Christian Music Primer 3

As we explore Christian Music in this series I have come to consideration of the spiritual aspects of music. While music is a physiological phenomenon, with measurable and definable elements, it is also profoundly spiritual. This post explores something of the spiritual realities associated with music.

The objective of this primer is to enable ordinary people and musical professionals alike to come to terms with the competing and dispirit ideas about music and resolve some of them by having principles on hand that assist that process. I hope, by God’s grace, to enable you to have practical wisdom, not opinions or esoteric hypothetical arguments.

Review and Reminders

Music is created from multiple elements, but the three most foundational are: Melody; Harmony; and Rhythm. These three work together to create each individual musical expression. They are not the whole story of music, but because of their foundational roles they are the place we have started with as we go back to basics.

Melody is the most foundational element of music or songs. It is the song itself. Harmony enriches the song and supports the theme of the lyrics by evoking a depth of emotion or feeling. Harmony involves additional notes being played along with the melody, to colour the mood or character of the melody. Rhythm is the way in which the song moves forward. That movement could be regular and even, strident and forceful or stumbling and inconsistent. Natural rhythm simply reflects the tempo and flow of language and nature. By imposing a stronger beat into that rhythm a more definite sense of movement is proclaimed, assisting in marching, dancing or movement.

Spiritual Music

Music is spiritual for several reasons. In one sense, everything is spiritual. God created us all and placed us in a moral universe. Therefore everything that impacts us or that we respond to is part of our moral response before a moral God in a moral universe. Music certainly plays a large role in many people’s lives, both for its musical and lyric content. That makes music spiritual. Music, like everything else we engage with, should be used as part of our highest callings, to love God and to love our neighbour.

Music is also a vehicle. It conveys emotion and its songs convey words which impact us. As a vehicle it must be used for the appropriate moral purposes, to carry the right things. Music has been used to promote godless messages and encourage immoral behaviour. Music can then be a tool for godly or evil purposes.

Music has drawing power. The fable of the Pied Piper playing his pipe to draw rats and then children to follow him is allegorical of music’s ability to draw people. Music has long been used to attract people’s attention and to draw crowds together. William Booth used brass bands to draw crowds over a century ago, leading to the birth of the Salvation Army with its emphasis on brass bands. Because music has this attractive, drawing power, it is a tool of spiritual significance.

Music also induces responses from people, both good and bad. Certain rock groups in the 1960’s and 70’s were recognised for their ability to awaken youth to a desire for drugs. Rock and roll was so named by the Negro communities in which it was spawned because of its overt sexual influence. Rock and roll was the Negro slang for sexual intimacy, so they named their music after that direct connotation. A youth confided to me recently that he cannot survive without his modern music. He recognises that he is addicted to it.

God and Godly People Use Music

Music and song exists in heaven (Revelation 15:3). Jesus sang hymns (Mathew 26:30), although we do not know the form of that music. King David composed songs to God and even created special instruments to perform that music with. Christians are told to sing to the Lord in a new song (Psalm 96:1).

When David played his harp evil spirits were controlled.
“And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” 1Samuel 16:23

Prophets called for musicians to assist them in hearing from God.
“But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the LORD came upon him.” 2Kings 3:15

Church History

Throughout church history Christian music has been a major aspect of worship. Tens of thousands of hymns and songs have been written. Most revivals have prompted a whole new stream of songs to express the work that God is doing. Many of the leading evangelists used music and singers to attract crowds and prepare the people for the preaching of the gospel.

Some of the most magnificent music ever composed was written to express adoration to God. Some of the most magnificent organs are in churches or cathedrals. Some of the world’s finest musicians developed their skills in order to worship God.

Wesley composed hymns to help people remember his sermons and to teach theological truth. Hymn writers expressed their heart, or encapsulated truth into song, in every age and in just about every place. Church history is replete with hymns and hymn writers.

Rightly Dividing Music

So, having seen that music has a worthy place in heaven and the church, it is time to divide the elements of music into their relevant elements and see how to enhance the spiritual quality of music while avoiding its more distracting elements. That’s where we will go in the next instalment of this Christian Music Primer.

