Someone in another shower stall at the gym started singing "Amazing Grace," and soon other voices joined over the sounds of running water, until the tiled walls of the women's locker room echoed. When the last tones died away, we peered out of our showers at one another and giggled with delight – and almost awe – at what had occurred.
It was not the first time I had felt the special power in that song.
A music teacher friend says the song is powerful because it is built on the ancient pentatonic scale, which some believe may be a natural musical framework for humans. This five-tone scale is the basis of African- American jazz and for folk music in places as far from one another as China, Poland, Scotland, and Ethiopia.
My husband and I got a sense of how different the song is from the music of some other cultures when we were living with our children in Israel, and my parents and sister came to visit.
We knew a man with a car who had said he would drive us where we wanted to go during their visit. Joseph agreed in part because, as an Arab Christian, he felt an obligation to take care of my Christian family. I thought that was just talk until I saw the gentle respect with which he treated my white-haired father, as though he were an elder of his own family.
One afternoon, Joseph drove us to a chapel at a site near the Sea of Galilee. As we entered the chapel, a group of American pilgrims were singing a familiar hymn, and the acoustics magnified and echoed the harmonies.
After they had left, I asked Joseph what the songs in his church sounded like. "A prayer," he answered. And then he closed his eyes and sang a prayer for us. The musical lines of Arabic seemed to curve in the air, vibrating and then forming smooth arabesques and filling the echoing space with strange and beautiful sounds.
When he finished, he looked at us to respond, and my sister and I answered with the foursquare sound of "Amazing Grace."
Even more recently, I again met the song in an unexpected place.
My husband and I were teaching English in China for a year, and we were spending a holiday visiting a beautiful regional wilderness area (if a valley filled with 100,000 tourists can still be considered a wilderness).
Even though our Chinese language skills were negligible, we had signed on to take a three-day tour of the area that was to be given only in Chinese. We had done this because we decided that our goal was to see the spectacular natural pillars and peaks shaped by the wind, which we could appreciate without much commentary in any language.
On the train taking us to the area, we met a Chinese teenager eager to practice his English. As it turned out, he was also part of our tour group, and as we climbed and hiked that first afternoon, we were glad that this teenager, whose English name was George, was always nearby.
The final day of the tour, George and my husband elected to climb the highest peak, and I chose to hike a valley trail with ever-changing views of the craggy mountaintops.
At the end of the day, the valley- hikers were sitting near the park entrance waiting for the mountain climbers.
We waited a long time, and my meager conversational Chinese had long since been exhausted when the woman next to me began quietly singing a song.
The words were Chinese, but the melody was unmistakably that of "Amazing Grace."
I joined her, singing in English, and then she placed her hand tightly over her heart, and we looked at each other and nodded, having just said a great deal to each other.