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Spiritual Narrative in Sound and Structure of Chabad Nigunim


In the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic community, the singing of religious folksongs called nigunim holds a fundamental place in communal and individual life. There is a well-known saying in Chabad circles that while words are the pen of the heart, music is the pen of the soul. The implication of this statement is that music is able to express thoughts and emotions in a deeper way than words could on their own could. In chasidic thought, there are various spiritual narratives that may be expressed through nigunim. These narratives are fundamental in understanding what is being experienced and performed through singing nigunim. At times, the narrative has already been established in Chabad chasidic literature and knowing the particular aspects of this narrative is indispensible in understanding how the nigun unfolds in musical time. In other cases, the particular details of this narrative are unknown. In such a case, understanding how melodic construction, mode, ornamentation, and form function to create a musical syntax can inform our understanding of how a nigun can reflect a particular spiritual narrative.

This dissertation examines the ways in which musical syntax and spiritual parameters work together to express these various spiritual narratives in sound and structure of nigunim. My work makes use of the extensive writings in Chabad chasidic thought on nigunim and the psycho-spiritual modes of expression, as well as the written and recorded repository of nigunim. In addition to developing an insider’s perspective, I make use of both ethnomusicological and theoretical analysis to reveal the ways in which chasidic thought is expressed in musical time. The ultimate goal of this research is to contribute to an understanding of Chabad nigunim in unique ways rarely seen in published analysis, as well as to examine the ways in which the musical syntax of nigunim have been represented in concert and popular music.

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