The Lack of Music Related Laws in the Old Covenant

At some point in the past (sometime within the last year), I was reading specifically about viewpoints that tend to go back to the Old Testament texts that reference music and use them as prescriptions for New Testament church services.  In thinking about various reasons I don’t think this is very appropriate to do (please read this correctly – using OT texts as prescriptions, not examples of principles, etc.), I was struck with the very significant lack of references to music in the actual Law/Torah.  This post will hopefully explain exactly why I was this was so strikingly odd to me and why I think it may be significant.  I am surprised that I had not (and still have not) read about this … though, admittedly, I haven’t gone off in search of obscure articles on the topic. :)

Cultural Separation Laws

Most of us are likely familiar with parts of the Law that deal with things such as not eating certain animals, not having certain weaves, only using certain incenses, not combining certain foods, not eating blood, etc.  These laws set Israel apart from the other surrounding nations.  They were different, especially in their cultic (cultic in this usage does not refer to a deviance from orthodoxy) temple worship, from the other nations and cultures.  They were a holy people, set apart, and many of the laws God gave them clearly set them apart from the other nations – and, especially, the other nation’s cultic worship practices.

Musical Separation Laws

From what I have read and searched (admittedly, I have not exhaustively looked through all mentions of instruments/music in the Torah … yet), there are no laws in the Torah dealing with music.  God apparently did not give them any laws to separate their music from the music of the nations around them.  This is striking, especially in light of what we can determine from the musical culture then …

Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine

I recently acquired and am reading through a book entitled Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine.  It looks at… well, music in Ancient Israel 😉 … through both archaeological and textual sources.  Some of what I’ve learned already has made this lack of musical separation even more striking; for example, certain instruments in those cultures were highly associated with cultic rituals… and, even further, some were associated with sexual cultic rituals (fertility, etc.).

There were a few major instrument groups… primarily, though, you had some chordophones (harps, lyres), membranophones (basically, percussion that utilizes a stretched skin or other membrane source), and idiophones (instruments that make their sound by the actual body vibrating; for example, a shaker).

The membranophones part is particularly interesting, because we would commonly call these “drums.”  Specifically, think of Miriam’s song in Exodus 15; English translations will commonly say that she used a timbrel, or a tambourine.  The Hebrew word is top (or tof, toph, tov…)… and actually refers to what we might call a frame drum.  These are still commonly used; on the right is a Persian frame drum known as a daf (which can have small symbals on the frame as well).

Of course, the size varied greatly; some were small enough to tuck under the arm (from terra-cotta figurines found) and were more hourglass shaped; some were shaped similar to a tambourine but apparently lacked the cymbals (so they looked more like the image on the right, only smaller). Some were played directly in front of them, as we might play a tambourine, and some were played off to the side, as we might play a bodhran.

The frame drums were often used in dancing; dancing was often part of cultic rituals, and often had overt sexual connotations (fertility gods, etc.).  Female frame drum players were quite common, apparently, too.  All this is interesting when one considers the fact that there were no regulations on musical instruments used by the Israelites.  I would have expected there to be just as many as there were in the areas of diet and clothing to set them apart from the pagan cultures’ music, but there aren’t.


Well, I don’t really have a conclusion yet… 😉  But I find it quite striking and quite interesting that there weren’t musical instrument regulations in light of all these pagan worship and sexual associations.  I am hesitant to directly draw the correlation to today, but I think it should definitely play into how we think about using or not using things from current day musical cultures in an effort to make the church “different from the world.”  How?  Well, I haven’t quite thought about it enough to talk about that yet, I guess.  :)

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Two Fundamental Assumptions About Church Music

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”).


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This was pretty good, and moving.

Dad’s, Sing Like You Mean It Because Your Kids Are Watching.

Same goes for anyone who has someone looking up to them…

What Happened to the Hymn Writers?

I will freely admit this, as one of the “younger” generation :) — the hymnody (referring to the texts, not the music) of the 20th century has been significantly lacking.  Why is this?  And why did the mid to late 20th century explode with rather shallow “contemporary Christian” songs?

