From the Shofar’s Wail to Freddie Mercury’s Solo

Can it be the shofar that put the “rock” in rock ‘n’ roll? By tracing the historical evolution of Temple music, a deep link emerges between your local High Holy Day services and the musical acts that light up the stage today.

Freddie Mercury led Queen into musical glory with countless powerful rock ballads that may have evolved from a very familiar instrument. Credit: Carl Lender.

With its diverse genres, dramatic melodies, and timeless character, few songs have etched themselves into modern musical consciousness like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Imagine, for a moment, that in place of its classic guitar solo, the song peaks with the coarse, mournful bellow of the shofar, the ram’s horn instrument that captures in its echoed cry what words fail to articulate.

Without the shofar’s time-penetrating influence, it is possible that contemporary music would lack fundamental elements, says John Sinclair, who during the 1970s opened the first 24-track studio in Europe. It is in that studio that Queen recorded and mixed “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Now a lecturer in Talmudic logic and Jewish Philosophy at the Ohr Somoyach/Tanenbaum College of Judaic Studies in Jerusalem, Sinclair says he is “not a big fan of [contemporary] Jewish Music” because it “sounds about as Jewish as Led Zeppelin wearing tefillin.” Instead, he suggests investigating original Jewish music—that of the Temple period.

Over 2,000 years ago, a 12-man chorus and a 12-instrument (including the shofar) orchestra of Levites played music and psalms as an inextricable component of the Temple’s daily worship service. While some of the orchestra’s instruments like the lyre have fallen out of fashion, the shofar has continually served an integral role in Jewish worship since the time of the Temple. Aside from its place in the orchestra, the shofar was used to announce the holidays and Jubilee year, accompany processions, signify the start of a war, and was blown with trumpets on the High Holidays.

Historical musicologists, who study the development of music styles over time, assume that Temple music was monophonic, containing a single melody without harmony. Temple music used the seven-note diatonic scale.

“Everyone knows the diatonic scale,” says Sinclair—who besides for Queen recorded Elton John and co-produced a quadruple platinum Foreigner’s album with two Billboard Top 10 hits. “It was made famous by that great musicologist Julie Andrews in her unforgettable contribution to Western culture: ‘Do, a deer, a female deer...etc.’ The melodic structure of Temple music always returned to the tonic note, or ‘do.’”      

According to Sinclair, the shofar’s influence made its way into other music forms after the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE.

“When the Romans burned the House of God and exiled the Jewish People, they also exiled our music,” he says. “They took it into captivity and made it sing for a new master.”

Specifically, early Christians, who at the turn of the Common Era were still a fringe sect of Judaism, incorporated music they heard in the Temple into their own practice. As Christianity developed in Rome, the orchestral psalms of the Levites blended with Grecian influences to form the Gregorian chant. Like the music of the Temple, Gregorian chants had a single melody, based on a diatonic scale.

“The mesmerizing quality of the chant comes from an exquisite longing always to return to the root note of the scale, the tonic—to return to ‘do’,” Sinclair says.

Gregorian chants laid a foundation for Renaissance music, which built on Temple music’s monophonic form by adding harmonies and multiple layers of interwoven melodies. The subsequent Classical Period employed instrumental melody-dominated homophony, adding chordal support to Temple music’s single-melody form. Most popular music today uses melody-dominated homophony, with one voice accompanied by chordal instrumentation.

Contemporary genres—jazz, blues, rock, pop, hip hop, etc.—blend features of ethnic and cultural folk rhythms with components of the Temple’s, and the shofar’s, musical legacy. While it is difficult to isolate the exact effect of the shofar, it has surely left its mark on songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Containing a cappela, ballad, opera, and hard rock sections, the song is an elemental depot of all musical forms built upon Temple music, even ending gracefully on “do.”

In the words of Sinclair, “Music can come to us like a familiar voice caressing our souls with the shared knowledge of our deepest sadness, and it can fly with our highest elation. Music consoles and exalts only because it, itself, can connect to the two extremities of feeling.”

Jacob Nash is a freelance writer and owner of Graphic Design. His hobbies include songwriting and spectator collegiate Quidditch.

Posted on September 6, 2011 and filed under Arts, High Holidays, Special Sections.