which we understand who our Father is not only gives us an awareness of what he desires for us but also instills a desire to bring about his plans. Both ancient and modern scripture stress the importance of coming to know our Father in Heaven. When Christ gave the Intercessory Prayer, he taught that coming to know him and his father was “life eternal” (John 17:3), which he later refers to as the “greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7). Joseph Smith taught that this knowledge is the only way we can properly exercise faith in God: “For faith could not center in a Being of whose existence we had no idea, because the idea of his existence in the first instance is essential to the exercise of faith in him.” We cannot put full trust in a being we do not know or understand. The better we come to know our Father, the more faith we will be able to put into his plans. As a result, our salvation is dependent on how much we can learn about God and put that knowledge into practice.
If we do not understand the basic principles of God’s love or his eternal plan for us, we will not have the ability or the desire to make the necessary changes in this life to return to him. In order to properly come to know him, he has given us numerous tools, one of the most significant being prayer. Prayer gives us a direct line of interaction with our Father in Heaven. It allows us to convey our thoughts at any time. There is sometimes a disconnect, however, between our feelings and the ability to articulate such feelings.
Limits of Language
The words and language we have acquired on this earth are not sufficient to fully explain how we feel. Having taken on the “tabernacle of clay” (Moroni 9:6), our spirits have had to adjust to this new form of telestial communication in which expression is limited by vocabulary. Many studies have been done on the potential limitations of language and have found that there are specific experiences or feelings that cannot be expressed through words alone. Ammon realized this limitation of language as he was trying to describe his feelings of how merciful the Lord had been to him: “Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel” (Alma 26:16). Ammon is unable to articulate how grateful he is to the Lord due to his limited vocabulary. This limitation is one of the reasons music is so important to our worship. With an understanding of this restriction, an unknown poet wrote:
For the common things of everyday,
God gave man speech in a common way.
For higher things men think and feel,
God gave man poets, their words to reveal.
But for heights and depths no soul can reach,
God gave man music, the soul’s own speech.
Music, as the language of the soul, provides means for us, as President Boyd K. Packer put it, to “express [ourselves] . . . beyond the limits of the spoken language in both subtlety and power.” It is a communication set apart from our normal conversations. A closer look into the brain reveals that even though the vocalizations come from the same mouth, music and speech are two very different processes. “The possibility to combine text and music in singing must not obscure the fact that a song is not a verbalization of music, but rather the integration of two very different types of representation, which do not only rely on different aspects of the signal, but—more importantly—link it to quite different mental domains.” These separate domains are what create the possibility of aphasia, a condition in which a person is unable to talk but still able to sing, or vice versa, due to a stroke or other accident. That strong separation is the key to a whole new parameter of communication and feeling, allowing us to convey feelings that otherwise could not be expressed.
Music Clarifies and Amplifies Worship
Throughout the scriptures we are told to praise and worship the Lord, and music has always been in place to assist in that worship by clarifying our thoughts and feelings. “Sacred music has a unique capacity to communicate our feelings of love for the Lord. This kind of communication is a wonderful aid to our worship. Many have difficulty expressing worshipful feelings in words, but all can join in communicating such feelings through the inspired words of our hymns.” The feelings of love and devotion are some of the deepest-reaching emotions of our soul, and are thus the most difficult to articulate. Joining in an inspired hymn not only gives specific words to the singer but also provides the right atmosphere for the singer to achieve a meditative state through pitch, tempo, and harmony.
The Spirit not only helps us articulate certain feelings that we want to convey, but through music he also steps in when we might not know what to communicate. I have seen this in many instances in my own life. In personal moments of struggle when I couldn’t find the words to ask for help, sacred hymns have given me an opportunity to still communicate with my Father. The Apostle Paul taught the Romans, “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). Though we may simply be singing the words of a hymn without knowing fully what we are asking, the Spirit is able to convey much more than our words alone. His intercession carries our soul’s own speech to the Lord in a language which cannot be uttered.