This is primarily conjecture and a sort of historical probing; I have not done a lot of research here.  I’m not even sure I should post, at this point… but it helps me sort out my thoughts and poke holes in my ideas, find areas needing research, etc. :)

My inclination is that it is not because of the music styles of the day.  First, let’s take a few examples from history and take a look at some progressions based on popular songs from a few time periods.

Pre-18th Century

This coincides with the Baroque period of music (although the 16th century was before Baroque, but things were moving in that direction already).  Luther wrote many hymns; for example, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.  While this was actually translated, at least our translation, in the mid 19th century, the text (and tune) was written in the 16th century.

Another example would be O Sacred Head, Now Wounded; the text was significantly older (attributed to Bernand of Clairvaux in 1153), but translated in the 17th century.  The tune came from a sacred classical work, and was harmonized by J. S. Bach.

18th Century

There appears to have been a significant rise in hymnody from English speaking countries in the 18th century – the Wesleys, Newton, Watts, Cowper, etc.  From the songs that most of us still know from this time period (And Can It Be, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Amazing Grace…), I think we can still see that the contemporary hymn writers of the day were still fairly deep thinkers, grounded in their theology (even if we disagree with some of it, such as with the Wesleys).  The music appears to have remained fairly complex harmonically, though not quite to the extent of what was common in Baroque compositions (rather complex and quick-moving harmony), perhaps more similar to something like Mozart, who was indeed a contemporary of many of these writers.  In other words, the Classical music period seems to have affected the music hymns were set to during this time.

19th Century

This time period saw what I see as a significant change in hymnody.  Some of the modern hymn writers of the day were Bliss, Crosby, and Sankey.  The music style seems to have become decidedly more folk-like and simple (perhaps influenced by Negro spirituals?); think of songs such as Blessed Assurance, Nothing but the Blood of Jesus, and A Shelter in the Time of Storm.  Many of Crosby’s hymns are, I think, of a much more personal nature and of less “deep” thought than something by Luther or Wesley.  Please note that this does not mean I think they are worth less.  The measure of a “good hymn” is not a simple as a measure of how deep it is, nor how personal it is.  :)

20th Century

We now get to the 20th century.  I see a progression from something like A Mighty Fortress Is Our God to something like A Shelter in the Time of Storm – both textually and musically, in fact.  When we get to the 20th century, it seems there’s a lack of songs written with the same depth of meaning as the 16th to 18th centuries.

Here is where I find another lack of something rather interesting; there seems to be no crying out for modern hymn writers.  We seem to have a sudden lack of theologically rooted, deep-thinking hymn writers.  We are suddenly lacking solid hymns written in the modern language.  At best, we seem to primarily have “revival” sorts of hymns (such as Sankey), and they seem to be written more by the musicians and less by the theologians.

Theologians.  An interesting thought here; theology books continued throughout the 20th century.  Tozer, off the top of my head, was a 20th century writer.  Writing books of theology was still deemed important; why was writing hymns of theology not?

Fast forward now to the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  For some branches of evangelical Christianity, there’s been a bit of a vacuum of modern hymns.  There has been a void, and there hasn’t seemed to be a demand for new songs; churches seemed to be okay with doing the “traditional”/”old” songs, forgetting that those “great hymns of the faith” were at one time modern songs, too.  Is it any wonder that shallow songs written to modern music style/harmony came around, then?  Shallow, because they were written by musicians and not theologians or pastors, perhaps.

So, the Question Is…

To me, the question isn’t “why don’t people want to sing the old hymns?”  To me, the question is “why didn’t we encourage people to continue writing good hymns?”  Some groups did, and in some hymnals (e.g., the Trinity Hymnal), you find good, thoughtful hymns (with slightly more modern melodies, sometimes oddly modern to me :) ) that were written shortly before the hymnal was published.

I can’t blame someone for wanting hymns written in their modern language style and set to music of their time.  People have done this for a long time.  The music older hymns were set to tend to reflect what was going on in either classical or folk music at the time, whether that was complex harmony, simple harmony, folk styles, or what.  They also tended to reflect the language of the time.

Old/traditional hymns are good, just as old/traditional theologians are good.  However, it seems inconsistent to encourage the writing of theology books, devotional books, etc. (MacArthur, Spurgeon, Tozer, etc.) while not encouraging the writing of new hymns.  I think this inconsistency/lack of perceived importance this has influenced who writes modern songs and what content goes into those songs.

