Posts Tagged 'Contemporary Music'

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Review)

Why Johnny Can't Sing HymnsT. David Gordon’s recent book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (190 pp., P&R, 2010) has created a bit of a stir within the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches. While Gordon does not directly address the topic of psalm-singing, I think it is worthwhile to devote at least a little space here to a book by a respected author on an important subject.

Gordon’s areas of expertise include theology and media ecology. Music is not one of them, as he quickly admits (he can read music, but does not play an instrument). This both limits the extent to which he can discuss the music theory behind hymnody and allows him to approach the topic from a unique perspective.

To sum up the field of media ecology in one borrowed sentence, “we make tools, and tools make us” (10). From this angle Gordon digs behind the contemporary worship movement to expose the cultural assumptions of contemporaneity. Drawing from cultural analysts like Neil Postman and Ken Myers, Gordon characterizes the dominant ideology of the 21st century as one that disregards the past and trivializes the present. If this is so, he concludes, “the meta-message that contemporary music sends is this: Nothing is important; everything is just amusing or entertaining. This is hardly a Christian message” (72).

Throughout Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns Gordon employs a clear, readable style, comparable at points to Postman’s own renowned prose. After reading this book I felt as though the author were one of my own college professors. Unfortunately, Gordon also possesses the classic professor’s tendency to wander off into minimally relevant tangents (the low point, I think, is a footnote about the cost of his preferred razor blades). Between the occasional digressions and some significant overlap of material between chapters, I tend to think this volume could have been just as useful at two-thirds or even half as long.

While I found this book to be informative and enjoyable, I must also confess to some objections to Gordon’s line of reasoning. Where his cultural analysis is keen, his musical analysis is a little shaky—his final definition for “contemporary music” seems to be “music accompanied by a guitar”—and he often left me wondering how to make the final connection between the two subjects. Gordon also seems to directly correlate “triviality” and “contemporaneity” (a term he is reluctant to define), as though intelligent, articulate advocates of “contemporary Christian music” (CCM) either do not exist or are not to be taken seriously.

As you may have already guessed from the title of this blog, my biggest beef with Gordon’s case lies in his appeals to “traditional hymnody” (which, like the term “contemporary music,” he does not pause to explain). Gordon laments the fact that his students categorize the 1885 song “How Great Thou Art” as a “traditional” hymn—but his favorite example of hymnody, “Abide With Me,” is only a few decades older. He faults CCM proponents for knowing “nothing of Christian hymnody prior to the nineteenth or twentieth century” (41), but what other centuries are responsbile for the overwhelming proportion of the contents of any “traditional” hymnal?

It is clear that Gordon views the contemporary Christian music movement as a strange new blip on the church’s 2000-year-old radar. I would suggest that his “traditional” hymns are actually not that traditional either. Rather, I believe CCM is merely a small part of a much larger blip on the radar screen: the emergence of Western hymnody—a phenomenon that has crowded out the church’s (much more traditional) practice of psalm-singing, in some Reformed and Presbyterian denominations less than 100 years ago. I would love to read Gordon’s cultural analysis of how this worship shift occurred. Sadly, he barely mentions it.

In conclusion, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns will certainly appeal to readers who already favor hymns over CCM. Gordon hits all the high points of the contemporary Christian music debate (guitars, repetition, amplification, triviality), and he does so far more articulately than the average church member. The book nobly champions the cause of hymns, though it is probably unlikely to win converts from the contemporary camp. All in all, I appreciate Gordon’s fresh perspective on a divisive topic. But if pastors and musicians merely follow his advice without probing deeper, I am not sure the church will be that much better off.

–MRK

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“How to Evade the Worship Wars”

My latest article for The Outlook magazine, entitled “How to Evade the Worship Wars,” is now available online. The article summarizes the regulative principle of worship and the dialogical nature of worship, as well as applying them to some common questions about worship styles in Reformed churches. It’s a follow-up of sorts to our “A Look at Liturgy” series here on URC Psalmody. If you’re interested, check it out!

–MRK

“Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”: A YouTube Survey

Searching for Psalter Hymnal songs on YouTube is an unbelievably challenging task.  No matter how I phrase my search, I’m usually bound to come up with the same list of hymns and praise songs, related to the desired item only in some completely unhelpful way—the same title, for example, or the same number in a different songbook.  So I’ve learned not to expect much when it comes to finding a psalm video on the web.

But the other day, on a random whim, I decided to search YouTube for the versification of Psalm 148 known as “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” (blue Psalter Hymnal number 304).  And the results blew me away.  Actually, what I found was so unexpected that I’d like to share some of the highlights with you here.

