The Role of Music in Prayer

by | in Religion

By Chaim David Berson

One of the ways we can find greater meaning in prayer is through music. A melody or a nusach (musical theme) that is in harmony with the meaning of the words is a powerful vehicle that creates an immediate emotional connection, even in the absence of any intellectual awareness. A lot of the compositions sung in Chassidic shtiebels start off with a lengthy niggun (melody) that is wordless. Clearly, the purpose is to set the tone and create the mood for what the text is all about. Only then can the words be said with the proper kavanah.

The right choice of a niggun also encourages participation. In the past, many shul-goers would sit passively and listen to the cantor. Today, people want to be more hands-on and involved, and increased congregational singing gives them that opportunity.

Music is universal, yet we all react to a particular song or tune on an individual basis. Perhaps we recall where we first heard it, or that it was a favorite of a loved one. When this happens, the music can bring meaning to an unfamiliar text. It can create a kehillah out of a congregation of discordant individuals. It may even stir some of them to try to pierce the heavens with their own voices.

Cantor Chaim David Berson has been the chazzan of The Jewish Center in Manhattan for the past seven years, and directs the OU’s Nussach HaTefillah Initiative (ou.org/community/programs/nussach-hatefillah/).