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A few thoughts on church music

March 10, 2015

A friend posted a link in Facebook to an interview with Graham Kendrick found on Youtube titled “Why Aren’t We Singing.” It is well worth a watch by music leaders in churches.

I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own on the subject.

Someone posted a response to the FB post about the significance of not having hymnals anymore for congregational singing. To this I offer a hearty “Amen!”. Nowadays, the congregation is dependent upon either familiarity with the song or following the music worship leader (or lead singer). The latter can be difficult because the music sometimes drowns out the singer, and then the congregation trails behind–often for a couple of verses–until they catch on to the melody (some melody lines of songs I’ve been singing for a few years are still uncertain to me because it’s hard to hear the lead singer). Even if one is familiar with the song, churches sometimes sing a song a bit differently from other churches where we’ve worshipped; we have to be ready to adjust to the music leader before us. Is it any wonder why the congregation might be mumbling along? We can do little else.

I know that hymnals are expensive, and that many songs now haven’t been put into hymn books anyway (I still remember the old spiral-bound “Singspiration” song books put out in the ’60s with the new, hip Christians songs). But they all do have written music somewhere. In my church experiences from decades gone by, the practice was to add a sheet with the music in the church bulletin (or worship folder or whatever a given church calls it), and that sheet often included at least the treble staff with the melody. That can be done today without much additional cost. Or, why not put it on the overhead? Instead of, say, eight lines of text, put four lines with the melody above each. This would make singing so much easier for the congregation. We could learn new songs more quickly, we could all sing the same melody, and we wouldn’t be mumbling along as Kendrick said. Hymnbooks would be even better, in my opinion, since the parts are visible, too. Even if songs used now aren’t suited for four-part harmonies, there could be two-part harmonies (people singing on stage often do add their own harmonies). Another benefit is learning to read music. How many people in my Baby Boomer generation and before learned to read music from singing in church on Sundays (or had their sight-reading improved by it)?

The only two reasons I can think of for not providing the melodies for people are 1) any expense incurred, and 2) a limitation on free-style singing it might mean for the people leading the music. The former can be dealt with, I think, as noted above. Regarding free-style singing, worship leaders need to remember that church congregational singing isn’t performance, as Kendrick noted; it isn’t for the singers and musicians up front primarily but for the people in the pews (or folding chairs). It is congregational singing. The is still room for some improvisation; it might, in fact, make that easier, because people would be following the printed music and not the song leader.

Another problem with music currently is the mix-and-match approach that, I suppose, grows out of a “postmodern” mindset. Like putting together clothing that doesn’t match or putting a facade on a building that doesn’t match the rest of the building, lyrics are sometimes attached to melodies that don’t match them. Even mix-and-match clothing styles need to show a certain sense; otherwise one can look junky and not cool at all. Sometimes new arrangements are simply distracting because the fit is so bad. Sometimes they are so unfamiliar that they make singing an old song more difficult than singing a new, previously-unknown one because our minds keep going to what we know. Referring again to my years-gone-by experience, melodies were sometimes switched out with other ones, but the new melodies weren’t themselves new. The words of one hymn were set to the melody of another. This added a freshness to the song, but, since the melody was familiar, the transition was easy.

I can’t help but wonder, when an old hymn is given a completely unfamiliar melody or rhythm in congregational singing, what’s the point? Is it just a matter of a music leader or musicians wanting to do something different and have some fun? Sure, it’s nice to make some changes here and there, but they need to be done with sensitivity. (Regarding fun, for now I’ll just observe that not everything in life can or should be put into the fun/no fun category. Life is richer than that. But I’ll save that subject for another day.)

I am sure that some (maybe most) people reading this will think I’m just being a stick-in-the-mud with my complaints. “Can’t handle change,” is a typical response. That reveals a modernist impulse that change is good in itself. In modernistic thinking, except for in some art, change still had a rationality to it. Now, in postmodern times, it is more willy-nilly. It is so ingrained that change is good that it doesn’t have to be justified; objections do. I reject that notion. Not all change is necessary (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), and not all change is good. Another typical response is that “beauty is in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder.” There is some truth to that, but it isn’t absolute. Who would say that (sorry for the extreme example) a pile of dead bodies is beautiful? But if we take that maxim as the rule, as the bottom line, the individual is completely authoritative over what he or she thinks is beautiful, and no one can object to outrageous things like what I just said. There is no beauty in things themselves, and no parameters. But no one would agree to that. I’d also like to note that, if we stay with that commonly-held maxim, whose ears (in the case of music) are to have precedence? Those of the musicians, or those of the people in the congregation? (But enough on that for now; yet another subject for another day.)

