Posts Tagged 'Contemporary Music'

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)


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.


The Young People’s Music

“We’re losing the youth of our churches.  The music is turning them off.  We need to be more relevant, more contemporary, more sensitive to our young people.  They want to worship God with the kind of music they like best.  Bring in the projectors, bring in the drums and guitars; let’s give the next generation the worship music they want.”

I don’t know how hot the climate of the contemporary Christian music debates is in your area, but in general, these arguments are raised pretty frequently.  I do know one thing, however: Advocates of pop-style worship music would be hard pressed to maintain their arguments about the next generation’s preferences if they had attended last week’s TASC (Teens All Serving Christ) mission trip at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.

As the music coordinator for the devotional aspect of the trip, I found myself in a difficult spot.  It was my job to pick several songs for each night’s devotional sessions.  I wanted as many psalms as possible and a good number of hymns, but I needed songs that would be relatively familiar and easy to sing.  I knew I should include some contemporary favorites from RYS like “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep the Father’s Love,” but I didn’t want to give our worship an entirely modern flavor.  I sought to please our church’s TASC committee, yet I was determined to pick music that would be most effective in bringing glory to God.  How on earth could something like this be accomplished?

One thing is certain: not by my wisdom.  The more I added, subtracted, hacked, chopped, tweaked, stretched, and adjusted the selections, the more tangled the plan became.  A week before TASC was scheduled to begin, I had a rough list of songs, but I was utterly discouraged.  I feared that in my intense desire to please everybody, I would please absolutely no one—and on top of that, I had a nagging sense that I was dreadfully overcomplicating the whole process.

Group singing at TASC

Group singing at TASC

I needn’t have worried, because God did the rest.  Although I had no idea what topics would be covered in our pastor’s nightly devotional sessions, each of the songs I had picked aligned providentially with his messages.  For Wednesday night’s devotional, Pastor Drew quoted Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Unbeknownst to him, I had picked as that night’s closing song “I Have No Other Comfort”—a versification of Q&A 1.  The week was filled with these seeming “coincidences,” and I was continually amazed as God used the music and teaching to nurture our souls.

What about the contemporary music issue?  Well, as an example of the variety of my choices, here are the selections we sang on Thursday night:

  • “O My Soul, Bless Thou Jehovah” (Psalm 103, versified in the blue Psalter Hymnal)
  • “I Need Thee Every Hour” (an arrangement by Jars of Clay)
  • “Blest is He Who Loves God’s Precepts” (Psalm 1, versified in the blue Psalter Hymnal)
  • “Take My Life and Let It Be” (blue Psalter Hymnal number 462)—our “theme song” for the week
  • “God Is Our Refuge and our Strength” (Psalm 46, versified in the 1912 Psalter)—to the tune of “America, the Beautiful.”
  • “The Romans Doxology” (from the URC Hymn Proposal)

As you can see, the age range of these psalm settings and hymns spans nearly a century.  Interestingly, the most difficult song was clearly the second—the Jars of Clay arrangement.  Other than that, the TASC group had no trouble.  Far from being limited to contemporary music, they sang everything beautifully.

Nor were the musical inclinations of the kids limited to the devotional sessions.  At the worksites, it was refreshingly common to hear a group of three or four workers singing their favorite songs and hymns while cleaning or painting.  For our talent show on Thursday night, ten out of the twelve acts were musical—including many vocal groups, a piano-organ duet, and a separate organ solo.  And during our free time on Friday night, a group of singers (guys as well as girls!) spontaneously gathered in the church sanctuary, where they sang for nearly two hours.

The most memorable experience for me, however, occurred even later on Friday evening.  The Michigan group was scheduled to leave at midnight.  Right before their departure, I gathered everyone together one last time in the fellowship hall, and we sang two songs a cappella: “When Peace Like a River” and “God Be with You.”  Listening to forty teenagers singing from their hearts was incredibly moving—it was a sound that seemed worthy of heaven itself.