So there you have it.  Rather than encouraging people to think that all the good hymns have already been written and we should just sing pre-20th-century music, let’s encourage people to write good new hymns that help us think afresh about God.

Oh, and by the way, lest someone young reads this and goes “yeah! it’s all the older generations’ fault!” … hardly!  There is no excuse for bad lyrics.  Some of those contemporary “Christian” songs are pretty horrible; let’s not defend bad lyrics, regardless of music style. :)  Does it appear that tradition perhaps hampered hymn-writing?  I think so.  But that doesn’t mean there’s any excuse for writing bad, shallow, empty lyrics, either.

And let’s be consistent in how we evaluate songs.  Does the song sound old?  Don’t automatically assume it’s hard to understand or “old and stuffy.”  Maybe we need to learn to think more.  Does it sound new?  Don’t automatically assume it’s a 7-11 song.  Repetition is hardly a 20th century problem 😉

That same amazing love, amazing grace, and wondrous (as in, causing wonder) cross should motivate us to write songs that glorify Christ in the same way it motivated them to write songs.  :)

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Observations of Why We Sing

Enough with the negative posts.  😉

Why sing?  Why have corporate singing?  There are biblical reasons, but I have not studied that enough… so here are a few simple observations for why we sing; or, perhaps it may be better to call it Some Good Repercussions of Singing Corporately.  😉

It Is a Way to Worship

Clearly, it’s a way we can worship God.

It Unites Us by Singing Common Truth

Similar to the way saying a creed or statement of some sort together, music can help to unite us.  We sing truths that we believe in common, we sing about a salvation that we have in common, we worship and praise a Savior that we have in common, etc.  It is encouraging to hear and see others engaged because of common beliefs, and it’s encouraging to hear others around you raise their voices in unity or harmony with you.

This isn’t anything particularly new.  The idea of getting together and doing something musical together as an expression of unity/community is pretty old… but how much more united are we since we share a common Savior, a common purpose, a common salvation, a common Spirit?  We have that much more reason to do things together, far more than a bluegrass band or Irish band does. :)

It Shows Priority and Emphasis

What we sing shows what we prioritize, what we hold to be important, what we want to emphasize.  I don’t sing about carpet or hardwood floors.  They’re not really that important.  In church, I don’t sing about church buildings or computers or projectors.  They’re not that important.  What we sing about shows what we deem important.  It is encouraging to see others deem the Savior important enough to be in their songs, important enough for them to publicly show that they are in agreement… important enough for them to publicly and vocally express themselves in song to or about the Savior.

It Helps Us Remember

I don’t know about everyone, but most people I know remember songs.  We even set some things to music to help us remember them (e.g., the books of the Bible).  When we sing good songs and remember them, they can serve us later; for example, waking up with a song in your head (that has good words), or remembering a song that expresses biblical truth when struggling with something…. or even rejoicing in something.  For example, in the event that someone dies in Christ, I am reminded of To Live Is Christ, specifically the second verse:

And though we grieve for those we love
Who fall asleep in Christ,
We know they’ll see the Savior’s face
And gaze into His eyes;
So now we grieve, yet we don’t grieve
As those who have no hope,
For just as Jesus rose again,
He’ll raise His own!

The song’s lyric combination of expressing that we do grieve for them … and yet reminding us that we shouldn’t grieve like those who have no hope, because we do have hope.

We Like Singing

A lot of people like singing.  God seems to like it when we use our gifts and our abilities and our “likes” to praise Him. :)

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The Dangers of Christian Celebrities

Christian artists can become celebrities.  This is … well, unfortunate in some ways.  Is it bad to be a popular Christian artist?  I don’t think so; but it’s also a big responsibility.  Sometimes, I don’t think that responsibility is actually thought about.

Dangers of Music Celebrity-ism

Music, not Content

From what I can tell …. it seems that Christian music artists usually become popular because of their music, not their content, teaching, or life (with a few exceptions that I can think of).  This is not inherently bad, except that I think it reflects something somewhat saddening; as a whole, we are more concerned with what our music sounds like than what it says.

Discontentment with Church Music

This is pretty simple.  One can tend to get discontent with a church’s music, especially a small church, if we are not careful to realize that produced music is very, very different from live music … and that what works for a solo performance may not work well for a congregation.