So I ask music leaders to keep these two things in mind. First, there is integrity to music itself; lyrics don’t have to been kept with the same melodies (although if the songwriter wrote both words and melody, one might give that serious consideration when deciding whether to make a change). However, the melody should match the words. Should hymns with lyrics that touch us in sensitive places (think of “It Is Well With My Soul”) be matched with happy-clappy, toe-tapping bouncy music? I’ll play my cards here plainly and say that I find it offensive (or bordering on it) when musicians treat lyrics that way. And not only the lyrics but the congregation as well. I include the congregation here because (and this is my second point), musicians need to take the experience and the heart of the people in front of them to heart, and not just think of them as people to be led (or led ever however so gently to a place the musician wants them to go for the musician’s own benefit). This may be easier for older Christians like me to understand, but church music becomes a precious thing to us. It’s getting harder now, because so many churches don’t use hymns I grew up on very often anymore, but I can often remember not only the lyrics but the places I’ve been in worship when those hymns are used in worship today. They are meaningful, and it’s disconcerting to say the least when they are treated like toys to be played with by the musicians.

I am not suggesting that change can’t be made (really I’m not), that there is only one way to be “fitting,” but I am saying that music leaders need to dump any notion they may have that the music is theirs to do with as they will–like a hair stylist who decides for you that you need a change he or she likes and, without your permission, starts cutting away–and remember to show respect to the music itself and to the congregation whom they are supposed to be serving.


From → The church, Worship

One Comment
  1. Rick Wade permalink

    The above blog was posted on my Facebook page, and it drew a response from a thoughtful friend who is a teacher of ethnomusicology and ethnodoxology. He wrote this:

    “As far as making the melody available to the congregation for each song, some musical worship leaders are in agreement with that, and choose one of the options you suggest. . . . As far as giving brand-new melodies to old hymn texts, this is called ‘retuning hymns’ and one of my colleagues has cataloged 1,000+ from the last 15 years. Quite a lot has been written about it (favorably), I’ll give some primarily links.”

    Here are the two links he posted:

    And here are some follow-up notes of my own.

    Just to reiterate, I’m not against all change in general, and I’m not in principle set against creating new melodies for old songs. I like the idea of bringing good songs out of obscurity by setting them in a musical language people can understand. I also like some new melodies of songs/hymns (I’m obviously making no distinction here between the two) that still are in use, as long as it’s done tastefully and sensitively. Not long ago I posted something about this on Facebook, and a young friend said something about how she doesn’t like the new melody of a particular song (which I can’t just now remember). I didn’t know there was an older melody for that song, and I really like the new one (I might not like the old one if I ever hear it!). So I’m not opposed to change. I’m just opposed to it when it doesn’t keep the integrity of the song in mind and when it doesn’t take the congregation into consideration.

    Before joining All Saints Dallas, we attended an older Bible Church in Dallas. By “older,” I mean it has an older congregation; many people there were together in another church for decades. What does the music minister do considering that there are, on the one hand, these older saints whose taste in music is as valid as younger tastes, and, on the other, younger saints who’d like something that sounds more 21st century? What a minefield! There are two errors (at least!) that one can fall into. One is when younger Christians (seemingly) bulldoze the “old” ways and bring in what they like and then snicker at people who don’t like it (being a little older now, I’m more sensitive to the condescension of youth that easily matches that of my graying generation!). They don’t own the church. A second error is just the opposite, when older Christians are dead-set in their ways and act like the church is theirs and fight all change.

    Again I would say, as vague and fuzzy-edged as these charges may be, we need to respect the music and respect the congregation. Regarding the latter, if new melodies are being introduced with old songs/hymns, then music leaders must do a good job of introducing them. Give the congregation the melody to look at, play the new arrangement for the congregation, and then have them sing it. And don’t overdo it. Introduce new melodies here and there. Older melodies can still be played with new arrangements rather than changing the melodies (the best I’ve heard were on the old Second Chapter of Acts Hymns and Hymns II albums). There is both familiarity and freshness. (And by the way, older congregants might be served sometimes by keeping some of the old chords so they can chime in with the harmonies they learned long ago. It’s nice not only for the sake of nostalgia but also because it adds to the richness of the singing when I hear people around me singing alto, tenor, and bass lines.)

    There’s still one other aspect of respect related to the congregation that has to do with style per se. It doesn’t make sense (to me, anyway) to set hymns to country-sounding melodies (or rhythms) for a congregation made up of professionals accustomed to classical music or to use jazz arrangements at a cowboy church.

    To sum up, as I see it there is no inherent rightness to either using new melodies or arrangements or staying with old ones (the idea of the importance of the integrity of the music being understood; emphasis here on new and old). If a congregation is older, give them music that is meaningful. Likewise for younger ones. If a certain style appeals to one congregation, don’t force another on them. And always remember that the point is to lead people into worship, not (primarily) to exercise one’s creative freedom as a musician.

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