Guest Post: Temple Music

by Neylan McBaine

I have a confession: the music in the waiting chapel of the Salt Lake Temple drives me nuts. There I am, sitting reverently in my white dress, waiting for the session to start, and instead of a quiet atmosphere in which to ponder the reasons I came to the temple that day or even say a silent prayer, I am subjected to the kind of piped-in electric organ music that one might expect to hear in a funeral parlor.

As I sit there, trying to meditate but distracted by the wrong notes in the familiar hymns (the music must be played live somewhere by someone, since I hardly think there would be wrong notes in a recording), I figure I have three choices: I could resent that my religious institution forces its musical aesthetic on my personal worship and conclude that since I want to run from the musical choice I should run from the institution; I could ask the temple workers to turn it off and make a stink to the temple presidency; or I could stick my fingers in my ears so I don’t hear the music anymore and continue with my silent meditation.

If I chose to do the first — let my resentment of the imposed musical aesthetic lead to resentment of the institution — there would be no end to that slippery slope. I would start resenting many more of our cultural characteristics, mistakingly equating the questionable quality I perceive in them to questionable quality in our doctrine. From canned ham at Christmas parties to the invariably adorable treats of Young Women’s activities, our culture includes scads of quirky middle-class mid-century Americanisms that sometimes obscure our stated goal of saving souls.

This is a slippery slope that many members succumb to, understandably confusing discomfort with the institutional experience with discomfort with our doctrinal cannon. Although the  earthly experience should as closely as possible mirror the heavenly home our institution seeks to represent, it doesn’t always succeed for reasons of human error, personal taste, imperfect judgement and private corruption. My quibble in the temple is with the execution and presentation of the hymns, not the content of the hymns (to which I am personally devoted). If we can choose to control what we can and let the other stuff go, our experience within our institution will allow us to focus on the Savior, not the Spam.

I had a poignant experience a few years ago that helped fortify my understanding of our culture versus our doctrine and gave me hope that our future generations can successfully make this distinction. As a Juilliard- and Yale-trained musician, I was asked to give a class at a New England stake youth conference on music in the Church. I grew up speaking and playing the piano at firesides where my mother, a professional opera singer, offered her thoughts on the power of music to convey the Spirit. Music is utterly vital to my spiritual life, so talking on this subject comes easily to me. I have dozens of talks I’ve written on the history of the hymns, the power of the hymns, the importance of the classical repertoire in our worship, the triumverate communion that occurs between an individual and the group and God with congregational hymn singing… I could go on.

However, with this crowd of teenagers, I chose to take a different approach. I selected about 15 musical clips — ranging from Kanye West to Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Little Richard singing spirituals —  and I played each clip for the class. As we listened, I asked the kids to write down silently on a piece of paper whether they thought the music was “Sacred,” “sacred,” “neither,” or “both.” The results were astonishing.

Suffice it to say that very little of the “Sacred” music was also deemed “sacred,” meaning that those musical works that are categorized within the genre of Sacred music in a retail catalogue did not feel holy, or “sacred”, to their unique spiritual personalities. Several youths deemed every classical work played as “contrived” or “inauthentic,” thus driving away them farther away from a sense of the Spirit which they found more readily in music they defined as “real,” “pure,” and “natural.” Kanye West’s song, “Hey Mamma” was rated the most “sacred” song I played because of its sincere lyrics of gratitude for the singer’s mother and its soothing beat.

As our discussion progressed, I learned that these youths find peace and divine communion in very different places than I would expect with my own classical music training. Electronic instrumental music, with its ordered, patterned progressions, seemed especially meditative to my crowd. They dismissed some rock songs for their meaningless lyrics and embraced others for their messages, a surprise to me since I myself rarely pay attention to pop lyrics. But regardless of what I thought about their taste or how much I bemoaned the demise of classical music (subjects of another article!), I couldn’t deny the fact that these kids found the Lord’s presence in these unexpected places. They were hearing beauty, and they were letting it draw them closer to God.

We concluded our discussion by talking about why the Church has settled upon a certain musical aesthetic to represent “sacredness”. After all, many other denominations attract patrons with varied worship styles. (I know of one evangelical congregation that gives its members three different musical choices for Sunday worship: a room with a choir, a room with a jazz band and a room with a rock band.) I was encouraged by the practicality of their answers: We are a worldwide church that can come together over consistent applications of the hymns. The hymns are a tribute to our 19th century pioneer heritage. Chaos would ensue if we tried to appeal to 13 million people’s varying aesthetic tastes. We can ponder the lyrics of our songs, all of which have uplifting messages even if the style of the music doesn’t resonate. And most encouraging: We can recognize that we are responsible for our own communion with the Spirit and we are not spiritual outcasts if the certain chosen aesthetic doesn’t speak to us.

