Choral Music in the Baha’i Community

Rehearsal time for Baha'i-inspired choir 'Perfect Chord' based in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo: Rachael Dere)

Rehearsal time for Baha’i-inspired choir ‘Perfect Chord’ based in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo: Rachael Dere)

Much has been written in previous Baha’i Blog posts about singing, but mostly in connection with soloists, often combined with instruments. Less has been said here about group singing, which is an important branch of vocal music. Baha’is have been encouraged by the Central Figures, the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice to incorporate music and singing into all aspects of Baha’i community life:

We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high…1

…in this new age the Manifest Light hath, in His holy Tablets, specifically proclaimed that music, sung or played, is spiritual food for soul and heart.2

…play and sing out the holy words of God with wondrous tones in the gatherings of the friends, that the listener may be freed from chains of care and sorrow, and his soul may leap for joy and humble itself in prayer to the realm of Glory.3

…we would hope that you would encourage the most beautiful possible expression of the human spirits in your communities, through music among other modes of feeling.4

…music and singing are playing such an important and effective part in the teaching work…5

Abdu’l-Baha and the Guardian both encouraged choral singing:

Make … their souls full of divine melodies and sacred (choral) music!6

Shoghi Effendi would urge that choir singing by men, women and children be encouraged in the Auditorium [of the Temple]…7

He thinks that it would especially be beautiful to see little children singing them in groups…8

Some of the references to group singing in the Baha’i Writings could mean singing in unison. While many Christian hymns are written in four part harmony, most Christian congregations sing the melody in unison, while an organ or piano provides the harmony. So, when Abdu’l-Baha and the Guardian mention hymns (such as those composed by Louise “Shahnaz” Waite), it is not clear whether this is referring to choral singing or singing in unison:

I am hopeful that, during the coming Rizwan, a great feast shall be held in the land of the Mashrak-el-Azcar, a spiritual celebration prepared and the melodies of the violin and the mandolin and hymns in praise and glorification of the Lord of Hosts make all the audience joyous and ecstatic.9 [A Mashriqu'l-Adhkar or “Dawning Place of the Mention of God” is a Baha'i House of Worship.]

With regard to your question concerning the use of music in the Nineteen Day Feasts, he wishes you to assure all the friends that he not only approves of such a practice, but thinks it even advisable that the believers should make use, in their meetings, of hymns composed by Baha’is themselves, and also of such hymns, poems and chants as are based on the Holy Words.10

In other places, however, the emphasis is on harmony, which means different notes at the same time, which for vocal music means choral singing:

Thus should it be among the children of men! The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.11

What is music? It is a combination of harmonious sounds. What is poetry? It is a symmetrical collection of words. Therefore, they are pleasing through harmony and rhythm.12

Singing is especially important in connection with the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár:

Music in the House of Worship is to be vocal only, whether by singers or a singer.13

And this music has to be live:

No doubt the excellent recordings available today would assure the highest quality of performance at low cost, but all references to vocal music in the central Edifice imply the physical presence of the singers.14

In its Ridván 2012 letter, the Universal House of Justice announced the initiation of a process to build Houses of Worship in several countries and local communities. In this letter, the House of Justice specifically ties this development to “the correlation of worship and service”, “the coherence that exists among the community-building features of the Plan”, and “the burgeoning of a devotional spirit”. When a House of Worship is built, the community needs to be ready to fill its Auditorium with sacred music, so the creation of a choir could be seen as another good step on the path to preparation for the building of a House of Worship.

Shortly after the initiation of the project of building the final Continental House of Worship in Santiago, Chile, some members of the community there formed a choir, planning ahead for the need to provide choral music in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in the future. Any community where a House of Worship will be built might want to do the same.

But it isn’t just communities with Houses of Worship that can benefit from group singing. We know that the core activities interact with one another to create a synergy that can only exist when all parts are working as a coherent whole. In a community with a House of Worship, the devotions and music experienced there reinforce the spiritual foundation of the believers, permitting them to grow into deeper paths of service. Any community can experience aspects of this by creating meaningful and sacred devotional gatherings and infusing them and other activities with choral music.

The benefits of having a local Baha’i choir are immense. Feasts and Holy Day commemorations can be adorned with beautiful, sacred music. Choral music attracts the hearts and attracts interest from the wider community.

There are also benefits for those who sing together. Choral Association Australia lists quite a few on their website, including the following:

• It develops our emotional lives since it is able to define the qualities of human emotion much more accurately than verbal language.
• It has a spiritual dimension, which allows us to participate more actively or at a greater depth in the great faiths. At the same time it assists us in finding the spiritual within ourselves.
• In many forms it does not require high levels of technical skill or training. Nor does it require lots of current training to keep it going.
• Recent research seems to suggest that it may assist in developing intelligence.15

Any choir requires a high level of dedication for it to succeed. It also requires time, space, regularity, sacrifice, and understanding – on the part of the singers, the director, and the community. What it does not require is large amounts of natural talent. Any voice teacher will tell you that good singers are made, not born. People need to want to sing and be willing to learn. Singing in a choir is different than singing alone, and it can take some time to learn how to do it.

