On church music

By , 19 March 2010 7:00 pm

There are many indicators that you are getting old, or at least older. I suspect one of them is that you increasingly find yourself grumbling about church music. So at the risk of alienating some of my few friends let me make some comments. I should say though that they are not entirely directed at my own church but elsewhere.

This reflection was triggered curiously enough by an interview in a paper with a fireworks expert (there’s probably a special term for them) who do these wonderful firework displays that accompany music. His comment – I forget the precise words – was that he preferred working with classical musicians because they didn’t put themselves forward. The point was that with rock groups he found that he had personalities to deal with and they apparently wanted the limelight over his fireworks. Well the application to church music is pretty straightforward.

Mind you I don’t entirely blame our musicians, most of whom are under thirty. I suspect previous generations, by and large, held to classical music as the supreme model of musicianship. And there even the most extrovert of pianists or violinists is still bound by the score and, at least hopefully, the conductor. Of course there has been a trend as cult of personality with the conductor for which we have, I imagine, very little parallel in church music; though some of you may worship in churches where music groups are large enough to require a conductor. But in general classical musicianship centres on humility and reticence and the art of not getting in the way of letting the music speak. The problem now is I think that we have seen the replacement of this classical model by a newer model based around the musician as rock star. Here it is the performer, not the music, that comes to the front. This of course flies in the face of the idea that all the contributors to a worship service (and here I include the preacher) are servants. So I think there is a need to remind musicians that they serve the service and do not rule it.

The second problem I think is the rise of amplification. Now we need amplification; and some musicians need it badly. Here I am particularly thinking of the more light-voiced singers. The problem is that it is all too easy to end up with some sort of ceaseless arms race; the bass guitarist has to be heard over the drums so he or she is miked and amped, then the lead guitarist has to be given a few more watts of power so that he or she can be heard and this means that vocal amplification has to be increased. By this time, the overall balance generally has been thrown out and everybody cranks up the volume one more notch. The resulting problem is not just a volume level that is far too loud. It is that balancing the resulting rapidly changing melange of amplified sounds to create a clear and harmonious whole is beyond the ability of the average church PA kit and the average church PA person.

Let me add one final point which I have never heard anybody propound in church, which is rather a pity because it’s important. While it is commonly assumed that the older people get the deafer they become; it is probably truer to say that what actually happens is the range of frequencies over which they hear becomes narrower. The result is that the more senior members of the congregation can actually find noise levels more irritating than young people because it is swamping some of the few frequencies they have left.

There are other things that I can add. The key is surely that we are to serve each other and put others first. And that is, of course, the key not just to the success of church music.

3 Responses to “On church music”

  1. Bill D. says:

    Hi Chris,

    Sadly, I think part of the problem with the Rock Star syndrome in church music, can be blamed on a lack of training in several areas:

    1. Microphone technique: Having been a sound tech in several of the churches I’ve attended over the years, nothing irritates me more than seeing the “eat-the-mic” types trying to emulate their favorite rocker by treating the microphone like an ice cream cone. Most churches don’t purchase mics that can handle that close proximity, so distortion is almost guaranteed. (As an aside, with the proliferation of odd little viruses these days, discouraging contact with the microphone in this way is a good preventative measure).

    2. Drummers: While not all churches use drums, there’s a tendency in those who do to find eager young folks who feel it their obligation to beat the drums into submission and go through a new set of sticks and drumheads every couple of weeks. What happened to finesse? Some songs don’t require a drum at all. I can’t imagine singing “It is well with my soul” needing a drum to keep the beat.

    3. Sound mixing: Nothing is more critical in keeping the peace in church these days than a well-trained, and mildly-assertive sound tech. Building an understanding of audio balance, proper equalization (read that “bass levels should not sound like artillery”), and understanding the difference between mixing with and without headsets, and in an empty or full auditorium, are an absolute minimum level of training. Younger techs should be encouraged to understand “the mixer is not your personal IPOD.”

    One of the most delicate matters you ever have to deal with as a sound tech is talking to those folks who consistently sit in close proximity to the speakers and letting them know the rather obvious dynamic that sitting closer means higher volume. If they desire to have levels suitable to themselves only, they should understand that they are robbing others of the blessing of hearing the service to suit themselves. While asking people to move from their hereditary throne-er-pew location is tantamount to heresy, it may be necessary to ask them to try to understand the peculiarities of sound in the sanctuary.

    4. Invest in your sound experience: Church budgeting rarely includes funds to analyze the acoustic signature of a church sanctuary and purchase equipment and installation meant to deal with the building’s acoustics in the best way possible. While the tight economic times make this understandable, the result will be a substandard experience with constant issues being raised.



  2. BlackPhi says:

    One aspect of church music that strikes me is the difference between those members of the congregation who want to sing to God corporately and those who just want to do their own thing.

    For the former it is important that the sound be balanced so that the musicians lead but the bulk of the volume comes from around one, as the congregation sing out together. For the latter, I guess, it is better that the musicians be loud enough to drown out the distractions from the rest of the congregation. In churches with choirs, of course, you then have those who just want to listen to the performance.

    The musicians also come with different priorities: a musician humbly focussed on his/her own personal experience with God is likely to act differently to one humbly focussed on the church’s corporate experience with God; one focussed on humbly using their God-given musical talents to the full in performance may be different yet again.

  3. Terry says:

    Thank you, Chris, for nudging the sacred cow, and thank you Bill, for a very knowledgeable response. I’ve been involved in almost every aspect of church music over the years, from choirs and directing, to leading singing, to playing bass and lead guitars, to setting and mixing sound. I concur with all of Bill’s comments, and would add a few points:

    – Just because someone understands how the sound system works mechanically doesn’t mean they are a good tech. Having a good ear for sound, and what constitutes balance and equalization and what does not, is essential.

    – Less is almost always more. Other than in specific situations, we encourage musicians to keep things simple.

    – Exellence disappears, while mediocrity stands out. What I mean is that the better the musicians and singers are, and the better they flow together, the more seamless and invisible the music becomes. The musician playing the wrong note, or the singer who is off-key focuses attention on the music, not on the One we want to worship.

    – One cannot effectively lead worship without first being a worshipper. I have come to look for musicians and singers who have a heart for God and for being in community, before I look for talent. It’s a lot easier to train someone with a soft heart to play well than it is to teach a (some) hot musician(s) to worship. We try to incorporate a fair amount of prayer and sharing time in practices, and emphasize that this is not about us, but about leading God’s people to His throne.

    – When considering how to play a song, and what to incorporate, I try to ask, “Is this song/elaboration going to glorify God, or am I using it to scratch my own musical itch?” If I play or sing a passage a certain way simply because I like how it sounds, I’m out of line. Keeping my heart right throughout the process requires consistent checking with the Holy Spirit, and accountability within the group. But it’s worth it. Our highest calling is to worship and glorify God, and when we do, it doesn’t get any better than that.

    Blessings to all, and take care.


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