I know in reality the line will blur for some of these kids between their personal relationship with God and their cultural experience in the Church and that they will eventually forfeit one because of the other. But I like to think most of our rising generation will understand that our cultural quirks are themselves not absolute truths and that to equate the two would be to miss the mark.

So going back to my fidgety discomfort with the piped-in organ music, what about the second option? you ask. Why didn’t I ask the temple workers to turn it off so I and the other patrons could just enjoy the silence? The answer is I’m simply not that much of an activist. I prefer to work within the system, performing and supporting quality music (and silence where appropriate!) within the Church where I can and hoping that standard will permeate others’ experiences over time. Perhaps some day I’ll get up the nerve so say something to a temple worker — although I fear tearing some octogenarian temple patron away from meditating on those soothing sounds that remind him of singing hymns at his mother’s knee — but I may just leave that up to those kids in my New England class. Maybe when they’re in charge we’ll all be listening to Kanye West.

Meanwhile, I’ll be the woman with her fingers in her ears.


  1. Very interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but the temple music does sound just like funeral parlor music. I think we must accept that different kinds of music are going to affect people in different ways. Maybe silence is the best answer so as not to offend the sensibilities of those who visit the temple.

    We are also very good with headsets. Why not offer headsets/stations with a variety of hymn styles? I’ll take the hymns on in classical guitar, thank you!

  2. While reading this, I couldn’t help but think of my dad, who played the organ regularly at the Denver Temple pretty much from the time it was built until my parents moved. I find it especially hilarious because of two things: 1) my dad is a total non-conformist (he has no problem blowing off things he views as non-essentials in the church and urges me to do the same), and 2) my dad hated playing how they wanted him to play. It was standard practice to ask my dad after his sessions at the temple how many times a temple worker had asked him to play a little more [fill in the temple-appropriate adjective]. Often, he would come home and pound out some Gershwin (or really anything, since even the mildest of Debussy pieces would probably sound reckless and daring after playing in the temple!). It’s not that he was trying to intentionally disregard their wishes, but it was really just that difficult (and incredibly dull) for him to play like that for hours and hours. Which really makes me wonder why he continued to be willing to do this, especially given his at least moderately progressive views on appropriate levels of support for other aspects of church culture.

    All of this is to say I really wonder how many people who attend the temple appreciate this type of music if even the creators of the music often find it irksome. Shouldn’t that be the canary in the mineshaft? :)

  3. I actually like organ music. I realize that I am a guest in another’s home and that the host has set the atmosphere for me. The most important things about the hymns is the doctrine they teach. When I listen to the music, the words pass through my mind and when I meditate on a particular doctrine I find that the music drifts into the background.

    It’s easy to be a critic. It is easy to point out what would make US more comfortable in a particular situation. But that isn’t reality. We are all striving to become one and that requires sacrifice on each of our parts. When we cast aside our own selfish critiques of what the Lord has provided for us and try to look a little deeper, we will find riches where we once only saw something lame.

    The temple is a very deliberate place. Now, I don’t have any of that kind of music on my iPod, I don’t listen to irreverent music or music that offends the Spirit, but I do enjoy good music from all sources when I want to be entertained or even to contemplate certain truths in my own time and my own sphere.

    But in the Temple, it is not about me it is about us. By trade, I am a designer and as I view the architecture of the temple and the particular design decisions, it is very easy for me to wonder if there might have been a better way to execute something. But instead, I have found that if I contemplate and accept what I am seeing, I discover a deeper wisdom, I realize that the Lord can teach me better than I can teach myself and isn’t that the whole point in going to his house in the first place?

    • Corey is absolutely right. The few do not control the many and just because one person dislikes the music, doesn’t meant that there should not be organ music in the temple. I find it soothing as do many others. If one person doesn’t like the music, either time your arrival so that you don’t have to wait as long, or be an adult and realize that everything can’t go the way one person wants.

  4. I think that commenters are missing the point about this essay. Its not about the organ music in the temple. That is, I believe since its on a blog which publishes on the topic of a group’s discontent with an issue in the church, a metaphor. Its always risky to assume the writer’s intent but my guess is that Neylan in this post is pointing out a strategy that Mormon feminists can use to cope in the church. If the rhetoric about motherhood=priesthood or women=wife and mother bothers you, plug your ears, ignore it and move on. Maybe recognize the value in it for others but reject it for yourself. Live and let live and all that.

    This essay also raises the question of whether it is appropriate for a group of women who are discontent with the rhetoric about females to raise their voices in dissent. Are those who choose to plug their ears going to harshly judge those who feel the need to say something? Is saying something or making a critique, a form of apostasy whether its organ music played in the temple or defending a non-traditional path in being a Mormon woman? The tendency to judge is troubling and can be especially troubling when one group turns on another. Neylan says that she’s not much of an activist. How right would it be for the activists to turn on her and judge? How right is it for her to judge the activists?

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