Matthew Astle and Professor Richard Long, Communications
As the LDS Church continues to grow and expand in developing nations throughout the world, it is presented with the unique challenge of overcoming cultural differences to create a truly global brotherhood. One of the most culturally sensitive areas that the Church must deal with is that of music. The Church=s policy in the General Handbook of Instructions is that hymns “are the basic music for Latter-day Saint meetings and are standard for all congregational singing” (p. 289). This standard applies worldwide, from Kansas to Kenya to Cambodia. The hymns used by the LDS Church are based on the Western European classical style, as defined by the rules of four-part harmony of the common practice period.
Throughout Europe and the Americas, this Western style of music is familiar, and it traditionally inspires the religious devotion that is the intent of such music. However, the Church is expanding into cultures that have drastically different musical traditions, particularly Africa and Asia. To these people, Western music may sound completely alien, yet Church policy asks them to learn it, read it, play it, sing it, and be spiritually uplifted by it.
The purpose of this research was to provide a basic framework for understanding the attitudes of non- Western Latter-day Saints toward the Church=s policy of Western music. If the Saints perceive the Church as an American, ethnocentric organization that is robbing them of their native heritage, something must be done to change this perception. On the other hand, if the perception is positive, and the people feel that the universal system of music brings them together with the other Saints across the world, or if it is perceived as enlightening and horizon-expanding, the Church can use this as a resource of goodwill in its endeavors in these countries.
In order to gain a basic understanding of the topic, I issued a questionnaire to Latter-day Saints from eight different Asian and African nations living in Los Angeles and Provo. In addition, focus groups were held with Asian and African students at BYU, where more in-depth information about their attitudes was gathered. The questionnaire sample size did not allow for statistically significant results, but the information can be used as a basis for further research.
The research showed that today, Western music is very prevalent in non-Western countries. Most young people from these countries actually prefer Western music (which includes everything from Bach to the Beatles) to the traditional music of their own country. Native music tends to be associated with the past, with traditions, and with ancient culture. Western music is being adapted by all sorts of other cultures, so that their modern music is very similar to Western music. Most non-Westerners are familiar enough with Western music that the cultural difference isn’t an issue. However, respondents indicated that the older generation is not as familiar with or as approving of Western music, and it may be harder for them to accept it.
The respondents indicated that they expect European music from a Christian church. Even for people who have not had much exposure to Western music, it would seem inappropriate to use Eastern or native music in a Christian worship service. As one Japanese respondent said, “Christianity came from the Western world. So when I listen to the hymns, I feel God’s presence.” Respondents who had had previous exposure to other Christian churches indicated that the first time they heard the LDS hymns it was a powerful experience, as it allowed them to feel the Spirit strongly for the first time. Others with less Christian experience said that although the music was strange and confusing at first, it was appropriate. After becoming accustomed to the style, all respondents said the hymns are powerful tools for conveying the Spirit and a feeling of peace, which is their purpose. Respondents gave similar answers when asked how they feel when they sing a hymn they are unfamiliar with.
One concern of some respondents was that the strangeness of the music upon first exposure may hinder some of the poorer or less educated people who have had less experience with Western music from investigating the Church. It isn’t a problem for most people, but for those with very little Western exposure, the cultural difference might be overwhelming and threatening. Respondents also said the translations of the hymns often use archaic vocabulary, the words often don=t fit the music, and when translated into tonal languages such as Chinese or Thai, the meaning of a word can actually be altered by the melody it is sung with. Despite this, 97% of respondents said they feel comfortable singing the hymns.
The LDS Church uses almost no native music in its Sunday meetings. Native music is generally reserved for weekday meetings and activities, such as Family Home Evening or special national holiday celebrations. Still, only 42% of respondents indicated that they had ever attended any Church meeting where native music was performed, but 56% would be interested in a regular program of such meetings. Sacrament meeting musical presentations generally are similar in content to those in Western countries-piano solos, hymns sung by soloists, congregational hymns, etc. However, some respondents expressed concern about the infrequency of musical numbers in sacrament meetings. One Chinese respondent said, “Leaders once told me that musical numbers should not take time out of sacrament meeting because it is the most important meeting on Sunday, and that it is not a talent show. I was very shocked to know the difference between the way they think and the way people here in America think about it.” Yet the Church’s music program seems to be functioning well throughout the world. All respondents said that there was a piano or organ in their ward building, and 94% said there is a pianist or organist every week.
A surprising finding was that most respondents had never even thought specifically about the fact that the Church uses Western music in non-Western countries. It is not an issue to them. When asked what they thought about the Church’s policy, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Typical responses were: “It creates unity-makes me feel at home no matter where I attend. It makes me feel the Spirit even when I don=t understand the language,” “I think it brings everyone throughout the world together in unity. It’s wonderful especially when we have General Conferences and everyone recognizes the melody,” “It is in line with the policy of uniformity and correlation throughout the world.” The only respondent who suggested that Eastern music should definitely be used was the only respondent who is not a baptized member of the LDS Church. A few said that it might not be a bad idea to incorporate a few Eastern influences into the music, but they still did not think such changes were necessary. A small concern was expressed about Primary music. One Korean respondent suggested that there are traditional Korean children’s songs that would be appropriate for the Primary, and a Kenyan respondent said it was strange to sing the very American song “Once There Was a Snowman” in the African heat.
In conclusion, the attitude of non-Western Latter-day Saints toward the Church=s policy of exclusively Western music is quite positive. They see it as a unifying force among the worldwide membership of the Church. They feel the music used is appropriate and inspiring, and as Western culture spreads its influence more fully throughout the world, the musical style will become more and more familiar and inspiring to members of the Church worldwide.