Congregational Music as a Social Setting

Developed by Dr. Deborah Justice for the Institute of Sacred Music, Yale University 2012

Course Description: What impact does Traditional hymn singing have on congregants’ and musicians’ social relationships? Do these dynamics differ from those within Contemporary praise choruses? Why does music so often become the figurehead for strife within congregations? Within churches and other faith communities, music moves beyond written notes and sounds to facilitate powerful interactions between individuals, institutions, and the divine. Understanding church music as a combination of sound, social relationships, and sacred action facilitates leaders’ helping congregations to articulate their identities and move towards their potentials.

Focusing on church congregations, this course teaches students to consider the social settings created as musicians and congregations approach the sacred through music and worship. Students will gain applied experience in analyzing congregations and their musical dynamics through three units: foundations, fieldwork, and ethnography. First, we will compare pertinent approaches to qualitative analysis of congregational music from the fields of sociology, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and liturgical studies. We will consider the different questions asked by each of these fields about sound within faith communities and the reasons behind these contrasting foci. Second, we will apply these approaches to analyzing music and worship in local congregations. After a brief introduction to ethnographic fieldwork (emphasizing interviewing skills and a phenomenological hermeneutic that values individual congregants’ worldviews), students will design and carry out small-scale ethnomusicology research projects within New Haven churches. Lastly, as consolidation, students will incorporate their findings into an ethnographic final paper centering on the role of musical practices in both articulating and forming congregational identity.