Let the eye-rolling commence!

It’s inevitable.  At some point in the next few weeks, the piano, organ, and brass will begin to play; the conductor will give the downbeat; and one of my brothers-in-law will glance out of the corner of his eye to see what’s going on in my region of the choir.

You see I cannot bring myself to sing “Joy to the World.”  Even now, I actually can feel the disappointment in my spiritual life you have at this very moment.

Take a moment and read through the lyrics.  When the hymn writer, Isaac Watts, composed the carol in 1719, it was not intended to be a Christmas/Advent/First Coming carol.  Hymnary.org notes that Watts “published it in his Psalms of David Imitated (1719) under the heading ‘The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.'”  Another article giving the background of the carol can be found here.

“Joy to the World” (based off of Psalm 98) is actually about Christ’s Second Coming and the onset of the Messianic (i.e., Millennial) Kingdom.  It has precious little to do with Christmas, as the events the carol speaks of are still yet to occur!  Now, I can understand singing the carol at Christmas if one’s understanding of Scripture leads them to believe that Christ’s Kingdom, as prophesied in the Old Testament, began with the beginning of the Church.  In that way, many of those Old Testament passages are applied to the current age.  But, in the circles I’ve traveled and in which I’ve had fellowship, that is not the case.

It’s not like there is a dirth of good Christmas carols — even carols that balance the birth of Israel’s Messiah with the realization that God had now begun to administrate His kingdom differently on the Day of Pentecost.  I know “Joy to the World” is boisterously happy and jubilant, but — like anything else — shouldn’t the text inform and guide as to proper usage?

At the end of it all (no pun intended), let me be clear.  When He comes — our glorious King — I will gladly, triumphantly, and loudly be singing “Joy to the World.”  I’d go so far as to say that I hope it is the second song in D-major that we end up singing on that day.  The first, of course, will be Handel’s chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” from The Messiah.  (What can I say?  The pedal D on the organ makes me well up every time!  I’m hoping part of the refreshing the New Covenant brings is a clearly-audible 128′ pipe for that D that will resound throughout the universe.)

So go ahead.  Roll your eyes.  Cringe.  Think ill-thoughts.  I’m really not that crazy.  Or at least for this reason.


on keys in contemporary worship…

I’ve been involved with leading worship now for the better part of twelve years.  On those occasions where I’m asked to work out all the aspects of the process (e.g., picking music, working transitions, introductions, etc.), inevitably there is always some discussion on the keys that I choose to employ for any number of the songs that I pick.  My curiosity is always piqued when my fellow musicians feel so passionately about which keys to use, or not use, as the case may be.  Usually when I am criticized for picking a poor key (okay… always), it’s because it is said to be too low; yet, I do not choose based solely upon what is convenient and comfortable for me, but on a variety of factors.  After long last, here are the thoughts that run through my head:

First, the worship leader must always take into account which key is most comfortable for the congregation to sing in.  This is to be first and foremost in their mind.  In my experience, women are more comfortable singing in congregational settings than their male counterparts.  I think the lack of male participation is due, in part, to the high ranges of the songs.  And, if the tenor worship leader chooses keys with high ranges, you are even going to lose the women, as well.  This is especially striking when you consider “composers” (I use the term loosely, and should probably just say “songwriters”) keep the highest notes for the emotional climax of the song.  Why should the tenors be the only ones to sing the most “moving” part?  The sopranos have switched to head voice, and the basses and altos have switched to mumbling the words.

Even if this distinction is not present (i.e., men and women sing equally loud), this whole idea of range and tessitura must be addressed.  Gone are the days when women ably employ their head voice without being trained to do so.  Participation in choirs or other vocal groups has dropped precipitously, which has also led in a decline in the ability to read music.  Contemporary radio (Christian or secular) is rife with chest voice (which is virtually always the case with men, but all the more prevalent with women).  It’s what the congregants hear, it’s what they emulate, and it’s really the only thing they are capable of doing, at least with any volume.

If this were our sole factor, we wouldn’t be looking to have the congregation sing any higher than an A4, possibly B4, if indeed we were looking to have a full, comfortable sound.  My dear alto friends in my church choir start griping around this range.  Anything above that and, unless properly trained, the range becomes non-conducive for congregational singing.  If we were to look at it from the male perspective, we’d probably want to top out at either C4 or D4.  I don’t think that contemporary worship should ever cross the E5 (E4 for men) threshold, if not Eb5.  It’s at this point that the range is going to limit your congregational participation.  Fs should simply be off limits.  Always.

What about the low end of that comfortableness?  Women would probably be able to extend down to A3 comfortably in their chest voice (with the occasional G3); however, given the amount of tenors, we probably shouldn’t extend the low range past Bb2 (with the occasional A2).  It’s all about finding that happy medium that doesn’t make it too high for basses/altos, but yet not too low for tenors/sopranos.  I’d say, then, that we as worship leaders should seek to pick keys that have a melodic range of Bb3-Eb5, where the notes on either end of that range would be sparse.

