A person needs to look no further than at footage of the recent Royal Wedding to witness the transformational effect of music. The grandeur of this occasion is represented with neck medallions, tailored dresses, red carpets, never-before-seen-hats, costumed clergy, briefly exchanged greetings…and eyes checking out messages of surrounding eyes. Wedding guests, otherwise dignified, undoubtedly powerful, appear (only) a tad fidgety in the footage.
That is, until the unabashed singing of the choirs of Westminster Abbey and Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal filters through the vibes, thoughts, emotions, and recollections with their overriding strains. Soon, seeking eyes resolve to bowed heads, paced breathing to quiet chests, as beauty momentarily transcends through the rush of air. Even the bride gives her full attention and a relaxed, appreciative smile as they sing “The Anthem” of praise. For a moment in time, cold feet (perhaps) are distracted.
One expects that Prince Harry will find a bride in a few years. I wonder, (given the musical excellence of his older brother’s wedding and the superior quality of recording technology), if his wedding committee will opt to use a recording of this music from William and Kate’s day (approved by the queen, of course), to save on the wedding budget for Harry and make everything a bit simpler for everyone? It would certainly be easier and cheaper, and, hey, the choirs would not have to rehearse again. Everybody wins.
The cheapness of that move would never sprout wings. One intuitively senses its degradation. The worldwide momentum of such events is duly represented in the long hours of preparation before it. The dresses, the expense, the uniforms, the hours of choir and orchestra rehearsal, the minute-by-minute execution of perfection is fitting for the grandeur, the meaning, of a royal wedding. And the music of such celebration gives itself out, never to be retrieved, but carrying forth within that moment of history its sounds of celebration. It is to that moment that those sounds belong.
However, if one skips a continent or two, one can locate a different trend: the use of soundtracks for the worship of gathered believers. Worship entails spiritual participation – a kind of performing culture that requires human interaction. It certainly is not defined by or limited to, the repertoire of songs sung in churches; but music certainly is one of its most powerful expressions. Therefore, one must ask, is it ever acceptable in the context of Christian worship to replace live elements of musical worship – the human voices and instrumental supports – with soundtracks?
This paper answers that with a ‘no.’ That situations beg this question to be asked gives evidence to a bigger problem. The problem is not that now there exists a convenient technology that allows music to be brought into any environment – home, church, outdoors, etc. – and music of the listener’s preference. This is a good thing. The problem is that the practice of replacing live worship with recorded music is a symptom, a professed cure, and a propagator of a deeper cultural shift, which is: the church is no longer a singing church.
…the rapid decline of the cathedral choir (http://www.ctcc.org.uk/research.htm) to….
…local congregations using soundtracks because they do not feel their own musicians can do a …good enough job (such as one Moody student’s home church in Texas does) to
….a youth pastor who considers getting his youth to sing is his most difficult challenge (http://mattmcmorris.com/2011/01/20/how-do-i-get-my-teens-to-sing/)
…to men being the least-likely-sing in church (http://churchformen.com/how-were-off-the-mark/why-men-have-stopped-singing-in-church/)
…to the obvious – look around any younger-than-40s church and see how many really sing along…
…The epidemic of a none-music-making church is everywhere. The Music Educators National Conference is concerned about this trend in general culture (http://ejas.revues.org/8962), but how much more should the church, whose worship motive embeds its music with the highest musical priority, be concerned.
If and when it is called upon to be a singing church, it often cannot produce – as a community – either music or musical excellence. This cultural shift has resulted from several other cultural shifts, explained below.
Evaluating the Past
Consumerism. Music was once considered a shared experience a communal activity. It occurred within cultural events within which people gathered, thrived, or suffered. Now, music is thought of as a product, the contents of an object called a CD or iPod, or entertainment purchased through tickets. As a product, music can be judged, critiqued, used, modified, or ignored. As a shared activity, music can bond, teach, develop, enculturate, shame, unite, inspire, celebrate, and create identity. Music as product is something one acquires; music as activity is something one gives. Musical products are consumed; musical experiences are produced.
The Stardom Mentality. In the article, “Mass Media the Star System,” Fowles points out that urbanized centers, extra cash, and leisure time led to the development of America’s love of entertainment between the 1870 and 1920. Leisure activities quickly ballooned out of city parks and libraries, to saloons, circuses, vaudeville shows, movies, sports, and more. As more community centered itself around these, and as image and sound technology developed, the dominant personalities of such entertainment venues became shared cultural information and experience, leading to sports “stars” and “movie stars.” It was the children of that generation that witnessed the similar creation of music “stars,” in the 60s, most notably in The Beatles. The seeds of this mentality sprouted into musical activity that pursued of stardom as a means to fame, wealth, identity, and today, validation of talent.
