My Four Favorite Sounds

The Organ at Salem Covenant Church
The Organ of Salem Covenant Church - Holtkamp Organ Co.

One of my favorite things about the church we attend is its music ministry. Even for a church of our size, it’s remarkable that we have enough musically gifted members (some of them professional musicians, most talented amateurs) to support multiple adult, youth, and children’s choirs, a contemporary worship band, bell choirs, a wind ensemble, and a string band. We host a music academy giving lessons in various instruments to children. And we have the best church organ I’ve heard played by one of the best church organists I know. (Click here for a sample performance from Cindy: the famous Toccata from Widor’s 5th Symphony.)

Just when I’d started to take all that for granted, we came to worship a few weeks ago to find the prelude being played by two of our members—one a violinist, one a bassoonist, and both members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Listening to that piece and the Bach anthem and offertory that followed, I found myself moved nearly to tears: struck to the core by their wordless witness to the Word.

And it got me thinking: What are my favorite sounds? Lyrics to the side for the moment, what noises most make my heart move, or be still?

So here are four of my favorite sounds—three that give me joy, one that makes me weep—offered in the hope that you’ll share your own in the Comments section below!

The opening chord on “A Hard Day’s Night”

The Beatles (minus Ringo)
The Beatles (minus Ringo) - Creative Commons (VARA)

…which I’m guessing that any Beatles fan just heard in their mind’s ear. If you don’t remember it, or haven’t yet heard, make sure your computer’s sound is turned up and then click here.

There’s considerable debate about how even to describe the chord: G7sus4? Dm7sus4? Fadd9? It’s impossible to play on a single guitar, even a twelve-string like George’s Rickenbacker. (I’ve tried.) You need a band, playing separately (not even the same chords) but magically combining for a sound that somehow sets the tone for an entire album/movie. As the intermingling notes ring and linger, there’s a palpable sense of possibility: like the chord could resolve in an infinite number of ways.

I’m sure I’m reading far, far too much into this one musical moment, but listening to these long two seconds before the singing starts (not a bad sound either), you can almost believe that the mid-Sixties truly were a time of endless horizons, that music can save your mortal soul and Don McLean wasn’t just a big goof.

The Lord’s Prayer being recited by a congregation

Again, leaving aside the words, majestic as they are, the sheer sound of 30, or 300, or 3000 people of varying ages, genders, ethnicities, classes, professions, beliefs, and every other kind of difference intoning together is sublime.

Like anything related to the Church, the sound of liturgical, corporate prayer is never quite in unison. Some read more ponderously while other don’t seem to observe punctuation; there are confirmed trespass-sayers who defiantly refuse to accede to “debts” or “sins.” Philip Jenkins passes on one English bishop’s observation that Kenyans pray “Thy will be done—on Earth as it is in Heaven” without the lift after “be done” that most Britons and Americans take (The New Faces of Christianity, p. 63). Yet what should sound awkward or even cacophonous instead resembles—as much as one could ever hope—the Church actually living up to Paul’s desire: “stand[ing] firm in the one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (Phi 1:27b-28).

Especially when we say the Lord’s Prayer in the moments before sharing the elements of Communion, I imagine that I hear distant echoes of other congregations around the world and throughout the ages: the Body of Christ praying the words of Christ.

The sixth movement (“Adagio quasi un poco andante”) of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor (Op. 131).

This short, melancholy movement is interesting on its own, though apparently it functions primarily to introduce the piece’s concluding allegro movement. But I can’t think of it apart from how it merges with the images, performances, and narrative of “Why We Fight,” the episode of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers in which American soldiers liberate a concentration camp. Played in that episode by four refugees who constitute a makeshift quartet amongst the rubble of a ruined town, the piece sounds and looks like this:

My grandmother once told me that no minor key existed before the Fall. I don’t know where she got that notion, but if true, then it’s a special kind of grace that those scales are available. C major just can’t express sorrow so deep.

My children laughing

Especially at the end of a day in which I’ve been teaching histories like that of the Holocaust.

What’s your favorite sound?

2 thoughts on “My Four Favorite Sounds

  1. Favorite sounds:
    rain on the roof, especially at night
    popcorn popping
    tires crunching on really cold snow
    the sound of freshly canned jars cooling and sealing (a sort of cracking “pop” sound)
    toddler-age grandchildren calling me “Oma”

    (Not asked for, but here they are) Unfavorite sounds:
    the whine of a mosquito, especially at night
    the “thump-thump” of a flat tire
    tuba music
    brakes screeching
    the old favorite, fingernails on a blackboard

  2. Thanks, Chris. Thanks, Elaine. You made me think how much sound enriches my life.
    (Though I do object to disliking tuba music. I LOVE the low brass sound and married a tuba player. It’s not all oom-pahpah. 100s of tuba -euphonium players play at TubaChristmas – it sounds like a gigantic pipe organ.)

    As a lifelong musician and teacher, I will have to think about favorite sounds longer.

    Handbells are definitely one of them, partly because they are always in tune. I LOVE feeling the physical vibrations with bells and with organ.
    The first time my beginning band students play a recognizable melody.
    Children laughing! It is so pure and uninhibited.
    Almost everything Mozart – especially with clarinet or piano
    rain on the roof – at night
    The loon that flies over our neighborhood – reminds me that all is right with the world. It is a lovely laughing warble.

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