The sanctity of music also permits the presence of the Holy Ghost to amplify the song of the righteous. Because “angels speak [and sing] by the power of the Holy Ghost,” they also can join in that song (2 Nephi 32:3). To be able to hear the choirs that join in the worship, we must do our best to cultivate a listening ear. Elder DeWitt, a young missionary in the 1950s, tells of an experience he had of this blessing as he toured his mission with Elder Henry D. Moyle of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Moyle invited Elder DeWitt to tour the mission and play the violin: “[Elder Moyle] explained that his wife was too timid to speak, but loved to participate by contributing musically in the conference, and accompanying me on the violin would make it appropriate for her.” During a meeting in St. Louis, while he was on his way to the stand to bear his testimony, Elder Moyle asked him, “Elder DeWitt, will you please bear your testimony on the violin?” Elder DeWitt wrote:
This startled me and I wondered at first what he meant. Then the thought came clear to me—Yes, this is what you actually do when you play from your heart. . . . While I was puzzling in my mind what to play (alone without accompaniment—for there was no piano there), Brother Moyle suggested that I play “Oh, My Father.” He said he would like to hold the hymn book for me to play from. . . . The Holy Ghost came to me and filled my whole being with the most heavenly influence. I began to play and I never heard such sounds come from my violin. Tears of joy began to roll down my cheeks. I also saw tears running off Brother Moyle’s cheeks. There came to my awareness that a heavenly orchestra was accompanying me, so wonderful and completely beyond anything musical you would ever hear on this mortal earth. . . . [Then] Brother Moyle began to speak and bore witness that we were entertained by heavenly beings.
Elder DeWitt’s story is a perfect example of the immense potential of the Spirit to amplify our worship through music. The Holy Ghost filled his whole being, and Elder DeWitt’s abilities were enhanced as he focused on not just providing music but conveying a testimony. He was able to produce sounds he had never before played. The faith and testimony of others present in the meeting were strengthened dramatically as they had the privilege of being entertained by angels. As a violin player, I know that given the option, many might prefer a piano arrangement to accompany the violin, but the simplicity of this performance allowed Elder DeWitt’s testimony to shine through. Like most callings and responsibilities within the Church, if we are focused on Christ instead of on how our own works will look or sound, we will be able to accomplish far greater things.
Help in Resisting Temptation
Song can also be a more helpful form of prayer when dealing with moments of temptation. The Lord commanded the Saints in 1830 to “pray always, lest [they] enter into temptation” (D&C 31:12). It is a common response for those trying to resist temptation to maintain the thought “please help me avoid this thing” in their head continuously. While the Lord does listen, this approach often leads to falling into temptation again, because thoughts of the temptation are still lingering in the person’s mind. The ideal option is to completely replace the darkness with light. According to President Packer, we should carefully select a hymn to memorize and sing in our head when we find that “shady actors have slipped from the sidelines of [our] thinking onto the stage of [our] mind. . . . Because [the music] is uplifting and clean, the baser thoughts will disappear. For while virtue, by choice, will not associate with filth, evil cannot tolerate the presence of light.” Satan will continually try to slip into our minds in any way that he can, but music is able to bring in more light to clear our minds. It also prepares us in a powerful way to continually make righteous choices. As Elder Richard G. Scott once stated, it makes “spiritual things more understandable” and “prepares emotions for response to promptings of the Holy Spirit.”
What More God Can Communicate to Us
Not only is our own communication enhanced by the power of music, but God himself is able to connect with his children on a deep, spiritual level that “can lift our spirits, give us courage, and move us to righteous action.” As a Father with incomprehensible love and a constant desire to bless us, he will utilize music to help us feel peace, comfort, and security. Thus the early Saints were commanded to create a hymnbook, building on available religious music as well as having inspired Saints create new works to further God’s communication with his children. Each song is a way for the Spirit to convey specific messages to us and the means for us to learn more about our Father. In the right setting, music becomes a strong conduit through which the Spirit testifies of love and communicates connection.
I firmly believe that the well-known hymn “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” written by James Montgomery, was inspired, spread, and directed by the hand of the Lord to be sung twice in Carthage Jail by John Taylor moments before Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed. Divine direction equipped John Taylor with a memory of this song to invite the spirit of comfort into the jail. John Taylor described the situation: “All of us felt unusually . . . languid, with a remarkable depression of spirits. In consonance with those feelings I sang a song, that had lately been introduced into Nauvoo, entitled, ‘A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.’ . . . After a lapse of some time, Brother Hyrum requested me again to sing that song. I replied, ‘Brother Hyrum, I do not feel like singing’; when he remarked, ‘Oh, never mind; commence singing, and you will get the spirit of it.’ At his request I did so.” Specifically these final two verses had to be of particular significance for Joseph and Hyrum:
In pris’n I saw him next, condemned
To meet a traitor’s doom at morn.
The tide of lying tongues I stemmed,
And honored him ’mid shame and scorn.