Second, that being said, we need to take tessitura into account.  Whereas range is that set of pitches that any given human voice can sing, the tessitura is that range within the voice that is most comfortable to sing in (or, in relation to music, the range within which a melody will “sit” for any given period of time.  Even if the song’s melody falls within that Bb3-Eb5, if the chorus is a non-stop barrage of C5, D5, and Eb5, there’s a problem.  The common congregant (or every alto and bass) will not be able to sustain singing at that range, thus hindering worship.  That’s why, when I choose keys, I look for a tessitura (the most commonly used range) between D4 and C5.  It’s not as big of a problem on the lower range, as that’s where the verses tend to lie, and sopranos and tenors can still “speak out” the melody if they are unable to vocalize a full sound.

Third, it is often leveraged against me that we are straying from the original keys, which causes the song to lack power and emotion.  But let’s think about this.  Majority of contemporary, radio-friendly worship leaders (here’s looking at you Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Michael W. Smith, et al)?  Tenors.  Of course they are going to write and sing songs that sit in their powerhouse.  Majority of worship leaders?  Tenors.  It’s nothing for them to knock out an F4, or even a G4, but they do so at the expense of alienating the congregation.  It’s to this end that we need to adjust the keys so that the ranges reach the greatest majority of the congregation’s powerhouses.

Fourth, lower keys will enable tenors (or those brave baritones) to sing the higher harmony on contemporary songs.  I think this helps everything click into place.

A case study — Everlasting God

If we use a key of A, the verse looks like this:

And the chorus in A:

You’ll see that while the verse sits on the lower end of the accepted range, the chorus sits higher (has a higher tessitura).  This is to be much preferred over the song in C:

It’s only three half-steps difference, but they are crucial.  While the verse is still singable, the chorus becomes too high for the majority of your congregation — including any belting women you may have on your praise team.  While the range may be acceptable (barely), the tessitura is ridiculous.  And this is just one of many examples I could give.*

Two other things to note.  We need to make sure they keys are friendly to our guitarist friends.  This may mean ensuring they have a capo, and the appropriate key in which to play with the capo.  Also, a note about hymns.  Within the past century, it has been common to lower the keys of the hymns found in hymnals.  I believe this to be, in part, due to the lack of musical training within the church today.  A century ago (even a half century ago), congregations sang in four part harmony.  Sopranos would sing the melody, altos the (gasp) alto line, and so on and so forth.  It was nothing for hymnals to contain music with F5 or F#5, because sopranos, properly trained or counseled how to employ their head voice, could hit them with ease.  In recent history, the trend has been to lower these keys for reasons I just explained.

For the record, I’m not crazy (or worse, simply catering to my own desires as a bass) when I choose keys for worship.  I choose them based upon careful consideration of the needs of the congregation and what would most enable them to sing, and sing out loudly, enabling them to focus on the act of worship.  I highly recommend that this is something we teach not only our current crop of worship leaders, but also those that will someday replace us.

*One other example.  Here is Mighty to Save in D:

And the bridge:

Note the high tessitura of this bridge, especially given that the verse is in a medium range.  What happens if we take it down just one step to C?  All of a sudden, it’s golden!  And the verse is still plenty singable.  If it weren’t for our guitar friends, I’d probably prefer another half step and sing it in B.

on the polarity of church music…

The following is a brief paper I wrote for my Pastoral Ministry class.  The assignment was to write on an existing polarity within churches today (e.g., law and grace; evangelism and discipleship; tradition and contemporary).  I wouldn’t say this is the most thorough and well-executed paper I could have written, but it is what it is, and I thought I would share it.  Enjoy!

            In the past two decades, few practical matters have divided the church more often than the concepts of the traditional and the contemporary.  This polarity manifests itself in a variety of ways; however, none so strongly as the issue of music and worship in the church.  For the purposes of this discussion, I will refrain from referring to music as either “traditional” or “contemporary;” rather, I will use the terms “classical” and “folk,” respectively.[1]  I believe that discussions on the role of tradition in the church are often fruitless because there is a lack of understanding, not only in music history, but in forgetting what we are doing with music in the first place.

            There are benefits and setbacks to each end of the spectrum.  Concerning classical worship, several benefits are noted.  First, it aids in congregational singing.  By its very nature, classical music is designed to have melodies that are easy to sing, as well as harmonies that are governed by a very strict set of rules.  In addition, the rhythm of classical worship music is more often simpler, which leads to a more unified voice in congregational singing.  This music was meant to be sung as a congregation, and its uniformity is exemplified in the existence of hymnals.  Second, the classical style is unified in the sense that it is timeless.  Chorales written by Bach three hundred years ago contain the same characteristics of living hymn writers such as Paul Jones of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  Third, and in many ways most important, is that classical worship contains texts that are richer and more theological in meaning.  Because this style has had wide acceptance, as well as time on its side, the lyrics of classical worship often portray a grander sense of the person and work of God.  Fourth, classical worship is not dependent upon stylistic interpretation.  In this style, the composer, not the performer, has the final say in what is performed.

