Kevin DeYoung offers ten constructive principles for church music and singing in two posts.
Here are three in full.
5. Sing the Psalms.
I am not convinced by the arguments for exclusive psalmody. But in 95% of our churches the problem is not that we are keeping out good non-Psalms. It’s strange, even though we are commanded to sing Psalms and even though Psalms have been at the center of the Church’s singing for centuries, still we easily ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the middle of our Bibles (to borrow a phrase from Terry Johnson). On a cheerier note, I’m thankful we are beginning to see some contemporary musicians turn their attention to the Psalms.
7. The main sound to be heard in the worship music is the sound of the congregation singing.
Everyone is responsible to sing. The young girl with her hands in the air and the old man belting out the bass line. What people want to see in your worship is that you mean it. And no matter how chill or how reverent your worship is, if no one is singing, it’s lame.
And if the main sound is to be the congregation singing, this will have implications for how we play and choose our songs.
Is it singable? Pay attention to range (too high or too low), and beware of syncopation and lots of irregularities in the meter and rhythm. Make sure the melody makes some intuitive sense, especially if you don’t have music to look at or people can’t read music. When your guitar strums between G, C, and D there are a lot of notes to choose from.
Is the instrumentation helping or inhibiting the congregation to sing? This means checking the volume. Is the music too soft to support the human voices? Is it so loud it’s drowning them out? One mistake music teams make is to think that every instrument needs to be used with every song. Some songs should get the whole kitchen sink, but just because you have a drum, piano, guitar, bass, lyre, zither, flute, chicken shaker, banjo, cello, and djembe up there doesn’t mean you have to use them all.
Is this song familiar. People cannot handle a new song every week, let alone two or three new songs. Stick with your basic sound and core songs and go out from there. On occasion you may have to admit, “That’s a great song, but I don’t think we can do it well.”
9. The texts of our songs should be matched with fitting musicality and instrumentation.
Music should support the theme of the song. Different texts have different moods. The words for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” would not work with the tune for “Children of the Heavenly Father.” The campy song “Do Lord” does not quite capture the mood of the dying thief’s final words. On the other hand, you have to love the Getty song “See What a Morning” where the triumphant, celebratory music perfectly matches the resurrection lyrics.
Musical style is not neutral, but it is elastic. Music conveys something. Some melodies are too syrupy or too raucous or too romantic. I’ve always felt like “This is the Air I Breathe” was too sensual sounding. Plus I’m not sure what the song means. But styles are not rigid categories. There isn’t a sharp line between contemporary and traditional, or classical and popular, or high culture and low culture. We don’t have to make absolute rules about musical style, but we do need to be intelligent.
Let me just say a word about organs. No church should die on this hill. But if your church already has an organ my advice is to keep using it. Organs were originally associated with paganism. So there is nothing inherently spiritual about them. When they were introduced into churches, the average Christian in the Middle Ages new as much about organs as your average teenager does today. They were introduced into worship because of the fitness of the instrument. As Harold Best argues in his fantastic book Unceasing Worship, there is no instrument we know of in the West better suited to support congregational singing (73). The organ fills in the cracks, provides an underneath sound, and encourages churches to sing louder and freer. If you don’t have an organ they can be expensive to get. We mustn’t lay down any commands. But if an organ is an option for you, don’t ditch it.
Go and read DeYoung’s thoughts on these other points.
1. Love is indispensable to church singing that pleases God.
2. Our singing is for God’s glory and the edification of the body of Christ.
3. We ought to sing to the Lord new songs.
4. Church singing should swim in its own history of church singing.
6. We should strive for excellence in the musicality and the poetry of the songs we sing.
8. The congregation should also be stretched from time to time to learn new songs and broaden its musical horizons.
10. All of our songs should employ manifestly biblical lyrics.