Christian Music Primer

Music is a contentious issue in today’s churches. Traditional music has given way in many places to what we call contemporary worship music. Music has become a big dollar industry and those who control the market stand to make big bucks.

What was once a stable area of rich heritage is now a dog’s breakfast of temporary hit songs quickly falling into neglect as “too old” just a year or two later. Theology has given way to feel good lyrics and worship has given way to performance.

In the face of the arguments and counter-arguments which rage from time to time I want to take you back to some basics and have you look at the situation through a couple of different windows. In all that you may become better able to discern the appropriate music for the settings you have some influence over.

Musical Tapestry

The wonderful world of music is a rich tapestry of elements. Students learning an instrument know that there is the practical and the theory, usually taught and tested separately. Those who practice an instrument know that there is the ability to play and the separate ability to perform on the instrument.

Those labouring through music theory know that they must consider a range of chord structures, simple and compound time signatures, myriad arrangement possibilities, and so on. Music is indeed a tapestry of interwoven elements, some enriching those around them and others detracting form them.

Getting it Wrong

I once performed in an impromptu ensemble of half a dozen enthusiastic instrumentalists, all making up our own variation on a Christian song. When we begged for feedback from those we hoped to impress we were told that, since no-one was playing the melody, the listeners couldn’t even work out what song we were playing. We had it wrong and our enthusiasm did not save the day.

I have heard equally enthusiastic performers make a hash of their performance by all playing or singing the melody line. Then there are those who can’t hold a tune, forget the words, mess up the rhythm, and otherwise mess up their musical presentation.

Sorting Through The Elements

Since music is made up of many ingredients and it is possible to get them in the wrong mix I will launch this Primer on Christian Music with an attempt to identify some of the competing elements. I am not trying to be high-brow about this, impressing you with my exactitude or profundity of insight. Instead, as in much of what I write, I want to encourage the practitioner and assist the regular, pedestrian thinker to grapple with the subject. I trust my simplicity does not offend you, but rather provides a workable set of reference points from which progress can be promoted.

Off the top of my head, let me list some of the obvious musical elements. We have melody, harmony and rhythm, each with various sub-sets, such as syncopation, rules of chord progression, identifiable rhythm tracks, discord, off-beat or on-beat rhythms and so on.

We then have the musical genre, such as classical style, rhythm and blues, rap music, rock and roll, and so on. These are standardised formats of harmony and rhythm, augmented by choice of instrument and vocal style. Standardised form is also a developed aspect of music, and, of course, there are variations on these as well.

Presentation of the sound can be live or recorded. It can involve acoustic or electronic instruments, with real or synthesised sounds. These are the voices through which the music presented.

Presentation extends then to inclusive, congregational singing, or the performance alternative. Many modern churches struggle to get their congregation joining in the music, while they have crafted a clearly ‘performance’ model which works against audience participation.

The Issue of Volume

An interesting modern development, since the advent of sound systems, is the place of ‘volume’ in the music mix. Amplified volume has become an element of music in and of itself. While an un-amplified brass band can be loud by virtue of how loud the instruments are played and how many people are blowing raspberries, the PA system allows any sound to made about as loud as imaginable.

Most churches have sound systems sufficient to do permanent damage to the audience. Years ago this was not possible, but now it is taken for granted.

Amplified volume may not sound like an element of music, but ask around many churches today and get reviews of their music, and you will find that volume is one of the most remarked on aspects. So we now have volume as part of the mix.

But Wait, There’s More

Emotion plays a large part in some musical forms. The purpose of the music and how it is used within Christian meetings is also a significant factor. How much time is devoted to music as a percentage of the service is also worth considering. Then there is the whole issue of lyrical content, messages conveyed by words and style and the depth of theological content.

Questions beg answers, such as is the music for the congregation, the performers, the Lord, the church traditions or the visitors in the service, or to reinforce the sermon topic, to move the congregation, to affirm the theology or soothe the soul?

Who should have say about the music? Should it be the long term members who like it the way it was, the youth who threaten to leave unless the music suits them, the pastor as the boss, the denomination as the arbiter of their members’ spiritual journey, or the organist who insists in tunes he can play?

Let the Fight Begin

Churches struggle with issues such as: “The music is too loud!” “I don’t know the songs anymore!” “Why don’t we sing this or that song anymore?” “There’s no melody in the songs these days!” “It’s more like a concert than a worship session”, “That’s last year’s song and so it’s out of date!” and so on. In some churches the battle lines are bitter and entrenched. In other churches a mediocre compromise is reached with no parties liking the outcome.

We don’t have to start any fights about music. They are already underway. So let’s move toward some reasonable grounds for sorting through the issues, what ever our preferences may be.

Now that I have you thinking about the topic look out for more of this primer in coming weeks.

Thomas Hastings the Albino Musical Genius

This is the day that Thomas Hastings was born in Connecticut, in 1784.

At the age of 12 he and his family moved to Clinton, New York State, “by ox sledge”. He studied music from textbooks, without instruction, and in 1806 became the head of a singing school. Despite little education and “acute near-sightedness”, and the fact that he was an albino, he became a genius in the world of church music. He could read a page of music when placed upside down!” (Finney, by K. Hardman, page 252).

Hastings was married in Buffalo, N.Y., Sept. 15, 1822, to Mary Seymour. He taught singing in Troy, N.Y. during 1822-23, and was editor of the “Western Recorder”, a religious journal, at Utica, N.Y. from 1823-32, meanwhile lecturing on music in Albany, New York city, Philadelphia, Pa. and Princeton. N.J. He resided in New York city from 1832-72, where he held the position of choir master, first in Dr. Mason’s church, afterward in Dr. Hutton’s and finally in the West Presbyterian church.

He contributed frequently to the musical and religious periodicals, published the “Musical Magazine” for the years 1835-37 and edited many collections of music. He received the degree of Mus. Doc. from the University of the city of New York in 1858. Evangelist Charles Finney employed Thomas Hastings as music director at the Chatham Street Chapel, New York.

For 40 years Hastings taught music, trained choirs, composed, compiled and published hymnals, wrote 600 hymns for tunes and 1000 tunes for hymns!

The tune “Toplady” used for Rock of Ages… comes from his pen, as does “Ortonville”, to which we sing: Majestic sweetness sits enthroned…

Among his best known words are ‘Hail to the brightness of Zion’s glad morning’ and ‘Come, ye disconsolate’, in which he improved upon the work of an earlier poet.

One writer states that Thomas Hastings “did valuable service in his day in stemming the tide of deteriorating influences in American hymnody and maintaining the ideal of devoutness in church praise” (Handbook to the Hymnary, page 363).

One is tempted to add, “Oh, for another Thomas Hastings!”

He died in Vermont, USA, on 3 January, 1918.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.