            All this is not to say that folk worship does not have its benefits.  First, it is easily accessible to believers in that it utilizes music that is familiar to them.  In using the familiar, they are able to identify with the style of music, and consequently, relate more with the texts.  This is the main line of support for using folk music.  Second, a believer does not need to know how to read music or be skilled in similar ways in order to make the most of folk worship.  Third, the texts are usually more personal.

            In addition, both styles have drawbacks.  In today’s American culture, unless someone either grew up in a church that employed classical worship, or is a musician, a believer will not readily identify with the style, and it will thereby become a distraction to worship.  Indeed, one would not expect a remote tribal group of South America to worship using standard four-part Western harmony.  It would be more appropriate for their folk music to be that vehicle.  As it were, classical music used to be a part of our culture, whereas in the past century, it has been declining at a rapid pace.  Perhaps one of the main reasons why it was a part of our culture was because of the church, as the church was the foremost outlet and supporter of classical music.  The history of church music is the history of classical music.

            There are also drawbacks to employing folk music.  First, it employs a familiar style of music that can be easily equated with the commercialism and individualism of today’s culture.  A believer can sing a song in church on Sunday, and then turn on the radio and sing along with Chris Tomlin in their car on Monday on their way to work.  Like it or not, the Christian music business is still, at its heart, a business.  Second, because of its nature, folk music is centered on soloists, which detracts from congregational singing.  Melodic rhythms are usually syncopated and will vary from worship leader to worship leader.  Because most recording artists are either tenors or altos, this translates into melodic ranges (usually too high) that are not suitable for people in the congregation.  To be fair, classical worship used to employ high melodies; however, this was also when many were trained to sing in that style.  One will notice that the trend in more recent hymnals is to actually lower the keys to accommodate for this lack of training!  It is an accommodation not usually found in folk music.  Third, the texts are often focused on a believer’s emotions, abilities, and responses, as opposed to the person and work of the Object of their worship.  Fourth, by its very nature, folk music changes with a people group’s culture.  Even a song written twenty years ago can be difficult to fit into a “contemporary” service.  Worship leaders must always be on the look out for the next hit worship song that will replace what came before it.

            So what can a pastor do?  I believe there are several important things to keep in mind.  First, keep the main thing the main thing!  Why are we even utilizing the vehicle of music in the first place?  It is to worship our Creator and Redeemer.  Everything else must be subservient to this goal.  Second, the pastor should be educated in what the differences truly are, and pass that on to their congregation.  Many churches that stem from the 18th century American “camp meetings,” or the 20th-century “gospel crusades” use gospel songs or Southern gospel for worship (this applies to my home church).  What many congregants do not realize is that these are not “hymns” simply because they have become “tradition!”  These gospel songs are merely the folk worship of one hundred years ago, and are fundamentally no different than what is being written today.  Likewise, many instruments that are considered “classical” are relatively recent inventions.  Just as folk music can be criticized as subjective and ever changing, even classical music has not always been around as such.

            Third, what are the congregation’s perceived needs and why?  If a congregation is thriving on classical worship (e.g., Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia), switching to folk worship in order to be relevant to today’s culture would be to lose that church’s relevancy.  Likewise, it may not be the wisest course of action as a pastor to upset the faith of half a congregation by demanding a switch to the other style of worship.  On the other hand, perhaps the congregation’s real need is to be educated and more fully understand why they want what they do.

            Fourth, your church may be one that would like to see a blend of classical and folk styles.  In my experience, I have found it best (not only in terms of musicality, but in placating the most congregants) that the blend of styles manifest itself in the co-existence, not a merging, of styles.  Performing folk songs with an organ and classical songs with a guitar and drums is probably not going to achieve the balance you are looking to strike.

            Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages, and I believe it is best to let them both stand on their own merits according to the needs of the church.  Unfortunately, churches let this issue divide them far too often, especially when we consider that this is over an act of worship and devotion to the One who died for all of us.


                [1]These words are deliberately chosen.  “Classical” will refer to music employed by the church that follows the guidelines of the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic characteristics of the last millennium of Western music, which is idealized in people like Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whose compositions are still seen as a standard today; and Johann Fux (1660-1741), whose book Gradus Ad Parnassum codified “classical” principles relating to melody and harmony.  Normally, this group consists of hymns and choral anthems.  “Folk,” then, is that music which is historically recognized as being orally transmitted and, more importantly, related to a nation’s (or people group’s) culture.  This group not only applies to “contemporary” music (i.e., newly composed music), but the gospel songs and Southern gospel, which sometimes antiquate what can be termed “classical.”  A proper understanding of these terms aids in this discussion.