I ran across an article yesterday that seemed to accurately depict a common view of hymns, modern music, and church music in general. There were a couple fundamental assumptions made that I did not agree with and thought worth posting about.
Assumption #1: The Test of Time
I’ve posted about this one before but it seems worth mentioning again, seeing how it is definitely quite a prevalent thought… and perhaps come at it from different angles than my previous post.
What Is the Test of Time?
The way it is used, I think the common view is that the test of time is the process by which certain works (art, literature, music, architecture, etc.) are preserved throughout generations based on their own merit; thus, if a given item is preserved for multiple generations, the assumption would be that it has some merit of its own that caused many generations to preserve it, thus it is good (in some way).
At least with regard to music and literature, I disagree. Why? Because music and literature, in order to be preserved, must be published. Well, perhaps not must be published… but nobody knows about if it’s not published. With church music specifically in view, church music doesn’t withstand the test of time without being published… and, publishers wanting their published works to sell, will tend to publish music that will be popular.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the test of time is fundamentally a test of popularity. I really doubt that the only good hymn Luther wrote was A Mighty Fortress Is Our God – and, in fact, I really doubt that was the only and best translation. However, it is what got published into hymnals and thus became popular, and continued to be published because people know it and liked it. Same with Wesley or Watts; they wrote many good hymns that we simply don’t know. Are they not good? No… they just didn’t get published and become popular and thus endure through time.
On the other hand, they did endure. What do I mean? Well, we can still find them! They are available for us to peruse. Books and volumes of hymn writers’ poetry is available (check out the Hymnary, for example, or just search for Wesley or Watts in Google Books). Does this mean all of their hymns withstood the test of time? No… when we use that term, what we really mean are the ones that people know. In other words: they are popular.
So, my conclusion: the test of time is fundamentally a test of popularity. I don’t think popularity is a good mechanism for choosing a song for a congregation… neither with popular songs of now or popular sons of then.
Incidentally, I rarely see a call to being careful about what traditional/”classic” hymns say. Hymn writers theology differs, and thus hymns differ in theology. For example, Wesley was arminian. If you’re not arminian, you may want to make sure the hymns you sing that Wesley wrote don’t reflect arminianism. Some of those hymns that stood the test of time do reflect it. We are all aware of the very real need to be careful with new songs; but we can’t let an assumption about “the test of time” mitigate the very real need to be careful with old songs.
Assumption #2: Hymns Are More Easily Singable Because of …
This can be true. Hymns were generally specifically written for congregational singing, whereas the trend now is for songs to be written for performance. The problem? People are trying to shoehorn solo-type songs into a congregational singing mold.
However, the bad assumption is that songs from times past are automatically more easily sung now. But why, one may ask? Didn’t they have more focus on community/group singing, thus their songs were written with that in mind? Well, yes, that is true; however, our musical culture changes; thus, what we find to be “easy” or “familiar” changes. I have both experienced and known people who find some hymn tunes hard to pick up because it’s not the style they are familiar with. On the other hand, I know people who can sing along with a popular song of today after hearing it only a couple times… because they are used to the common musical traits of that style. My point is that what makes a song singable is not only that it was written with that in mind; what make as song singable also has to take into account the musical context of those you want to sing.
Correct: Focus on Congregational Singing Used to be Greater
This is unfortunately true. I do see a focus on congregational song in the past. What happened? That’s up for debate, perhaps. I posted on this previously, too. I personally think part of what happened is that the church let tradition rule in music, and stopped trying to write new songs in the common musical context of the day … which, I might add, they did do in the past. However, whatever we think happened in the past … we can agree on what we need to do to rectify the current situation.
First, a renewed focus on congregational participation in church music. I see this starting to happen; yay!
Secondly, a renewed focus on writing congregational church music in the musical context of the day. That doesn’t mean you take the most wacky popular music and try to write in that style. There are very singable styles that are popular today; we don’t need to take the unsingable forms. When’s the last time we sang a traditional hymn to a traditional Irish dance tune? Not often, the dance tunes are typically not very singable, even though they are folk songs from a time when community singing was popular. So, we don’t need to take, say, hip-hop and try to make it a group-participation style.
Thirdly, a shift in thinking away from assuming that traditional song = good, modern song = suspicious … to realizing that both can be good and both can be bad. Moving away from assuming that old hymns = deep theology and new hymns = shallow theology. Moving away from the idea that new songs = happy and old songs = sad. Moving away from the idea that all texts set to modern music = non-hymns. Moving away from the idea that “I can only sing in the style I like; old hymns sound old and stuffy and thus I just can’t get into them.” We aren’t supposed to get into the music primarily; we’re supposed to get into what the song is saying about God (or, of course, other topics…). And, lastly, getting past the flowery language or poetic style and actually seeing the theology in the text. What do I mean? Well, it’s easy to think a song is deep because you have a harder time understanding it/have to think about it to figure out what it means… but that may just mean it’s in a writing style that’s unfamiliar to you. Example? Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. I don’t think the song actually says that much, but I have to think hard to figure out what it is saying… meaning, it can seem like it says more than it does. Is the song bad? No. It’s just not as familiar a way of writing, it is very flowery. And that’s totally fine, I like poetry. Just let’s not assume that flowery = deep theology.
The particular article I read makes some pretty faulty assumptions, I think…. the test of time is fundamentally a test of popularity. The idea that old music is immediately more singable than new music. Yes, when we compare performance based music to community based music, it is. So, let’s compare modern songs that are meant to be sung together, just as the hymns of old were. And, while we’re at it, let’s call a hymn a hymn, regardless of time.
I might add that I definitely have held these assumptions at one time or another. I hope I am growing to realize that my assumptions may not have been correct… and I hope I can begin to appreciate good writing, regardless of the time period.
Lastly, I like to add this disclaimer: I do like old songs and even old hymn style singing/tunes/melody/harmony. With regard to the hymns themselves, there are some topics that neither the traditional hymn repertory nor most (or any, that I’ve found) modern songs cover… for example, unity in the church. I have found very few songs that really talk about that with any weight. I did find an old hymn that, with a couple lines changed due to either theological differences or language evolution (it was pretty old ) talked about unity in Christ very well, better than any other song I had found. So we did it. The song’s first line, if you want to look it up, is “Christian hearts, in love united.” We’ve also done a few songs by Wesley and Watts that aren’t found in most hymnals (for example, “No, Not Despairingly Come I to Thee”).