My friendship’s utmost zeal to try,
He asked if I for him would die.
The flesh was weak; my blood ran chill,
But my free spirit cried, “I will!”
Then in a moment to my view
The stranger started from disguise.
The tokens in his hands I knew;
The Savior stood before mine eyes.
He spake, and my poor name he named,
“Of me thou hast not been ashamed.
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not thou didst them unto me.”
This song was meant for Joseph and Hyrum, who had honored their God “’mid shame and scorn” and because of “lying tongues” now awaited their doom. He had asked for their lives and they had given them. Through music, God wanted to reassure them that if they did have to die for him, their deeds were known and would be remembered, and that they would soon meet their Savior, who would welcome them with outstretched arms. These ideas were conveyed not just to their minds, but to their souls. Music became the medium by which a loving Father could comfort his children in their time of need.
Recognizing the potential of music as a diverse, faith-building tool will strengthen our faith and enable us to use it more fully. The Church handbook discusses how congregational singing has a “unique and often underused power for unifying members as they worship together.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks, in a general conference address, invited the Saints to reflect on possible improvement: “The singing of hymns is one of the best ways to put ourselves in tune with the Spirit of the Lord. I wonder if we are making enough use of this heaven-sent resource in our meetings, in our classes, and in our homes.”
To best utilize music in our lives, I suggest two principles. First, that we use it as preparation. As mentioned earlier, music is designed to invite the presence of the Holy Ghost. There is a reason that each of our sacrament meeting prayers is preceded by the singing of a hymn; it is the same reason that Christ sang a hymn with his Apostles before leaving the upper room. Music can amplify any experience in which we might want added peace. The song provides the Spirit, which in turn brings peace and comfort, drives away darkness, and brings what is most important to our remembrance.
My second suggestion is that we recognize and use music as a means of sincere communication. As the Lord told Emma Smith, “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads” (D&C 25:12). God delights in our sincere outpouring of songs from the heart and does not mind as much about the quality of our voice, though it is easy for the natural man to put all of the focus on the sound. As we adapt God’s view to our own, we can change the way we sing and listen to music in the Church. Alexander Schreiner, a Tabernacle organist, told the story of a music director who truly understood this principle. When asked how he could handle Brother Stanton’s singing so off-key in meetings, the music director responded, “Brother Stanton is one of our most devout worshippers, and when he bellows he is a supreme musician. . . . Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds he makes. If you do, you may miss the music.” God doesn’t care as much about us being on pitch as he does about the sincerity of our heart and how engaged we are in the song. With this perspective we have a stronger appreciation for not only our own relationship with God but also others’ efforts in expressing their love through song. We will see people more as God sees them, not by their outward actions but by the worth of their souls.
While music can and should be something we listen to for entertainment, if entertainment is all we get out of it, we are living beneath our potential. Changing our perspective of music and seeing it as a means of communication with our Father will give us more of his Spirit and improve our worship. Similar to the new infant that is able to understand more over time as it listens to its parents, the more we focus on having effective communication with our Father in Heaven the better we will be able to recognize his presence in our lives.
Donald A. Hodges and David C. Sebald, “How We Come to Be Musical,” in Music in the Human Experience: An Introduction to Music Psychology (New York: Routledge, 2011), 41.
Joseph Smith, comp., “Lecture Third,” in Lectures on Faith, comp. N. B. Lundwall (Salt Lake City: N. B. Lundwall, n.d.), 2.
See Manfred Bierwisch, “Completeness and Limitation of Natural Languages,” Linguistics 49, no. 4 (2011): 791–833.
Boyd K. Packer, “Inspiring Music—Worthy Thoughts,” Ensign, January 1974, 25.
Bierwisch, “Natural Languages,” 815.
Dallin H. Oaks, “Worship through Music,” Ensign, November 1994, 10.
Ted Gibbons, Put Off Thy Shoes (Provo, UT: Maasai, 2001), 79–80.
Packer, “Inspiring Music—Worthy Thoughts,” 28.
Richard G. Scott, “To Acquire Knowledge and the Strength to Use It Wisely,” BYU devotional, January 23, 2001.
The First Presidency, preface to Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), x.
Karen Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 58.
James Montgomery, “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 29.
Handbook 2: Administering the Church (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010), 115; emphasis added.
Oaks, “Worship through Music,” 10.
Molly Zimmerman Larson, “Putting Our Hearts in Tune,” Ensign, March 2000, 19.