Singing the blues
I recently attended my sister’s 60th birthday party.
My sister is a writer and while such an occupation doesn’t make one very wealthy in Australia, it means that through the 40 years of her writing novellas, short stories and poetry, she has built up an impressive group of creative friends.
Her party was attended by film makers, writers, poets, singers, radio producers and artists of many hues.
Throughout the evening there was a range of performances by this talented group of party goers.
As one man got up to sing, he was introduced as a novelist and musician whose first novel had won the Australian/Vogel Literary Award, the Miles Franklin Award and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, but who had now chosen to concentrate on blues and roots music.
As a fairly untalented individual I am in awe of such creative people, but I was curious why someone would walk away from writing when he was clearly good at it and was being acclaimed for it. His answer was interesting. He said that he was a slow writer and the demands of continually having to come up with something new made song writing a more enjoyable occupation. Songs are shorter than novels for a start. When you’ve written a novel, people ask when your next one is coming.
When you have written a song, people want you to sing it again and again.
I’ve often thought about this tension between the spoken word and the sung word in the context of church services.
For the most part people like to sing hymns that they know and don’t like it if there are too many new or unknown hymns.
But it goes further than just knowing the tune; many of the favourite hymns have repetition built into them through a chorus.
But in contrast to what we sing, we have a different reaction to what is spoken. The sermon must be novel.
If someone was to dare preach the same sermon that they had used the week (or year) before, there would be criticism of it being boring or a feeling that somehow we were being cheated because it was not new and unique. The academic literature on this is divided. On the one hand it is argued that novelty is essential to our evolution as a species and helps us learn.
Anything that’s new, different or unusual doesn’t just catch our eye, it stimulates our brain.
A new phone, a new working environment, visiting a new place, even hearing a new sermon.
We are drawn to novelty. There’s a region in our midbrain that is essentially the major ‘‘novelty centre’’ of the brain, which responds to novel stimuli.
On the other hand repetition is also seen as a great aid to learning. You have probably heard the expression ‘‘practise makes perfect’’ countless times, and it’s true that our performance gets better when we practise doing the same things over and over.
Apparently, this too comes down to the way cells in our brain communicate, and the physical changes that they undergo as we practise the same action over and over.
The fact is there are two areas of the brain called the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which play large roles in learning and memory.
The hippocampus compares stimuli against existing memories, while the amygdala responds to emotional stimuli and strengthens associated long-term memories.
Our learning, it seems, is improved if we have a combination of the new mixed up with the old.
So maybe I am stuck with preparing worship services with familiar hymns and a new sermon.
In teaching his disciples how to pray Jesus said ‘‘Do not use meaningless repetition’’, but then went on to teach us the Lord’s Prayer, which is something that certainly bears repeating.
This is the gospel, and it’s good news.