A choir can be formed in a community in many different ways. It might start as a few people singing together and grow from there. It might be started by a director with a vision and lots of energy. It might be an initiative of people who want to sing and do what it takes to make it happen. However it happens, a local choir can add an incredible spirit and power to any local community. If you’re interested, give a shout out to our choir, Perfect Chord, or any other Baha’i choir you know of and you can expect to receive lots of information and encouragement.


  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, paragraph 51 []
  2. Abdu’l-Bahá , Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p 112 []
  3. Ibid []
  4. Universal House of Justice, 22 February 1971, to a National Spiritual Assembly []
  5. Universal House of Justice, 1 March 1972, to all National Spiritual Assemblies []
  6. Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdul-Bahá Abbas, p 480, [The parentheses are apparently a clarification added in the translation]. []
  7. From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, 2 April 1931 []
  8. From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, 22 March 1928 []
  9. Abdu’l-Baha, “Tablets of Abdul Bahá Abbas”, vol. I, p. 101 []
  10. From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, 7 April 1935 []
  11. Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p 53 []
  12. Abdu’l-Bahá’s words to Mrs. Mary L. Lucas, as quoted in “A Brief Account of My Visit to Acca”, pp. 11-14 []
  13. Universal House of Justice, 13 March 1964, to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States []
  14. Ibid []
  15. http://www.caoa.org.au/index.php/useful-notes/benefits-of-choral-music, accessed 16 June 2014 []

About the Author

Alan and Lorraine Manifold are loving life in Australia. They have a Baha'i choir in Melbourne, 'Perfect Chord', and are actively involved in their local Baha'i community. They're planning an Australian Baha'i Choral Festival in Sydney, hopefully to become an annual event. But they're also finding that women's issues are quite similar here to those in other Western countries and want to do what they can to improve things. Lorraine has suffered acutely from oppression and objectification growing up in Belgium, Canada and the US. Alan has been deeply involved for many years providing diversity education and training.

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Discussion 11 Comments

  1. Lovely article. Having puerile start choirs in their community is a wonderful idea that I have never thought of! I am going to gauge the receptivity of starting a choir in my community. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Morgan, that’s great! I’m assuming you meant “having people start choirs…”. I hope it works out.

      One thing we didn’t mention in the article is the need to be thoughtful about the relationship between a choir and other activities in the Bahá’í community, particularly the core activities. This might differ for different choirs, but it’s good to think it through ahead of time. Being in a choir demands a level of commitment that can sometimes limit a person’s ability to engage in other activities. Lorraine and I continue to hold our monthly devotional, and we were able to attend a weekly study circle while the choir was going, but we haven’t found it possible to act us tutors or to be involved in all the other activities going on around us. We prioritise our choir involvement over other things, but not over everything. Each member of the choir will have to figure that out for themselves. And others in the community may not gracefully accept these choices, so you need to be prepared to discuss them.

      That’s a bit of a heavy response to your encouraging message, so I’m sorry about that. I do hope you are able to form a choir.

  2. *People, sorry, my cellphone’s keyboard autocorrected. That is a very good point that I didn’t consider, so thank you for sharing! It will be a lot of time and commitment in a community that is already very small, but I will still see if people are interested. If it is not possible at the current moment, I am sure that opportunities will arise in the future. Thank you for the thoughtful message!

  3. Your blog piece on Choral music I read with active interest. I’m an not a singer–but I love to sing. As I write I’m listening to Quincy Jones’ tune “What Good is a Song” . Agree chorale singing in Houses of Worship are appecalla. However, singing a Feast, Gatherings, events, etc, can be sung to music. I am a fan of the DVDs produced by the BMG some years ago. I still play them for family (Baha’is and non-Baha’is) at social functions and gatherings. Perhaps others might be inspired to open up their hearts and lungs, spirits and souls to sing prayers of the Beloved of the Worlds at all gatherings.

    One challenge I see is this: singing is a culturally based artistic activity. My birth culture is African American or as Smokey Robinson release termed the group “Black”. Singing in Church and social gatherings differ significantly from other spiritual-cultural confessions. Admittedly, singing must inspire, touch, move the listener as well as the singer. Otherwise what is the point. To this end, it might be helpful for us who are interested in signing would benefit from understanding the context in which songs were written and sung. For example, singing Persian songs — tend to move those who understand the language. If one does not comprehend the language or if one is not told the story/narrative of the song — then one might groove the rhythm of the music or the swaying of the Chorale –I find that I am not “touched”, “moved” (heart and soul), “inspired”, “does not ease my troubled mind”, “does not teach me”, or the rime does not relieve me of trouble mind”, or I do not understand “the message it brings” — then for me “…it is not good enough to sing”. (Quotes from “What is good is a Song”.

