Imperfect harmony

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You know how it is that sometimes something very ordinary strikes you as meaningful in a new way?

For example, I attend Sabbath services every week at a synagogue near my home. There are a number of places in the service where everyone is expected to sing along or sing in response.

Normally, at these times, I hear mostly my own voice in my head. But if I stop singing and listen for a moment, I can hear the whole room singing as if it were a symphony.

There are the lady sopranos (with a diva or two), some altos, the male tenors and baritones, an occasional bass. All blend, usually, into a nice, rich tone, at least when the tune being led is a familiar one.

But the other day, I was aware not of a symphony, but of a cacophony. A fellow sitting near me, apparently a visitor or newcomer, had begun to sing loudly right at the start of the song — but at a note or two lower than the leader and, to my mind, the rest of us in the room.

Now, I happen to be used to the fact that a different gentleman who often attends the same service cannot carry a tune. I have learned to tune out his near misses on those occasions when he chooses to sing along.

But this new fellow was different. He didn’t have any trouble keeping to his key. He was dead on — just in a different key from everyone else, and it wasn’t a key that harmonized.

He even had a nice voice. He probably was well aware of that, too, as he continued to sing quite loudly and clearly in his own personal key, every single note clashing against the others in the room, grating on my nerves.

In the sanctuary as a whole, his dissonance was probably negligible. In fact, I may have been the only person aware of it.

For some reason, though, it continued to occupy me long after the song was over. (Yes, I daydream in synagogue. Sometimes.)

So I kept thinking: Why did this fellow, who evidently was quite musical, not realize that he was out of sync with everyone else?

Or did he realize it and not care? Was he, perhaps, trying to make a statement? Did he think that, somehow, he was singing in the “right key” and everyone else was wrong?

Was he listening so intently to his own voice that he remained truly unaware of the dissonance he was causing? Or did he view the clashing notes as a problem created by others, not himself?

I have no idea who the fellow was or what, if anything, he was thinking. But I couldn’t help but see the whole experience as a metaphor of sorts — for human differences in personality, political beliefs, lifestyles and the like.

Most of us are content to play our role in society and to focus for the most part on ourselves, with some secondary attention to those around us and to society as a whole.

We prefer to do the work, or sing the part, that comes most naturally to us. (Perhaps that’s because when we must strain to reach beyond our register, our voices become “falsetto.”)

Then there are some whose song/personality/ belief is a bit different. It sounds to the rest of us like it’s off-key, or as if those people can’t carry the tune the way most of us can. But they’re singing along just the same, eager to participate in their way, and we generally respect that.

But it can be harder to deal with those who, knowingly and unabashedly, insist on singing loudly in a different key altogether — a key, in fact, that creates dissonance with the song the vast majority of us sing.

Now, it’s interesting to realize that, were we to listen to this other song on its own, we might well think it is a perfectly fine song, as melodic as any other. It only produces dissonance when it’s sung a half-tone or so differently from the song others sing. (After all, it takes two to make a dissonance.)

If yet more people start to pick up the same “off” melody, the resulting “dischord” can grow even more noticeable for awhile. But in some cases, so many others adopt the new melody that it can supercede the first one.

We hear a lot nowadays about our diversity in culture, our conflicting political parties, and the split in opinions that deeply divide us. These are not subtle differences, and they can tear apart a family, an institution, even a government.

Yet, on some level, we are all just trying to sing our song — sometimes following the notes, sometimes riffing on the melody, other times purposely belting out something completely different.

It’s all just part of what it means to be a free human being, a member of the chorus, each with our own unique voice.