What did the participants of TASC think about the music?  I was already expecting certain quibbles: too much blue hymnal, too many psalms and hymns, not enough familiar favorites.  The actual reaction took me completely by surprise: The TASCers loved the songs of the Psalter Hymnal!  In fact, I just received an email from one of the participants with these thoughts:

I cannot express how blessed I was by the music.  Music is something that really touches people.  Also, we only sang hymns, which was glorious!  I do go to a Christian school, but hymns aren’t sung very often anymore.  Just hearing the harmonies of the songs as we sang was sometimes enough to move me to tears.  So, I thank every TASCer for that blessing to me.

This TASCer’s opinion was echoed by numerous other participants over the course of the week.  After attending last week’s mission project, I’ve returned with tremendous encouragement and renewed hope for the worship of our churches.  Contrary to popular opinion, the next generation is not oblivious.  These kids have already committed their lives to serving the Lord, and they already know and love the timeless psalms and hymns of the faith.  Without a doubt, the URCNA’s worship traditions will be placed into good hands.

The question for each one of you is simply this: What can you do, right here, right now, to strengthen the musical and spiritual grounding of the next generation?



Has it ever struck you how many memories a tune can carry?  Maybe you’ll always remember a song you heard on the radio all the time as a child, or the theme music from your favorite TV show, or a hymn that you used to sing often in your home church.  I know my mind will always connect snippets of music from the radio with various times and places.  I’ll always associate Psalter Hymnal number 301, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” with the heartfelt singing of the small congregation at Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship in New York City, and I’ll never forget hearing number 298 played on the wheezy old pipe organ at Christ Reformed Church’s former worship location in Washington, DC.  These musical connections may be small, but they stay with us for a lifetime because of the memories with which they are associated.

That phenomenon of association can present an interesting problem for church musicians.  Surely you’ve heard the Irish air LONDONDERRY, often sung to the text of “O Danny Boy.”  (You can listen to an excellent pipe organ rendition of it on YouTube here.)  As a secular song, this tune is perennially popular for all manner of sentimental occasions—weddings, movies, and just about any setting that calls for emotional warmth.  It’s certainly one of the most moving tunes I’ve ever heard.  But have you ever sung LONDONDERRY in worship?  It’s not likely; the tune isn’t included in the blue or gray Psalter Hymnals, nor even the 1990 Trinity Hymnal.  Yet, surprising as it may sound, this tune was once set to the words of Psalm 103 in the 1934 Psalter Hymnal.  In fact, the metrical setting was taken from vv. 2-5 of what is now blue Psalter Hymnal number 204, “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord.”

Now here’s where our question arises: Should such a tune be used in worship?  Some would answer with a confident yes—all good music should be used in the church.  Others might be more hesitant.  Maybe, they would say, we shouldn’t sing a “secular” tune like this in worship.  Their concerns stem from what I just introduced above, the issue of associations: could singing this tune distract the singers from God and focus them instead on their own feelings and emotions?  For now, I’m going to let my own opinions lie silent on this issue, and instead open up the floor for some discussion.  For starters, consider the following questions:

  • Should any music be utilized in worship so long as it is well-written?  Or should the church use only music that it has composed for itself?
  • Should the music of the church be a response to the emotions of the singers, or should it actually evoke emotion in the singers?
  • What characteristics of a melody like this make it more emotionally inspiring than other hymn tunes?  Do we just recognize the context in which the tune is so often used, or is the musical structure itself responsible?
  • What is detrimental about an overly emotional worship “experience”?
  • If “secular” music is to be adapted for worship, what criteria should be in place for selecting and/or modifying it?

As you might expect, these questions have been floating around for centuries.  Arguments, stories, and miscellaneous tidbits of information have all been thrown about at will.  My goal is not to revisit such old battles, but to remind all of us that we should give serious thought to how we worship God through music.  If our desire to follow God’s directions for worship is sincere, there is no doubt that this discussion will be fruitful.  With that said, I hope you’ll feel free to offer your thoughts on these matters!