Theories of Gifted Education. During the same years that stardom and entertainment were layering their values upon future generations, psychologists became very interested in the human brain. IQ scores and intelligence were tested. Ideas about giftedness created categories for students, based upon IQ scores. During the 20s, Seashore published the first musical aptitude test, which naturally linked itself with notions of giftedness and talent (Gordon 263). Therefore, ideas about being “musically gifted” (or not) developed. Whereas today, educators agree that all children have the potential to succeed in music (http://www.giml.org/mlt_aptitude.php) and that “aptitude tests are to some degree achievement tests. At any particular time in a person’s life, his aptitude for accomplishing a given goal…depends not only upon innate qualities, but also upon characteristics acquired through generalized environmental influence and direct teaching” (Gordon “The Musical Aptitude” 52) and that one’s musical aptitude is developmental, changing, and greatly shaped by environment from ages 0-9, at which point the aptitude stabilizes and in no longer shapeable by environment.
This does not mean that everyone is equally capable, but just that everyone is to some degree capable. The combination of the stardom mentality and notions about giftedness has produced an alienation from music-making:
In our sophisticated civilization active participation in music has come to be for only
the talented few. In the meantime the masses of mankind humbly accept the role of
listeners…the mass of non-performers, being separated from the quickening sources
of creative origination, become more and more bored, indifferent, and convinced of
their own inability to participate in “music.” The real enjoyment of music becomes
increasingly set apart for the artistic few…in primitive societies music is participated
in by everyone. It is an individual experience, also a social experience. It is
characteristics mode by which the group expresses collective emotions and ideals. It
acts as a tie that binds together the individuals of a group. (Tacka and Houlahan 265-
However, even if music giftedness could be accurately predicted, it still would not validate the assumption that because one does not possess talent, one cannot or should not participate. Does we limit sports experiences to professional athletes or food consumption to chefs and connoisseurs? Should only nutritionists imbibe vitamins or only clergy read Scripture? There are many spheres which all humankind benefits by its participation within that sphere, and by limiting one’s participation, just because it is not one’s area of talent or specialty, deprives one of the benefits available to all who participate. Music-making is this kind of activity. The gathering of believers is the best place for the power of music to unite and reach into the soul!
But then, one finds something else that has caused the church to be less of a singing, musical church: the decline of the use of the hymnal. Even if a group wants to sing, they often do not have shared repertoire to sing. The hymnal was and used to be a series of song compositions collected from each major church period that each successive generation has sung and to which it has added its own compositions. Now, people are adding to it, but giving no attention to what others have added to it. So, outside of the songs they decide to teach themselves, they do not really have a repertory to sing alongside of others.
So, one might ask, what’s the problem with using a soundtrack?
First, using soundtracks in instead of using the voices and instruments within one’s community of faith is a symptom. The fact that people would rather let others make music for them, instead of doing it themselves is a symptom – people do not know how, are intimidated by, or would rather judge then themselves learn the discipline of being a music producer/maker.
Secondly, using a soundtrack is a false cure. Today, people have more exposure to music then ever before through technology – they can have it with them whenever they want. It seems a cure. It seems to offer a solution. If you did not have music before, now you do. However, they are consuming the music, not producing the music with their tongues, hands, hearts, resources, and talents. Scripture is clear, musical worship is personal and for everyone: “In Him my heart trusts, and I am helped. My heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him” (Ps. 28:7) and “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…” (Eph. 5:19). Can you count his pastor’s devotional time as his own, or can one enter the presence of God Himself on the basis of his mother’s faith? No.
Thirdly, reliance on the music soundtrack in worship also quickly becomes a propagator of the problem. Because people are consuming music, they do not see the need to make music themselves. Why spend the money on lessons, the time in developing a gift, why sit around and sing with others? While at the outset, having music all around us seems like its keeps us musical, it often has the opposite effect: people are more inclined to sit back, watch, judge, and be entertained. The concept of them being the singers, the players – oh, no, that is for the gifted, the stars, the ones I like to critique. I would not exploit myself by doing it. This kind of thinking thrives within the sanctuary of consumerism’s values. If one enters any typical worship service populated with a majority of under-40s, one will not see many of them singing. The music relationship has become one of audience-to-stage, instead one of person-to-person or person-within-community. Music has become a product, not a shared experience of a community. And the community now has become more comfortable as consumer, than singer, worshipper, or participant.