The first result I got was this one—a simple a cappella rendition of the song.

What primarily surprised me was not the quality of the singing (which was excellent), but the fact that this recording appears to have originated from a clearly non-Reformed background!  The only other Psalter Hymnal selection that might be able to claim this honor is 94, “God Be Merciful to Me,” from Psalm 51.  I reflected a bit on this.  Then I watched the next video.

Not just another rendition of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” but a gospel version!  Sung a cappella, again, and with great gusto!  I began to seriously wonder, “What is it about this song?”

My jaw dropped further and further as I progressed through the rest of the search results.  Next in the list was a recording from a congregational singing workshop of a church in Cincinnati—again without accompaniment, and again with exuberance.  Number 304 was also rendered by two solo YouTube artists (1 and 2), who recorded over their own voices to preserve the harmonization.  Then there was this congregational recording from a channel entitled “ipohchurchofchrist,” and another from the Westside Church of Christ in Salem, VA.  “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” was also sung here at some kind of conference, although this recording is quite humorous since the song leader doesn’t quite seem to know the words.  In all of the above cases, there were no musical instruments whatsoever.  And it seems like there was no need for any.

Now, this wouldn’t be a balanced survey if I didn’t mention that there were some other—er, more instrumental versions of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” in the search results as well.  One worship team attempted, not very successfully in my opinion, to adapt the psalm to the contemporary Christian music genre.

Eagle Rock Community Church posted a similarly contemporized rendition of number 304, but their song leader gains some bonus points in my book for mentioning that “there’s actually a whole tradition of music-writing that is psalm-writing—and this is in that tradition.”

Whew—this is a weighty list of videos.  And these recordings comprise only a part of the first page of search results!  So, with my ears thoroughly flooded with the various sounds and styles used in the singing of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” I returned to my initial question.  Why did this seemingly ordinary Psalter Hymnal song “break through the lines” of Reformed worship and become a favorite among such a wide variety of denominations?

As in all such cases of hymnological research, I turned to the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship project known as Hymnary.org.  This website, quoting from the CRC Psalter Hymnal Handbook, informed me that “PRAISE JEHOVAH was composed by William J. Kirkpatrick (b. Duncannon, PA, 1838; d. Philadelphia, PA, 1921) and joined in the 1890s to this versification of Psalm 148, with the original seventh stanza becoming the refrain. The tune was published with an 1899 copyright date in Life Songs, a 1916 publication of the Mennonite Publishing House.”

Wow!  That came as a surprise.  Not only did “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” originate outside the Reformed tradition, but its first known appearance was in a Mennonite songbook!  Additionally, I discovered that this song isn’t even included in the 1912 Psalter, the source for the majority of the Psalter Hymnal’s content.  We put it into our songbook; other churches already had it in theirs.

But I still wondered what had made this song so popular in such a broad range of cultures and denominations.  In fact, it just might be the only complete (or very nearly complete) psalm versification I’ve ever heard sung outside a Reformed context of worship.  Why?  While we can’t know for sure, the following thoughts occurred to me:

  1. Both the words and the music of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” are simple and easy to learn.  This psalm is comparable to popular hymns like “How Great Thou Art” in terms of its basic structure and simplicity.
  2. The tune and format of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” place it squarely within the perennially popular gospel genre of Christian music.  With its simple part-writing, strong rhythmic structure, and exciting refrain, this tune is just plain fun to sing.
  3. “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” is perfectly suited for impromptu a cappella singing, leading to endless possibilities for its use in many different circumstances.
  4. The mere age of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” and its inclusion in such a wide variety of songbooks, has allowed it to sink into the ears and hearts of multiple generations of worshipers.

Now, with the above characteristics in mind, we must approach number 304 with a bit of caution.  As with many gospel-style hymns, there’s an underlying danger that we may sing “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” merely because it’s a fun song—not for its faithful versification of Scripture.  But I would like to hope that many Christians sing this selection with gusto mainly for its beautiful expressions of psalm-based praise to Jehovah.  In today’s self-centered worship culture, that would truly be a refreshing sight.

–MRK

Tunes (Part 7)

At long last we’ve arrived at the other end of URC Psalmody’s “Tunes” series safe and unharmed.  From my first article on the music of the Hebrew psalms, we’ve blazed through the topics of meter, time signature, rhythm, accent, and key.  Along the way, I introduced an obscure setting of Psalm 118 from the 1912 Psalter on which to apply the principles described in these posts.