    Just some thoughts.

    1. Reggie,
      You have made a number of really good points! Thanks for your comment. There’s lots I’d like to say, but I’ll keep this short.

      There is a special joy in singing the word of God or hearing it sung. We are told that the word of God has a powerful effect on the spirit. It seems that this effect may happen even if you don’t understand the language. If the power of the word of God depended on us understanding it, how could hearing God’s word melt a hard heart or confirm a soul that is resisting with all its might? Perhaps our minds are more affected if we comprehend the meaning, but I don’t know about the spirit.

  4. 1. Why prefer choirs over instrumental music? At least that avoids the language problem (although if one person brings his tuba and the other a gu-zheng…)

    2. Isn’t a choir-leader a kind of clergy, and therefore forbidden in the Baha’i Faith? And wouldn’t hymn-singing be a kind of ritual, similar to Christian church services?

    3. Also, a picked choir means that only some people (i.e. the ones who can sing well) get to participate.

    4. Some forms of music are loved by some ethnic groups (or generations), but are offensive to other groups. Rap, for example.

    5. In Islamic tradition, “music” is not considered a part of religion (rather a worldly activity like drinking), and things like Qur’an-chanting are not considered musical. Does Baha’i tradition preserve this distinction? Not in the verses above, but there may be others.

    6. It is easy for this kind of arrangement to degenerate into a “Baha’i talent show” with little spiritual basis.

    1. Jorge,
      Thanks for your comment. I love the vibrancy of your questions! My thoughts about these aren’t any more authoritative than anyone else’s might be, but I would like to share a few.

      A choir director does not have a personal responsibility for anyone else’s spiritual progress and does not mediate between an individual and God, so it seems quite different to me than clergy.

      I love instrumental music and play a number of instruments myself. I don’t think one type of music is better than another. However, since Bahá’u’lláh specifically says that only the human voice is to be used in the Houses of Worship, there is a need for vocal music based on scripture. There is no problem with everyone participating in the singing, but a trained and practised choir can sing pieces that would be impossible to do without rehearsal. Both are wonderful additions to devotional gatherings. Of course, every person and every culture will prefer certain styles, but this is part of striving for unity in diversity.

      Since I don’t read Arabic, I don’t know if there is a distinction made between music and chanting of verses. I love both and consider them both offerings to God. As quoted above, Bahá’u’lláh has “specifically proclaimed that music, sung or played, is spiritual food for soul and heart”, so it is not considered a secular thing only.

      Bahá’u’lláh clearly states that “acts of worship must be observed according to that which God hath revealed in His Book”. To me this implies that in whatever directions our human egos may take things, we come back together in acts of worship. So, while a talent show mentality may resonate for some singers, during worship that must be put aside and we must follow the guidance of Bahá’u’lláh concerning worship.

  5. Never once, in my forty-five years experience in the Baha’i community, have I known group singing (the entire audience) to be part of a national convention program. and only three other times at a lower level other than summer school sessions which are more informal than conventions anyway. Two of those three attempts were successful in that we had a competent person playing instrumental music to maintain the tempo and notes. People found it odd, but enjoyed the experience of hearing themselves be part of a larger group. It was a unifying experience.
    Lack of group/audience/congregational singing is, in my mind, one of the most serious defeciencies of the contemporary Baha’i community. I applaud and encourage any effort to remedy that.

  6. Duane,
    I don’t know where you’re living, but I’ve had a somewhat different experience. At the US National Convention, the delegates did sing-alongs just about every day. Not only was it a nice break from the heavy consultation, it was also unifying and spiritually uplifting. We did the same at our Unit Conventions there and now we do sing-alongs at our Unit Convention in Australia, too.

    Incorporating the arts into Baha’i gatherings, such as Conventions, Feasts, Holy Days, Reflection Meetings, etc, is often easiest done by having someone lead some singing. You don’t necessarily have to sound good to feel good about it. Hopefully, you can help inject some group singing into your gatherings. It really does make joyful difference!

  7. Dear Alan, Would it be too much trouble to provide the chords for the Ruhi children’s classes songs you have composed? In particular, Grade 3 lesson 1 Whatever, therefore,….Thank you anyway for composing them. Kindest regards, N

    1. Nancy,
      I suspect you are referring to the recording Lorraine and I did of the song “The Most Exalted Station” by Larry McGee of Los Nice Guys. You can find the recording at http://www.losniceguys.com/Ruhi_Book_3_Songs.html. There’s a link right at the top of that page to “email Larry”. I’m sure he’d be happy to share the chords (and sheet music) with you if you ask.

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