MUSIC IN WORSHIP
Dudley J. Bradshaw (L.R.A.M., A.R.C.M.)
Let me begin by defining worship as the public meeting together of God’s people for the specific purpose of seeking communion with Him, praising Him corporately, and hearing His word read and expounded. For the purpose of this article, I propose to lay aside private worship and the social intercourse enjoyed when members of the church meet together informally.
What place does music have in such public worship? How big a place? What kind of music? By whom played and sung? These are questions which have become larger than life in many churches today, and are currently occupying (in my view as a professional musician) a totally disproportionate place in current church thinking – even causing agitation and distress. Differing opinions, likes and dislikes, pressures and enthusiasms, have made the whole subject a minefield, and I am conscious that I shall no doubt explode A few mines by writing on the matter!
I suppose it is next to impossible to write on this subject with total objectivity, and I must therefore say that my comments are written fr+om the standpoint of my own position as a church organist, piano teacher, and lecturer in music. Nevertheless I have attempted an unbiased approach, and have sought prayerfully to clear away some of the emotional hot air which obscures the realities.
The power of music
Music is not the innocuous thing that many people think. It has a
subtle, but almost frightening psychological effect on the listener-to induce balance and calm, depression or elation, emotional stability or hysteria. This is not a far-fetched opinion, but a matter of sober fact. Confucius in the sixth century and Plato in the fourth century BC, both considered that the ideal state be erected on the foundation of music, and that any change in the ways of music should be resisted as actually undermining the foundations of the state itself!
The therapeutic value of music is being increasingly recognised in psychiatry today. The daily playing (on record) of a Bach organ fugue was a serious prescription for an emotionally disturbed person quite recently. The commercial use of piped music in supermarkets and factories, to hurry people up or slow them down, has been with us for decades. And who has not witnessed in the media the trance-like hysteria induced by certain types of popular music?
Why do I say these things? Because when we use music in public worship, it does not lose this strange psychological power to ennoble or debase, to induce a spiritual awareness at best, or degenerate sensuality at worst. We need to beware how we use this powerful thing, and we need to pray earnestly that we might truly use it to the glory of God.
Too much music?
I sincerely believe that we are in danger of having far too much music, far too elaborately presented, in many churches today. Public worship is possible without it! Rightly used, it is a great enhancement to true worship, and I personally love to play and sing great hymns. Let us, however, keep it in the New Testament proportion -I am led to believe that it occupied a very small place and was basically very simple.
As the church became more and more corrupt, the use of music became more and more elaborate. It is dangerously possible to confuse true spiritual worship with mere sensual uplift. Crooning and repetition can both become semi-hypnotic in effect.
Words come first
Music was written for words, not vice versa. Many people would be surprised to learn that some of our great hymn writers did not write their hymns primarily to be sung! When we come to consider music in worship, therefore, we see it, not as an end in itself, but as a means of expressing the sense of hymns and helping to underline their meaning. No more! When the music intrudes for its own sake and draws attention to itself, it is a usurper! We must be very careful of ‘difficult tunes’. Whether melodically, harmonically and
rhythmically, hymn tunes must be easy for the average congregation to sing.
What is good music?
Bishop J. C. Ryle said that there were three elements in a good hymn – sound theology, true experience and good poetry. If one of these is lacking, though there may be elements of good left, the hymn cannot really be considered as good.
Similarly in good music, there are three basic elements – melody, harmony and rhythm. For any trained musician, there are rules in music which have to be thoroughly mastered. Stringing notes together is very easy, but writing a good melody is very difficult! In some of Beethoven’s sketch books we find evidence of the most
painstaking and laboriously hard work. Sometimes he wrote a melody out in as many as seventeen different ways before finally selecting the one nearest to perfection.
Harmony too, is important, and has its rules. They may be broken, but any budding musician/composer who breaks them must first of all master them. He or she must be aware when a sound rule is broken, and have a good reason for breaking it. Many modern tunes are painfully deficient here and their lack of variation in harmony makes them very boring.