By the end of our last installment, we had narrowed down the possible tunes for “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above” to five choices: OLD HUNDREDTH (Psalter Hymnal number 280), TRURO (122), CREATION (282), NAZARETH (300), and SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER (105).  Each of these possibilities possesses the qualities we wanted in each area of study.  So where do we go from here?

At some point in the process of selecting a tune, musical intuition must take precedence over musical theory.  Although a deeper study of the nuances of this text might reveal a few more clues, musicians (and hymnbook editors) are eventually left to make an educated choice.  Often the decision is made through trial and error, playing and singing each combination of text and tune in succession.

Also, the final choice will often vary based on personal preference.  For instance, I like either TRURO or CREATION as the tune for “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.”  However, our faithful reader Mrs. Julien, who surpasses me by several decades in musical experience, prefers APPLETON—a tune that I had ruled out fairly early on in my selection process.  Is one of us wrong?  Possibly—and if so, it’s probably me.  But there’s room for personal opinion in choosing church music, just as there’s room for personal opinion in many other minor aspects of worship.

(As an interesting side note, however, I should mention that the 1912 Psalter includes two tunes for this setting.  One is an unfamiliar entry, STONEFIELD.  The other–to Mrs. Julien’s credit–is APPLETON.)

In any case, what matters here is that we apply Biblical principles to all questions related to church music, and guide our decisions accordingly.  Using the criteria that music should be beautiful, orderly, and fitting, we narrowed down our choices by considering various tenets of musical theory.  If extra doses of humility and prayer are included, I believe this makes for a workable and God-glorifying method of selecting church music.

As I look back on these articles, I realize that a seven-part series on hymn tunes may beg the question, “Why?”  Should the average pastor or church member really care about these technicalities?  Are they really that important?

Music is often viewed as merely a carrier for text, as water is a carrier for chemicals.  If this is true, the tune of a congregational song is meaningless.  If this is true, pastors and accompanists need not concern themselves with the details of church music.  If this is true, sacred and secular music only differ in the words that each genre carries.

This erroneous notion permeates the Christian church of today, giving rise to a plethora of problems.  Careless worship practices, poorly edited hymnbooks, the notorious “worship wars” themselves—all are fueled by the basic idea that music doesn’t matter.  How far, how sadly far from the truth!

At the beginning of this series I described music as “the salt of our psalter.”  While that may be a bad pun, I am convicted that there is some truth in it.  Salt, unlike water, has a distinct flavor that inseparably permeates anything with which it comes into contact.  In the very same way, music is a permanent and powerful component of any and every kind of song.  The link between text and tune is so close that the Christian Reformed Church included this principle in the preface to the 1976 CRC Psalter Hymnal:

The music of the church should be beautiful.  Its religious thought or spirit should be embodied appropriately in the poetry as poetry, in the music as music, and in the blending of these in song.  It should satisfy the aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony, design, rhythm, restraint, and fitness which are the conditions of all art.

Carrier or key component?  I submit to you that music is the latter.  And if this is true, our view of music matters tremendously.  Accompanists should learn all they can about music and its theory.  Pastors should choose songs with both text and tune in mind, their decisions guided by the same basic principles.  Even non-musical church members should be aware of the connection between words and music, seeking every opportunity to learn more about this crucial element of worship.

This is why we aim for a regular balance between textual and musical considerations here on URC Psalmody.  Whenever we examine a psalm, we try to examine the tunes that accompany it in the Psalter Hymnal.  It’s also why we endeavor to serve pastors and fellow church members through the Psalter Hymnal Resource Library and other avenues.  Indeed, this is why we’ve devoted a seven-part series to the topic of tunes!

I hope that through this study our appreciation and respect for the songs of the church can in some way be deepened.  God has given us the incredible gift of music; may we know and use it to his glory!

It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

–Psalm 92:1-4 (ESV)

–MRK

Saxophone in the Sanctuary

When we think of the instruments most commonly associated with a traditional United Reformed worship service, organ and piano are usually at the top.  Smaller congregations might sometimes use an acoustic guitar.  And on special occasions, these accompanying instruments might possibly be joined by a trumpet, flute, or violin.  How about a saxophone?

For many of us, the mere mention of using a sax in worship makes our hair stand on end.  That’s because the genres of music inevitably associated with the saxophone are blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

If the instrument were only capable of playing those styles, traditional churches would have every reason to avoid utilizing it in worship.  But think again: Is it possible to play the saxophone beautifully and reverently, in a way that is entirely appropriate for the corporate worship of our God?  I submit to you that the answer to this question is a confident “Yes!”

