We’ve come to an important study in this music primer and I’m glad you’ve been following the subject with me. I have taken a slow path to get to this lesson, in order to get you in tune with my language and thinking. Now I’m ready to present some thoughts that may be most helpful as you work through the application of appropriate principles in your own expression of church music.
I have pointed out that music is a complex entity with many variables, such as genre, lyrics, purpose and so on. I drew your attention to the basic three elements of music, being melody, harmony and rhythm. I then took some time to point out that music is both powerful and spiritual. God has music in heaven and God’s servants used music significantly both in Biblical history and church history as well.
Since music is diverse it tends to become an area of contention. People have their own preferences toward certain styles of music and certain musical artists. When those preferences seek to have their way in church music God’s people can end up at loggerheads over the issue.
The best way to work through the challenge is not to have our own opinion, but to have principles by which the matter can be evaluated, both musically and spiritually. This primer is designed to move you toward some principles that will help you in your setting.
Body Soul and Spirit
We have seen that music has three primary elements: melody; harmony; and rhythm. It has been pointed out by others before my time that these three elements may have a direct link to the three elements of human life: spirit; soul; and body.
This is an interesting thought as it seems to make some sense on closer investigation. So let me take you for a stroll through this connection, so you can make your own assessment of its validity.
Spirit and Melody
Melody is the primary quality of music and song. If you take away all the accompaniment, harmony and rhythmic support for a song the song can still survive. You can even modify the harmony and rhythm, and the song will still survive. Melody is the principal thing that makes the song the song that it is.
Similarly the spirit of a person is the real essence of that person. The body can grow older or fatter and the mind can work less effectively or the emotions be hardened by hurts, but the essential person is still the same.
The suggestion is, then, that melody speaks into the spirit of a person. The simple air notes of a melody, the part of the song that you could hum or whistle to yourself, is able to penetrate to your spirit level.
God gave you, in your vocal capacity, the ability to sing one note at a time, just as a melody requires. When you sing on your own, without accompaniment, you are singing a melody. Your spirit can both express itself in melody and be impacted by melody.
If this construct is realistic then melody is the most important element of any song, as it is the part of the song that ministers to you at your spiritual level.
Soul and Harmony
Harmony speaks to the soul, which involves the mind, emotions and will. When chords are added to a song the emotions are evoked and awakened in a deeper way. This is a positive thing in that the soul can join with the spirit and support the spirit’s experience of the song.
The danger is that the emotions will become so aroused that they swamp the spirit’s role and drown out the deeper spiritual quality that should be protected. We have all experienced the joy of having our emotions swept along by music. The joy, sadness, or other emotions evoked by music may feel very special, but they are a substitute for spiritual experience. They are counterfeit. When music moves you to tears those tears are quite different, and of less value than the tears of repentance, for example.
Through history church leaders were aware of the ability of some music to stir evocative emotional experiences. They sought to remove such music from the church. This was not because they were against the enjoyment of music. It was to protect the worshipper from a counterfeit experience. They wanted worship to remain pure and spiritual, not soulish and vain.
Body and Rhythm
The connection between our body and rhythm doesn’t take much pointing out. Whenever music is needed to prompt physical response a stronger rhythm or beat is employed, as in marching music. The physical processes of toe-tapping, dancing or moving to the music come quite naturally when an energising rhythm is employed.
Christians have used their marching music, even in recent times in the UK, and they have had joyful, energetic music with which they have praised the Lord. 90 year old Miriam’s dance with the tambourine would have been rhythmic, there on the shores of the Red Sea.
Once again, however, we have the problem of awakening a non-spiritual response which could easily distract people from spiritual engagement in worship.
Whole Person Worship
We are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, so it would be wrong to suggest that energy and emotion are out of place in worship, praise, celebration or church in general. Our whole being can be put into the process of glorifying God.
Church traditions which reject those possibilities need to reflect on why they wish to frustrate what God mandates.
But here’s the rub; modern church music seems highly charged with the emotional and physical. That newest tradition is in great danger of creating counterfeit experiences in the participants. It is possible that many who think they have engaged in a spiritual process have simply indulged their personal, fleshly appetites.
What I Have Seen
I have been a church attender for about half a century. So I have seen a thing or two over the years. My earliest memories of church music involved hymns. In my teen years a form of “chorus” became popular. These choruses were in fact the choruses out of the hymns, dropping out the slower, less catchy verses and indulging our love of song by singing only the favourite parts.
What happened in that process was that the theology of the hymns, found in the verses, was lost. Singing became a form of hit parade, favourites, rather than directed worship.
Then, during the days of the charismatic renewal, Bible songs and choruses old and new became increasingly popular. Some lovely devotional songs emerged, along with some very helpful Bible verses set to music. Engagement with the songs tended to be very real and spiritually refreshing for a season, but as the revival tapered off the hit-parade mode tended to creep in again.
In the past 20 years two new components became ubiquitous. One was the insistence on the off-beat. Everyone modern song, song leader and singer seemed to forget that we all clapped on the on-beat and that the on-beat is the logical place to give the emphasis. At the same time we saw the upgrading of PA systems to enable high volume amplification to become possible. With that came the era of noise for the sake of the noise. This followed the idiom of the rock concert, and as younger people took over the music and sound they promoted what may have been the only musical experience they really knew – loud!
Sweet Sweet Spirit
Through all of that there have been many times when I have enjoyed a deeply spiritual time of worship through song. I have also been in many settings where songs, hymns, spontaneous singing and song of the Lord have been so very sweet, for both me and others.
Christian music may be in a complicated place, but the Spirit of God continues to touch lives through the music, and through many different musical expressions. Praise God that He is not as caught up with the debates about music as His people tend to be at times.
The principle that I would suggest to you here, though, is to seek to encourage spiritual connection through melody, more than emotional or physical arousal through harmony, beat or sheer volume. When the music fades only that which was real within our spirit will have any lasting impact. So, if you have a church and not an aerobics class, and your congregation are Christians not people in therapy, I strongly encourage you to make plenty of room for worship that is not overpowered by emotional or physical elements – ie: evocative harmonies and driving rhythms.
But there’s more and we’ll delve into some other considerations in future posts on this primer.