(this also applies to, for example, celebrity preachers and being discontent with your local church’s pastor because he doesn’t preach like so-and-so)


When we are so used to simply listening to other people sing, it seems we can get into a habit of thinking that we don’t need to sing when it comes to the corporate singing time at church.  This is pretty unfortunate and unbiblical.  Corporately singing to God is not the same as doing a music CD where it’s a solo.  This wrong view of corporate church music is … well, wrong :)

Loyalty to Man

I have also noticed that when we attach ourselves to a human being, we can begin to get into the habit of automatically regarding anything critical about said human being with an eye of distrust; in other words, we become loyal to a man.  This one, I think, applies to a broader range than simply music.  It definitely is present with “celebrity preachers,” too.  On one hand, we can learn much from the faithful teaching of a man after God’s own heart, and we can find much good song material from a musician/song-writer who is faithful to Christ… on the other hand, we need to make sure that we are following Christ, and not a man. :)

Reminder: Dangers, not Evils

These are simply dangers that I see, not evils.  I listen to solo CCM, solo traditional music, etc.  This doesn’t mean that Paul thinks you shouldn’t listen to non-congregational music 😉  This is just a list of some dangers I have noticed.

The Dangers of Christian Celebrity Concerts


I will say this right out: I have seen videos of very, very few Christian musician performances that I thought were … well, that I thought glorified God and not the artists.  I think this is one area where the anti-contemporary-music viewpoint has a very good point; the typical contemporary Christian music (CCM) performance seems to follow in the secular rock show tradition of bringing praise and glory and focus on the performer, not God.  What makes it sadder is that sometimes the lyrics (and, I would argue, generally rather weakly) say that the glory should go to God.

Is this the artist’s intent or an individual attendee’s intent?  I have no clue.  From my perspective in looking at it, that’s what it looks like is happening.


Here’s a big one.  It seems that the typical Christian rock band/artist is … well, primarily young people.  I have nothing against young people.  I’m young.  But it seems that the maturity level of the typical CCM artist that does shows is … well, not very high.  The phrases that are tossed out, the way they attempt to sort of encourage people to think about God while at the same time encouraging people to look at them in the way they perform (showmanship) seems … well, immature.  Statements like “if you think God is awesome, say ‘God is awesome’ with me!”  This combined with what seems to be a trend of relatively weak lyrics … leads me to the conclusion that this is a music show with Christian lyrics.

Why is maturity important?  Because, fundamentally, Christian musicians are teaching something, or at the very least, portraying God.  Portraying God immaturely or teaching ambiguity, or worse, bad doctrine, is not good.  The lackadaisical way that it seems some young Christian artists approach Christian music that ostensibly is to worship God is … well, disturbing.  Worshiping God through music should be intentional, not incidental.  I simply do not see much thought going into questions like how do our actions on stage direct glory to God and not ourselves? or if I want this to be some sort of corporate worship event and not simply a concert, how do I do that? or what am I saying or not saying in this song? What impression of God am I giving? or what does the way I sing into the microphone say about what I’m concerned about? or how about this convicting one: when I say little phrases about “God is awesome!” … am I being biblical about it and giving reasons, or am I just reiterating clichés that I have heard others use that sound Christian?

If someone wants to make their music show some sort of corporate “let’s worship God together,” that’s great… but that means you are leading them in worship.  That puts a big responsibility on you, and it’s not primarily musical.

There Are Good Concerts

I know there are some good concerts and artists and ones that really are trying to glorify God and not themselves. By and large, the CCM … industry? … though seems to follow more closely the secular contemporary music industry standards for performances.  Secular concerts have a very different goal.  Secular music concerts draw attention to the performer.  A Christian concert should not; it should draw attention to God.

The Main Questions

First, what’s my goal for my band’s concert?  Is it to receive praise and adoration for myself, or to direct it to God?  For the Christian, the correct answer to that is pretty obvious.  Is that my honest answer?

Second, have we put thought into how to really work towards getting people to praise and adore Christ through our music, and not get praise and adoration for ourselves?  How can we change what we do on stage to better do that?  Have we even given that thought at all, or are we just following the ideas from secular and/or other Christian concerts that seem to work to draw crowds?