In pop music, the saxophone is most renowned for its “wailing solos,” adding an often excessive level of virtuosity to the instrument’s remarkable resemblance to the timbre of the human voice.  But it’s that same unique similarity to the voice that enables the sax to play a psalm or hymn tune with emotion, depth, and beauty.  If you are so fortunate as to know someone who knows the saxophone, have them play a selection from the Psalter Hymnal one day; chances are you’ll be amazed at the sound you hear.  In stark contrast to its jazzy stereotype, a properly-played saxophone can add an extraordinarily unique color to the music of the church.

If you’re still not convinced, I’d like to recommend to you an album of hymns performed by an excellent saxophonist, James Steele, with the same title as this article: “Saxophone in the Sanctuary.”  When I first listened to the recording, I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing a sax.  Its rich, mellow tones gave each melody an exquisite quality possibly unparalleled by any other instrument.  Once you hear it yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

You might ask, “Why bother adding another instrument into our worship?”  Well, depending on the customs of your particular church, you might not have the opportunity (or the desire) for anything beyond simple piano or organ accompaniment.  However, numerous churches make regular use of solo instruments to accompany their congregational singing, for a variety of reasons.  Following are some primary rationales for this practice, along with Scriptural support:

  1. The Bible bursts with exhortations to praise God using a variety of instruments (Psalm 150).
  2. Many congregations possess members who are willing and able to serve the church through their gift of music (Romans 12:6); they are skilled enough to contribute to a worship service, and their instruments are capable of producing beautiful and God-glorifying music.  However, opportunities in the church are usually few and far between for musicians who play solo instruments like the sax.
  3. Utilizing the saxophone to accompany congregational singing provides a practical alternative to the idea of separate “special music” in worship, as the instrumentalist can assist the congregation in praise without drawing undue attention to himself or excluding his fellow worshipers (I Corinthians 14:26).

Practically, though, how can you introduce good saxophone music into your church?  First, of course, you have to find a saxophone player.  Just to ensure that this musician can handle the task, consider having a quick informal “audition” with him or her involving three or four easy hymn tunes.  Also find out what kind of saxophone your instrumentalist plays: there are several members in the family, including soprano, alto (the most common), tenor, and baritone sax.  And last but certainly not least, you’ll need to get approval from the leadership of your congregation.

Once you have established these important points, there are several possibilities for your first piece.  Below are a few of the approaches we’ve successfully used here at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.

  • Play a simple, familiar psalm or hymn tune from the Psalter Hymnal with solo saxophone and simple accompaniment (preferably piano).  This is often harder for the pianist than the sax player, in fact; it’s especially important to keep the rhythm steady, provide a full but not overpowering accompaniment, and fill in the gaps between stanzas.  Since the tuning of saxophones is unusual (the C of an alto saxophone is our E-flat), your instrumentalist will probably need their melody line transposed.  You can do this yourself if your computer has music notation software like Sibelius or Finale, or you can purchase pre-transposed hymn arrangements designed specifically for woodwind players.  The finished piece could probably be best utilized as a special offertory.
  • Accompany a vocal piece or congregational singing with the sax.  If your saxophonist excels at solo pieces, he or she may be ready to tackle the additional nuances involved in accompanying vocalists.  The above comments apply here as well.  I would suggest assigning the sax a descant or other “accenting” part rather than burying it amidst the complex vocal harmonies.
  • Include saxophone in a larger instrumental ensemble.  At West Sayville, this has proved to be the most effective way to involve a large number of musicians in worship.  Just as in the case of a soloist, we select an easy, familiar psalm/hymn tune and create a basic system of piano and organ accompaniment.  We proceed to divide the instrumentalists into their various ranges (soprano: flute and trumpet; alto: clarinet and trumpet 2; tenor: saxophone; bass: piano).  Then we simply write out parts for each of the instrumentalists from the four-part harmony in the hymnbook, transposing keys if necessary.  There’s no more arranging involved; the ensemble just practices for a few weeks, and all its members are soon ready to play their piece as a prelude, offertory, or other instance of service music.

Due to its cultural associations, the saxophone as an instrument is often both misunderstood and underappreciated.  So long as the sax is separated from the secular style to which it is typically attached, I would heartily encourage you to consider the possibility of utilizing it in corporate worship.  If you are still dissuaded by well-grounded objections, please don’t hesitate to share them.  But I’m inclined to believe that once you fully explore this instrument’s tonal capabilities, you will come to discover that there is indeed a place—a beautiful, reverential, God-glorifying place—for saxophone in the sanctuary.

–MRK


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