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.

Charles McCallon Alexander Music and Bibles

This is the day that Charles McCallon Alexander was born in a log house near Cloyd’s Creek, East Tennessee, USA, in 1867.

His father, John Darius Alexander, played the ‘fiddle’ and led the singing at the local Presbyterian Church. He also taught Charles to read music at a young age and to beat time with his hands. His mother was also a great influence, reading Moody’s sermons and talking much with him and his siblings. By the age of 9, he had read the entire Bible.

At the age of 13 young Charles “rose and walked timidly to the front (of the church) and made his first public confession of Christ” (C.M. Alexander, by his wife, Helen, page 21).

He studied music at Maryville University and eventually became a Professor of Music. His father’s death was pivotal in clinching his life of ministry. Doubting his father’s salvation, Charles asked God to confirm it to him, promising to serve the Lord if He did. When that assurance came to his heart as he peered up to the stars, Charles kept his word and engaged in Christian ministry.

After studying at Moody Bible Institute, he did evangelistic work with Mr. M. B. Williams, Georgia State Secretary for the YMCA for 8 years. He was also Billy Sunday’s song leader in Chicago.

In 1902 he found himself on a worldwide tour with Dr R.A. Torrey, starting in Australia before heading to England the following year. It was Alexander who led the massed choirs (“The Glory Song” became a firm favourite!) – and compiled the hymnbook that bears his name.

In Birmingham he married Helen Cadbury (her family having revolutionised the chocolate industry), and later travelled the world again, leading choirs for J. Wilbur Chapman.

Charles wanted to promote Bible reading, confident that it would lead people to faith. In 1906 he heard news of the “Testament Circles” in Philadelphia and that prompted Helen to tell her husband about her school initiative with “The Pocket Testament League”.

Alexander decided to revive his wife’s earlier initiative and in 1908 it was launched in Philadelphia and actively begun in Melbourne, Australia in 1909. During The Great War thousands of British and American soldiers were impacted by the league, and many testimonies of salvations poured in.

C.M. Alexander died in Birmingham, England, on 13 October, 1920, at the age of 53.

Helen continued the work of The Pocket Testament League and by 1936, there were 5 million members in TPTL. She died in 1969 at the age of 92, having seen millions of New Testaments carried in many pockets.

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.

Ira David Sankey Singing Revivalist

This is the day that … Ira David Sankey was born in Pennsylvania, in 1840. His father was a prominent man, a state senator, banker and editor. He was under appointment by Abraham Lincoln to collect internal revenue.

Young David displayed a fondness for music and developed an excellent singing voice.

In his early years he attended the Methodist Episcopal Church, became Sunday-School superintendent, led the YMCA and led the choir.

During the Civil War he was one of the first to enlist with the Union Army.

Three years later, on 9 September, 1863, Sankey married a member of his choir, Fanny Edwards. “She has been a blessing and a helpmate to me throughout my life and in all my work,” he wrote in his autobiography (page 17).

Sankey was in constant demand as a singer for all kinds of religious gatherings.

In 1870 he met D.L. Moody at a 6.00 a.m. YMCA prayer meeting, and after hearing him sing, Moody challenged him to become his partner in an evangelistic ministry. Before long Sankey was leading the singing and contributing some gospel solos at Moody’s meetings in Chicago.

Sankey and Moody travelled to the UK in June 1873, and there Sankey’s singing gave him an international reputation. His wonderful compass of voice, clear enunciation and evident sincerity made a deep impression throughout Great Britain, so much so that before he returned to America the names of “Moody and Sankey” had become household words throughout Europe. (wholesomewords.org)

Many converts testified to the impact made by Sankey’s singing as well as the preaching of the evangelist.

Sankey’s Hymn Book is reputed to have sold 80 million copies in the first 50 years (1873-1923).

Among the well-known tunes Sankey composed are those to which we sing these words: There were ninety and nine…; Simply trusting every day…; Encamped along the hills of light…; The Lord’s our Rock, in Him we hide…; Under His wings…; Oh! Safe to the Rock that is higher than I…

On 13 August, 1908, Sankey joined the Heavenly choir.

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.