Over the last month I have spent a lot of time in shul (synagogue). Attending prayer services over Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Sukkot (Tabernacles) and Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law) amongst others has given me time to reflect on what gives these festival services their unique characters.

A choir leading a service

Obviously, the words of the prayers themselves go some way to creating this distinctiveness but in my opinion it is the tunes that are the main difference as they immediately get you into the right frame of mind for that festival.

I was made acutely aware of this on Simchat Torah when a more light-hearted approach to the prayer service was taken and as a result I was given a whirlwind tour of the Jewish calendar, visiting all of the festivals including Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), Chanukah and even Tisha B’Av (Fast of Av) through the melodies that were sung.

I was struck by the way that the music at the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah service can fill me with awe and how the Kol Nidre tune with which we start Yom Kippur can put me in the correct spirit. Similarly, the Maoz Tzur melody immediately made me think of Chanukah and the fun I have playing dreidel and lighting the Chanukiah with my family.

It reminded me of the motifs of a musical play. For example, the audience know when the Phantom of the Opera is going to appear because of the tropes that are played by the orchestra. Equally in film, viewers get anxious in a horror movie because of the anticipation that is built by the music rather than the action that is taking place on screen.

A production of the Phantom of the Opera

Music is a wonderfully powerful tool; it can make people laugh or cry. It can bring long forgotten memories to the forefront of our minds and can touch us in ways that words simply cannot. The melodies used in the prayer service are intended to have this very same effect. So next time you take a seat at any type of prayer service, why not take a minute to relax and listen to the music and see where it takes you.

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