Music and Worship

There’s a lot of discussion these days (some of it heated) between supporters of contemporary Christian worship music and so-called traditionalists. Just to refine that last term a little, I would define a ‘traditionalist’ as someone who prefers hymns (music and words) in the traditional style, whether they be pretty old (as for example Love Divine All Loves Excelling) or fairly new (as for example I, The Lord of Sea and Sky). These same people would probably also prefer to hear what we would generally call ‘classical’ music during other parts of a service (for example whilst entering and leaving the church building). However, in my view, almost all of the arguments based on contemporary versus traditional music miss out on the most important factor:  this is that God deserves the best we can offer. I believe that there is good, bad and indifferent music (in all genres). I also believe that a lot of the music being offered to God is indifferent or bad music.

Okay, I hear people complain, but who’s to say what’s ‘good’ music? Well, for a start, we shouldn’t be over-influenced by fashion. The assumption that music is ‘good’ simply because lots of people like it (and therefore, may be more likely to attend services) is not the proper foundation on which to proceed. And deciding on music for use in worship services should not depend entirely on the opinions of people who know nothing about music! I recently posted a thread on the campus forum about philosophers of religion – questioning whether or not they could view Christianity from the outside and have a valid opinion upon it. As a professional musician with many years’ experience, I find the same question arises here. How can an ‘outsider’ (as far as musical knowledge goes) give a valid opinion as to what is, or is not, ‘good’ music? Answer: they can’t – any more than I could advise a rocket scientist as to what the best shape for his latest design in rocket might be. All such a person can tell us is what they like, or what they think is good. But regardless of personal opinions, there are good reasons as to why, for example, any piece of Bach’s music will almost certainly be of a higher quality than most contemporary worship music; and the same arguments can be made for the music used in many traditional hymns. To appreciate why this is so, one would need several months – and preferably years – learning the fundamentals of music. 

What saith the Scriptures? Well, the Bible does not give clear guidelines as to what kind of music Christians should use in worship.  But what it does do is to give general principles about offerings made to the Lord.  Consider the following text: ‘When anyone brings from the herd or flock a fellowship offering to the LORD to fulfil a special vow or as a freewill offering, it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable’ (Lev 22:21). Or consider these words of David in 2 Sam 24:24: ‘I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.’  In other words, I repeat, our offerings should be of the highest quality we are capable of giving. This means that they will be costly, in time, training and/or self giving. I’m sure many churches today are following this basic principle and offering God the best music they can. But some places I’ve attended have fallen abysmally short, with musicians ill-prepared; OHPs with words missing; musicians casually strumming away at almost anything, not sure of what comes next… and so on. I’ve even been told by a proud guitarist, ‘we don’t sing any proper hymns; only worship songs. He thought this was good. I thought…. shame! 

Chris Lazenby is Tutor in Theology at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School.

  1. David Williams

    Chris

    An excellent post this which bangs a few nails firmly upon their proverbial bonces. This issue also for me is a vexed one. Personally I have struggled for many years with the consideration of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music, particularly as it relates to worship. I have concluded that fashion does somewhat dictate in this area. To some degree it simply must do. In fact if we were to compare a copy of ‘Hymns Ancient & Modern’ with a copy of ‘Songs of Fellowship’ I suppose we would discover that most if not all the music, whether good or bad, ancient or indeed modern, would be essentially of a Western nature and composed around Western concepts of melodic structure and hence caters to Western tastes and fashions. I do not think there is any use in either of these collections of worship songs of for instance Indian style rhythmic/melodic structures etc. Clearly what we do have musically reflects, to some degree, the music of our culture at large.

    A further consideration in terms of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music is as you mention the ‘technicality of music’. I heard a recent quote somewhere that some wag would ‘rather have written the melody for Danny Boy than all of Mozart’s symphonies’. An exaggeration perhaps but I suppose the point here is that the brilliance of a simple melody line can be equally as effective in constituting ‘good’ music as a highly technical and fiendishly difficult to play piece. Surely, in fact, the brilliance of a pop group such as ‘The Beatles’ was and still remains the cunning simplicity of melody and harmony. In fact when listening to their music, many musicians would think ‘I could have written that’. Ah but there is the rub. They did and we didn’t.