Rhythm too, is all-important. It is arguably the profoundest element in music. All life is based on regular rhythm – from the
beating of the heart to the regular cycle of seasons, days, months and years. A sound understanding of how to write good rhythm is essential in the writing of good music – if phrases are not balanced against each other the result can be psychologically disturbing. Similarly a repeated heavy or syncopated rhythm which crosses the natural rhythm of life can be exciting in a way which can lead to agitation or even real unease. Music, in other words, can produce strong moods by its effect on the personality, while the listener may remain unaware of the real cause of those moods. This has little or nothing to do with genuine spirituality – it is reflex, often subconscious and psychological.
All the more reason, therefore, when music is used expressly for public worship, to recognise that it can either underline or enhance the words and their spiritual meaning, or detract from the words and draw attention to itself. The former is good, the latter has to be described as bad, no matter how exciting it may be temporarily.
The lasting quality of good music
If melody, harmony and rhythm are good, then the tune almost certainly has some lasting quality about it. If any of these is lacking,
however exciting the tune may be for a time, the probability is that it will quickly be laid aside. We live in days when new hymns and song books are appearing ‘nineteen to the dozen’ and it has been my lot to have to wade through a number of them. Despite many good tunes, I regret to say that I have found, as a trained musician, abysmal harmony, poor melody and rhythm which varies from a cheap and nasty imitation of genuine jazz, to that which is really unsingable by the average congregation. Time and time again, when I have been playing the rhythm as written, the congregation has sung it ‘square’!
Of course there are excellent tunes being written today (as well as excellent words) but, as in every period, they are comparatively few. My plea is that we use our critical judgment, rather than welcoming with open arms the latest hits just because they have been sung on a record, or have a popular composer.
Sometimes people say, ‘But surely it is just a matter of opinion?’ Here I quote the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who once said, ‘If a man tells me he does not like Beethoven, he tells me nothing about Beethoven, but he tells me a great deal about himself.’ It is not just a matter of opinion – there is objectively such a thing as good music, and there are accepted standards. There is such a thing as bad music, which often violently rejects those standards. There are competent judges, trained and equipped to make a valid assessment of which is which!
The ‘Pop’ culture
Pop music (whatever its merits and appeal) does not usually rate as good music, any more than the Daily Mirror and the Beano (whatever their merits) rate as good literature! That is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact! These things are not written to last, but simply to create an immediate and often sensational impression, and then to be thrown away and replaced by something newer. In the use of music in worship, only the best is good enough. We can raise the standard of musical taste in our churches by careful and informed choice of what is good just as we can lower that standard by the indiscriminate use of what is sub-standard. Whether the music is ancient or modern is totally irrelevant. Spiritual quality is the criterion.
To introduce the Pop culture into worship in an attempt to attract the world, is to put the cart before the horse. I personally find it next to impossible to sing of the Cross, or sin, or prayer, or communication with the living God to catchy tunes with a pseudo-jazzy beat. On Sundays, our prime concern must not be to attract the world by adopting its own culture in novelty music, but to please him who is glorious in holiness, and even fearful in praise.
On a practical level, why not use a well-tried standard hymn book
(no names mentioned!) and, after careful appraisal, create a
suplement, with careful regard to copyright laws to the standards
of words and music you include. It can be done!
May God give us grace, wisdom and discernment to raise music in
worship to the highest possible standards for His glory, rather than
debase those standards to a cheaply attractive, but shallow and
wordly entertainment level.
Whenever the singing or music is so elaborate as to distract
attention from God to itself, it is subversive of the end designed, and
productive of evil.’ Charles Hodge.
Mr. Bradshaw was organist at Dereham Road Baptist Church, Norwich, for many yea rs and is now Pastor of the Baptist Chapel at Brooke, Norwich.