The Psalms, Alive and Well

A few weeks ago I posted regarding the lasting significance of the Genevan Psalter.  Since then, I discovered a great example of how these psalm settings are still being used today.

If you subscribe to Christian Renewal magazine, you may have recently read about a group called “The Psalm Project.”  Led by Dutch composer Eelco Vos, these musicians recently toured the Great Lakes area, performing psalms set to modern music.  Though their style is definitely contemporary, the melodies of the music are based on the original Genevan Psalter tunes corresponding to each psalm!  Apparently, The Psalm Project’s work has been enthusiastically received in certain Reformed circles, like the Christian Reformed Church and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Whether or not The Psalm Project’s arrangements should be incorporated into congregational worship could be a matter of great controversy in the Reformed arena.  But I don’t think this goal is what Eelco Vos and his musicians had in mind.  Rather, it seems to me that the mission of The Psalm Project is to expand the reach of the psalms from worship into every area of life.  By setting the psalms to contemporary texts and tunes, they can reach believers and unbelievers alike, in settings outside church gatherings, with the message of God’s Word.

This same approach has been proposed by others in the Reformed community, such as Calvin Seerveld.  Seerveld (incidentally, a former organist here at West Sayville) has long been an influential figure in Christian Reformed circles, and has authored many contemporary adaptations of psalm texts for the 1987 CRC Psalter Hymnal.  I’m not convinced that all of his psalm adaptations are Scripturally accurate, but this argument (as quoted in a Calvin Institute of Christian Worship article) is a significant one:

[Seerveld] believes that bringing the psalms back into public life would remedy the current “weakness of biblical consciousness.  There is so little, if any, common song (much less Psalms!) among followers of Christ.  ‘Amazing Grace,’ the doxology, and ‘Silent Night’ are probably about the most Christians could muster to sing impromptu without printed notes (not counting the Bible choruses).

“We need to start way back and have leaders fall in love with the psalms, get current language, recite certain psalms, exercise certain tunes, and then-after a generation?—they may begin to live in our voices,” Seerveld says.

He hopes that the Voicing God’s Psalms book and CD will inspire ordinary and younger believers to start reading the psalms for devotions, using them in Bible studies and outreach programs, and sharing the CD at hospitals, nursing homes, and on military bases.

“If believers ask their pastors to give attention to the psalms, and then if pastors and music leaders show they do take God’s psalms to heart, not just as token items in a Sunday liturgy, then maybe the CD and careful translations will endear the psalms to God’s people and the curious disbelievers,” Seerveld says.

Again, as URC members holding to a more traditional Reformed perspective, we may be inclined to shy away from the modern sound and idiomatic language of the settings of Eelco Vos and Cal Seerveld.  I’m not making an argument for bringing this style of song into congregational worship.  But could it be that this perspective—the mission of applying the psalms to every area of life—is one we should seriously consider?  How might the psalms have a greater impact on us and our unbelieving neighbors if we don’t limit them to Sunday services, but instead bring them anywhere God leads us?  And in this way can we make a permanent place for God’s Word in our hearts?  It’s not an easy question, but it may be worth some careful thought.

To God be the glory!



  • For more information about The Psalm Project, visit their website.  On the home page, excerpts from several of their arrangements are available for listening.
  • The Calvin Seerveld article I referenced, entitled “Voicing God’s Psalms,” is available from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship here.  As it relates to our current discussion in the “Meet the Psalm-Hymn” series, I especially recommend reading the sidebar on “Translation, Paraphrase, Versification: What’s the difference?” near the bottom of the article.
  • To get an idea of Calvin Seerveld’s versification style, take a look at his psalm settings in the gray 1987 CRC Psalter Hymnal, including numbers 22, 91, 105, 131, and 150, or number 22 in the URC Hymn Proposal (which the Songbook Committee has since decided to remove).

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