    This line of thought I believe is particularly relevant when approaching worship music. For example a fiendish melody written in a C# Lydian mode would be perhaps difficult for the average ‘out of tune guitar player’ and ‘only on the white notes’ piano player, to say nothing of how this would translate to the corporate singing of a Sunday morning service in the average church. Throw in a clever 9/8 time signature and watch the congregation clap along to that. I suggest such antics would be akin to the sinking of a lead balloon regardless of the technical or creative brilliance of the piece. Yet, provide the simplicity of a song such as the majestic ‘Amazing Grace’ and most musicians and congregations will be comfortable

    Having said all that I do have reservations. The above argument is also perfect for melodic ‘dumbing down’. The typical ‘Song Of Fellowship’ with it’s simple chord structure of major, minor 6th, major 4th & major 5th chords demands a clever melody yet in my view many modern ‘worship dirges’ seem depressingly unable to provide this. I am not sure why this is but there is a lot of bland christian ‘praise & worship’ music around.

    The issue of musicianship within Christianity is also a personal gripe of mine. I play guitar myself to a reasonably high standard, and have led worship for many years at churches and Christian conferences. I have generally encountered 2 different views amongst musicians in the average church. The first is where musicians are exhorted to attend to their personal spirituality whilst perhaps neglecting to improve upon their instruments. The second view is to promote technical excellence whilst neglecting the matters of personal spirituality. It seems to me that the correct approach is to do both. Only this evening I have visited a church and immediately I spotted the worship leader with the obligatory battered guitar complete with 15-year-old strings he had neither cleaned nor tuned for months. The destruction of several excellent choruses (& hymns incidentally) was inevitable. I fail to see how it glorified God quite frankly. Contrast this with a friend of mine who is a classically trained violinist. He also plays guitar to the most amazing level, yet whenever he leads worship, he will be found shut away prior to a worship service not just in prayer but also to run through a series of finger exercises to ‘warm up’ prior to playing. Guess what? His instrument is well maintained and his attitude displays a desire to glorify God to the best of his undoubtedly high level of abilities.

    I do believe there is a further issue to address that perhaps should be a separate subject. It is that of the lyrical content of Christian worship songs. I do believe that there is much faulty theology promoted via the wording of many choruses these days and that perhaps as Christians we should be a little more aware of what exactly it is we are sometimes singing. A final thought then. The book of Psalms is a collection of writings that were mostly/mainly/all(?) set to music originally. Interestingly, to this day we have preserved for us the very words that were originally penned YET to my knowledge not one of the original pieces of music that these psalms were accompanied with survives. I wonder if this may be significant in that we can conclude that musical styles & tastes change yet truth remains the same. If so, perhaps the focus of our attention should be upon the theological content of what we sing as a main priority. Some rambled opinions here. I would be interested to hear what you think.

  2. I do agree with you, Chris. I am much more concerned with the theology though. If we think people are getting their theology from what is preached rather than what is sung, we are deceiving ourselves.

  3. Chris Lazenby

    Thanks, David and Liz for your encouraging comments on my recent entry. Before any more people comment, I should stress that my arguments would also apply to the lyrical’theological content of hymns/songs for worship. In the original text, I had quite a bit about this, but the entry was so long, I edited it out. Obviously slipped up there!

    An example of what I would consider a piece of excellent music/words for worship can be found in the hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown’. Here, well structured and beautiful melody, harmony and poetry are brought together perfectly. There are hundreds of similar hymns, all gradually falling from use. (Incidentally, it is said that within one generation, such hymns are completely lost). To answer David’s point on complexity, the above example is not overly clever music, nor something which is difficult to sing. In other words, by ‘good’ I do not necessarily mean ‘complex’.

    Modern worship music (like most pop music) concentrates almost entirely on the melody and the rhythmic content. What is being lost here is any kind of decent polyphonic structure. (As far as the words go, many of them have hardly any deep theological or scriptural content). Because most worship songs (like most pop songs) are written by guitar players, there is a tendency for the foundation of the structure to be strummed chords. When we strum along in C or G, or whatever, there is no particular reason why any of the notes being strummed are in any particular order. However, in a hymn structured on ‘classical’ harmony, for example, each note written will (in the best examples) be serving a particular purpose. Polyphonically, there may be up to four melodies going on with the whole result being a ‘better’ piece of music. This won’t necessarily make it more difficult to sing the main melody (or ‘top line’).

    Let me make it clear that I’m NOT suggesting that worship songs should not be used, or that everything should sound old fashioned (or like Bach), or that we can’t enjoy rhythm, guitars strumming, percussion and all the rest of it. I’m simply saying that whatever we do for the Lord, we should be doing the best we can. As far as music goes, for the composer, the musician (however limited he/she might be), the poet who wrote the words or the congregation singing those words, everything should be done to the utmost in praise of our God who not only deserves, but commands, our best. If I turn to any of the ‘God Channels’ on Sky TV for only a few moments, I can see and hear immediately that there is another agenda. This is usually to give the people what THEY want and any consideration as to whether this is good, right or proper is completely beside the way.

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