There are three additional reasons why a soundtrack is less effective than living worship leaders and music-makers: a soundtrack cannot flexibly respond to what God is doing in a gathering located in a certain locale and a certain point in time through His Holy Spirit, the Word and other believers; a soundtrack does not promote involvement because there is no ownership of effort, no hours of training, no local talents or compositions being utilized; a soundtrack does not carry exhortational power in the way a local music-maker that the community knows and sees, does. Testimony gives power and backing to the song’s proclamation.
Forging the Future
If one looks at the situations in which soundtracks are used, in place of a live choir or acoustic instruments, or song leader, one usually finds two reasons for the its use: incompetence or inconvenience. Incompetence means that the group does not have the resources, the people or musical talent, to make the music themselves. It means they have lost the ability to create the music of worship themselves, in itself a tragedy, since music is a transmitted form that can be lost if not carried from generation to generation The soundtrack sounds better, is a better worship leader that what they can produce, they believe, so they opt out of it. The other reason is inconvenience, which means, because preparing people to make excellent music, and that unto the Lord, takes resources, time, commitment, energy, training, and discipline, they opt out of it. It means the church is not willing to invest to put the time, energy, effort, expense to make a song until the Lord, to be the music makers. They just pop a CD or worship DVD in and sing along.
What does a singing church look like? How can the church move forward without feeling like it has to recreate a bygone era – when families sang together, when everyone knew at least a few hymns from the hymnal, when singing in a church choir was the thing to do – in order to re-establish itself as a community who worships through song?
a) It has to educate its worship leaders – that congregational song, the joint individual-within-community activity, is the musical priority. Stage musicians are not to be the only doers. But this does not eliminate the place for solos, or special music, but these must be held in balance. Scripturally, one can find many different contexts when the community of believers can be a singing community? In Scripture, individuals sing to Lord, in ministry to other individuals; and the gathered community sings in corporate ministry to the Lord, and in corporate ministry to other believers. But in the worship hour, even if nothing else is done, congregational singing must be done.
b) It has to be active in the musical formation of its youngest members, including incorporating their efforts into body life. Which of the following paradigms seems to best equip the future generation to be worshippers: a Sunday school class whose singing segment is led by video, graphic rich slides, actions, and words to kids who cannot even read or kids leading the kids’ service by taking an offering plate and passing it to the kids next to them, while other kids play the drums and piano and sing. It must see the task of training its more-musically consumed members (or “gifted”) as discipleship.
c) It has to communicate a value of musical excellence, of presenting one’s best to the Lord, while also providing the occasions in which every believer is participating (without being on stage).
d) It must give serious thought to which songs it sings and the songs it repeats, because it has the power to create a common repertoire through this selection, and in this to voice its own particular heritage, and to encourage the local talents and stories of its members:
Are the people singing the Lord’s song?’…Simply look to see if all the parts of the story are
there. Is the full range of your hymnic heritage being employed, or are you singing the same
ten hymns over and over again? Is the whole story there – creation and Old Testament roots,
the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, the church’s story, individual
redemption, contemporary society’s ethical concerns, and final consummation? Or are you
stuck only in the warmth of personal conversion or sentimental escape, or one ethical issue
or Lent all year? Your tradition will have its own characteristic musical style, but the cantor
is responsible for working out from that central style to other styles, thereby filling out the
story with other musical manifestations of it and keeping the parish aware both of its own
specific heritage and of the catholicity of the whole church, past and present…establish your
own grid of questions, keep track of the hymns, psalms, and anthems you sing, and ask
whether your choices reflect the emphases of the seasons, the lectionary, the whole story. It
will become obvious where there are gaps that need to be filled. (Westermeyer chap. 6)
Gordon, Edwin. “Intercorrelations Among Musical Aptitude Profile and Seashore Measures of
Musical Talents Subtests.” Journal Of Research In Music Education Vol. 17 Issue 3,
Gordon, Edwin. “The Musical Aptitude Profile: a New and Unique Musical Aptitude Test
Battery” Music Educators Journal. Vol. 53. No. 6, 1967.
Fowles, Jib. “Mass Media and the Star System”. Communication in History. Pearson
Education, Inc. 2007.
Westermeyer, Paul. The Church Musician. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1988.
Tacka, Philip and Micheál Houlahan. “Historical Perspective for the Introduction of the Kodály
Concept in the United States.” Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae,
T. 32, Fasc. ¼, 1990.