What’s the point of chanting?
The focus of chants is not singing, but prayer – avodat lev (or avodah shebalev), ‘service/work of the heart’. When we chant, it is not the quality of our voice or musicianship that counts, but the quality of our intention (kavanah). However advanced the musical and vocal skill in the chanting may be, and however accurate the ‘performance’, if individual and collective meditative focus on the sacred heart of the chant, or the meaning in the words, is lacking, the chant will not reach its full potential. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (zt”l) wrote: “We are not merely singing melodies … A nigun [a sacred tune with or without words] is a path to God, a ‘song of ascension’.” (Davening: a guide to meaningful Jewish prayer, Jewish Lights, 2012) At the very least, I hope for a chant to inspire, and give us deeper appreciation of a text, teaching or perspective.
For me, there is a clear order of priority: prayer, then words, then music. Putting music first, we might make a prayerful God-connection, but there’s no guarantee. Putting words first, we may never reach beyond our intellect into other parts of ourselves. Putting the combination of words and music first, we may have a sophisticated, layered experience, and still miss God. To be able to pray effectively, or engage in chant or meditative practice, it is good to start from silence. Practising silence, we can breathe, empty ourselves, make space, and begin to notice. Observing a period of silence opens up a fertile space and a higher quality of awareness for whatever happens next.
While regular communal prayer is often about following a fixed (keva) pattern, chant is all about mindful attention and intention – kavanah. Therefore, our experience of a chant is likely to be more powerful if we connect as deeply as possible to the intention of the words, and how the words might guide our hearts and our actions. It is worth studying the nuances, the many layers of meaning, and associations within our rich Jewish tradition. So, the sequence might be: first silence to make the mind and heart ready, then sitting with the words, then a return to silence to quieten the mind, and only then might we begin to chant.
Multiple repetitions and gentle persistence are central elements of chanting, taking us into ever deeper appreciation and new insight. How many repetitions count as ‘enough’? There is only one way to find out. Rather than stopping too soon, it is worth pushing beyond the point of anxiety or boredom (Rabbi Shefa Gold, The power of chant), to allow enough time for a chant to sink deeply into body, breath, mind and heart.
Chanting meditatively alone has its own special power. Chanting with others gives a different, equally important dimension to prayer, enabling us to be mutually responsive and supportive. After all, the Rabbis taught us to pray together, as equals, in community. In chants that are also rounds, we can feel the relationships between the different parts – where the words of different voices align, where one part fills a gap left by the other part, the juxtaposition of verbal ideas, and the emotional shapes in the music. All this adds to the meaning – and some meanings that we will never be able to put into words because the experience transcends language. The chant is not over when the sound stops. The sounds we make affect the shape and texture of the silence that follows. It is important to sit within the silence that follows the chant.
Chant is not something to be rushed, but to be savoured. We can give more to chant, and receive more throughit, if we slow it down. If we slow it down enough, we come to know the truth of Psalm 34:8 – “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” George Herbert (1593–1633), in his poem called ‘Prayer’, wrote that prayer is: “… God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, … Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, … the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.” A chant can transform us. It can enable us to identify deeply with a text, a prayer, and its many dimensions. Letting the words and music come through our whole selves, whether we listen, sing or play, gives us the opportunity to reach for experience and expression in all four worlds: the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual. Even hours, or days after the sounds of a chant have finished, it can continue to affect us on many levels.
The Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the sages would “be still one hour prior to each of the three prayer services, then pray for one hour, and afterwards be still again for one hour more.” (Brachot 32b) In our silence and breathing, we turn to God. In our chanting, we tune to God. Before, during, and after chanting, hearing ourselves, hearing each other, hearing the silence – Sh’ma! We listen for God. Whether we are theists, agnostics or atheists, chanting – or even listening to chant – is a form of study, a way of deepening our relationship with a text, and finding a way to make it our own. And, since Rabbi Akiva said that the greatness of study is that it leads to action (Kiddushin 40b), perhaps the purpose of chanting is to lead to action – for the increase of shalom in the world.
This article is the first part of the introduction to my ‘Five Sacred Chants’, a set of simple rounds and chants for 2 or 3 voices. You can listen to all the chants on this website: