What’s the problem with singing in our churches?

"You’re standing to sing in a new church. The worship leader gets up to lead the first song, with the words on the screen behind him. Then you realize you can’t sing the song because you’ve never heard it. Did the worship leader write it? Who knows. But you’re left standing there, with about a third of the rest of the people. Perhaps you haven’t been in that situation before, but I have. Many times." - Proclaim & Defend

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G. N. Barkman's picture

When away from my own church, I have frequently found myself in a more contemporary music context with a praise band, words on the screen, etc.  I have observed that usually, a few people sing enthusiastically, whereas the majority stumble along, or give up trying to sing altogether.  And this is supposed to be an improvement over the old "stodgy" pattern of singing out of a hymn book?  I don't think so.  Visitors to our church often comment about how enthusiastically our congregation sings, with virtually everybody participating.  Why is that so unusual?  Shouldn't that be the norm?  I'm not opposed to change, but when change discourages participation, I have a hard time viewing it as positive.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

I've actually been told not to sing a hymn because the congregation hadn't sung it before.  Having grown up in a hymns only church with quite a range of hymnody--lots of new ones and good despite the fact that it was United Methodist--one thing that I remember helping me a lot was that the organist would play a few measures of the melody before going to the first verse.  It also helped that a fair number of congregants read music well--after the first few bars of the first verse, you'd pretty much need to be tone deaf to not pick up the tune, because you were just surrounded by the melody.

One thing that gets in the way of this with a lot of modern music is that many churches do not actually purchase the sheet music for all the musicians (it gets expensive they think), and so most of the musicians end up basically filling out chords and pretty much use their instruments as a metronome.  (you want to talk about expensive, think about a $10,000 grand piano being used as a metronome, no?  The genuine article only costs $50 or so!)  As a result, the melody is obscured, and I once lightheartedly composed this in "honor" of a song where I could not discern the melody.  

I'm all in favor of using modern music genre to praise God, as it seems to parallel what God tells Israel to do in the last two Psalms, but if we're going to do it, let's do it--to use Buddy Holly's band model that's held for the past 60 years, you've got to actually plug in the bass and let the bassist play, and you've got to get the guitarrist to actually play the melody and not just the same three chords, and you've got to persuade the singers to actually sing and not to sigh into the microphone.  You've got to remember that a great part of the whole point is to convey the Word of God to the people of God in lyric form, and to do that, poetry and music need to work together.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jeff Howell's picture

By middle man, I mean I often compare myself as a bridge builder, spanning the past to the future. The triteness of the music from the tent evangelist era may be familiar, but lacks much depth. There are older hymns, but they often need a refresh. I find myself trying hard to lead through change, to pursue excellence in the area of using newer instruments and accompaniments, while avoiding the dumbing down of the music. As far as Bert's comments, I often say those things to my adult children, especially about the 'apparent sighing' and all the fillers of oooooo, whoaaaa, yeahhhh, and so on. It is almost like somehow we are trying to verbalize how emotive we can be rather than verbalizing the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Another thing Bert commented upon was about the reading of music. This has almost disappeared in my opinion, since athletics has replaced the arts in many families for the choice of extra-curricular activity for children. One satisfactory compromise to the lack of melody is the use of digital musical scores on the screen. That way, all can at least see if the notes are going up or down. Those who read it can harmonize. Heads are up, increasing volume, and it holds the bands/leaders/musicians accountable to prompt in worship more than entertain. My two cents.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Having the sheet music on the screen would help a lot, even though I don't think that is actually possible. How on earth would you display it!? I did band for five years in middle/high school. I can read music to pick up the melody. Blank words on a screen are unhelpful, in that regard. But, to be honest, few people can read music.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

I'm pretty traditional when it comes to music in church.  I prefer the older hymns (minus many of the "gospel song" era songs that either have a merry-go-round-type tune, or those with really shallow lyrics).  However, I don't hate all the new songs/hymns either, provided both the words and music are good.  We recently learned a new tune to "The Sands of Time are Sinking" in my church, and the new tune was appropriate, well-written (not just for the melody, but also for the parts), and was enjoyable to learn and sing.  When I saw on the music that the tune was written around 2014 rather than the old one, I was not looking forward to singing it until I looked through the music and hummed the tune.

At our church, we always provide handouts for the musical notes of songs not in the hymn book (small versions in the bulletin for young people, and full-sized handouts in the back for us blind oldies), but sometimes even that doesn't help very much.  Some newer songs have atrociously written parts, and some sheet music has notes only for the melody with chord markings, and sometimes, at least in my opinion, the melody isn't that great either.  I realize that most people don't read any music, but I fail to see how any songs like that are an improvement on using older hymns.

When we do learn a new song/hymn in my church, we sing it every Sunday for at least a month, and if the tune is completely new, the director will sing the first verse and then we join in.  I think the approach is good, but I'm still not a fan of a number of the newer songs.  I can't say honestly if the newer songs encourage participation by the younger people, but often, they certainly don't encourage me to want to sing along.  I think it's not only music reading that is a lost art -- newer music can be very well written, and I love when it is, but too often, it's not in the same league as what came before.

Dave Barnhart

kirkedoyle's picture

I'm glad this has come up because I've been scouring Google for an answer to this.  80% of the songs we sing are out of our hymnbook, but we are occasionally incorporating newer hymns, or songs that are not in our hymnbook. For those songs we have been trying to teach the melody and then project the lyrics but I would love to also be able to project the notes of the melody (harmony would be great too, but at least the melody).  I have seen other churches do it (it is essentially two rows of music staffs with lyrics and the melody line) but I have no idea what software they're using.  If anyone has any info I would appreciate it!

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding sheet music, one thing worth noting is that a lot of secular rock & roll artists do not actually read music--a good example being "The Beatles".  So that's not an absolute necessity; what is more important is what the boys from Liverpool did, which was to create memorable melodies and harmonies where even non-fans can sing along with certain songs they've heard a few times.  That's where the "instrument as metronome" is very, very harmful, and it again is something that really isn't part of the modern genre at all, but is rather a shortcut.

One other note regarding the "sighing"--physically where air is allowed to pass loose vocal cords/whispering--is that there are two explanations for it.  First is that there are indeed places where this is a valid vocal technique.  I'd argue it's more for performance than for congregational singing, but it can be a valid vocal technique.  Second, a lot of vocalists simply get lazy and don't learn the posture/breathing/etc.. to sing properly.  They rather just emulate what they hear out of the coffee shop band, Amy Grant, or whatever.

To draw a picture, a young lady I dated in college, when taking voice lessons from the school of music, was told not to choose any songs by Amy Grant because Grant was famous/infamous for that singing technique.  The instructor loved Grant's work, but didn't want a novice singer to learn to sing that way.  It would impair the singer's ability to sing properly, and can sometimes even damage the vocal cords.

Long and short of it--going back to the Beatles and Buddy Holly--is that if a church wants to have modern music genre to praise God, go for it, but let's do it the way Buddy, John, Paul, George, and Ringo did it.  Play your instruments, form melodies and harmonies to complement the tune, and sing it (as a rule) properly.  People will catch on soon enough.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bert Perry's picture

I, with Dave, am also a lover of older music, but to be fair to modern music, when we point out that what we've got from previous times is "not in the same league", we're saying that from the vantage point where almost all of the hymns of previous days have been forgotten.  Watts is said to have written about 700, of which you'll find maybe five in a modern hymnal, for example.  The Wesley brothers wrote around 7000 hymns, and even the Methodists retain only a dozen or so.  

So in the balance between using the work of prior days and introducing new hymns, we need to keep in mind (from both sides of the debate really) that our forefathers did indeed do the hard work of saying "let's drop this one."  And we should be grateful they did, and we shouldn't be afraid to do the same to forgettable modern songs, either.  (as well as "In the Garden", of course)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

pvawter's picture

TylerR wrote:

Having the sheet music on the screen would help a lot, even though I don't think that is actually possible. How on earth would you display it!? I did band for five years in middle/high school. I can read music to pick up the melody. Blank words on a screen are unhelpful, in that regard. But, to be honest, few people can read music.

Here you go, Tyler. You can buy prepared PowerPoint files with musical scores for projection. 

http://digitalsongsandhymns.com/

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Bert Perry wrote:

So in the balance between using the work of prior days and introducing new hymns, we need to keep in mind (from both sides of the debate really) that our forefathers did indeed do the hard work of saying "let's drop this one."  And we should be grateful they did, and we shouldn't be afraid to do the same to forgettable modern songs, either.  (as well as "In the Garden", of course)

I certainly wouldn't be averse to helping decide to drop some, at least from our church's repertoire.  I suspect, though, that by the time they're finally forgotten by the church, I'll be long off the scene, so I'll end up suffering through some of them for the remainder of my days on earth...

And of course, many of the good hymns that have passed the test of time and appear in our hymnbooks (alongside some that should have been dropped) are now (due to age, or "not speaking to the modern generation") the ones being dropped in favor of newer, lesser songs.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

Dave, my take is that if the debate shifts past "which genre are acceptable?" to "what songs best enable the praise of God's people for Him and do the best at imparting His Word to His people in lyric form?" (or some other stated purpose for music in the church), you just might get there.  Would take a lot more maturity than often exists on this subject, but...maybe?

Or, alternatively, to cite Steven Tyler's paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, dream on?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.