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Where’s the Music Come From


This is a long post. :)

We have a lot of musical styles… actually, if you get into them a bit, we have a ton.  When dealing with church music, we tend to think in two words: traditional and contemporary.  If we were to associate two musical styles with each, we would likely associate the word classical with traditional and rock with contemporary.

To some extent, this is somewhat fair, at least from a music theory perspective (i.e., the chord progressions and musical forms).  However, what we typically don’t consider is the music history behind the styles.  Where’d rock come from?  Where’d classical music come from?  Where did the traditional hymn style come from?

I hope to be able to distill some of this into a relatively concise post that.  Most of this information comes from A History of Western Music by Grout, Palisca, and Burkholder. Let’s start at the beginning of what we would more or less recognize as something sounding like western music: plainsong or plainchant

Plainsong, Plainchant

Not necessarily “Gregorian chant,” as there were lots of styles of plainchant.  Between the 5th and 9th centuries, plainchant, which was monophonic and unaccompanied, was western church music, and it was primarily stepwise melodic motion (i.e., no interval jumps).  Around 8th and 9th century, more intervalic jumps became prevalent in the melodic lines.

Notation came slowly.  Plainsong was, of course, transmitted orally at first.  The earliest notation came about in the 9th century and employed the use of little signs called neumes placed above the words.  They were not separated by height; rather, the direction of the pitch was marked by the signs themselves.  Typically, these marks did not convey the rhythm, but only pitch.  The first height-separated and thus resembling something similar to our modern notation came about in the 11th century, though these still did not use staff lines.  A rather famous guy in music history, Guido, is traditionally credited with adding one to four staff lines to clarify the actual relationship between pitches, as well as some sort of demarcation for one of the lines as to what note it actually referred to.  Guido is also credited for solfege, a set of syllables that helped singers remember the pattern of pitches in what we might refer to as a “scale.”  Except for the first, ut, these are similar: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la.  Later, ti was also added, and ut is usually changed to do.  As a side note that’s interesting, there were these things called hexachords, which were groups of six notes; the very first note of the hexachord that started on G was called gamma …. and thus the first note of this hexachord was called gamma ut, from whence we get the term gammut.

There were a variety of techniques that used chant that began to develop, especially towards the 10th and 11th centuries.  Interestingly, the church banned a variety of these (if you’re interested, look up trope and sequence).

While church music was generally unaccompanied (though organs were used in some churches), dance music in the Middle Ages was accompanied by both songs and instrumental music.  In fact, accompanying instruments, we will see, did not come into the church for a while because they were associated with secular dance music.  These included harps, vielles (prototype to the viol and subsequently the modern violin), organistrum (sort of like a hurdy-gurdy), psalteries, lutes, various wind instruments, and portable organs.


Polyphony – multiple vocal lines singing separate parts – came to the church slowly.  Part of the reason for the introduction was notation; now, chants could be performed consistently.  Composers could specifically add structure to chants, and music theory began to be much more standardized and develop much quicker.

Organum does not refer to a bunch of organs getting together, but refers to polyphonic chant.  A few examples of polyphonic chant seem to exist in the 10th century; however, it really began to develop in the 11th century.  Contrary (voices moving in opposite directions) and oblique (one voice stays on the same pitch while the other moves away) motion became prevalent.  In other words, greater melodic independence and a more equal importance of the two voice began to develop.  At this point, the 11th century, polyphony basically meant two voices.

As organum continued to develop (and we have terms for various types of organum), various techniques were used and more independent melodic lines were developed (examples of three voice works show up in the 13th century).

Another interesting development at this point is that of a rhythmic mode.  Modes themselves – similar to our modern-day scales – were slowly developed and the history is actually fairly obscure.  Rhythmic notation started gaining traction in the 12th century, and specific rhythms that were roughly correspondent to French and Latin poetic metrical feet were employed.  It’s interesting to note that, in church music, it was always ternary; that is, similar to 6/8 or 9/8 in our modern time signatures.

By the 13th century, notation development, motets, and a couple musical techniques had developed.  Because they were written, we know much more about them – and, because they were written, development became much more rapid.

14th to 16th Centuries: The Renaissance and Reformation

The next couple centuries saw a rapid expanse in music development.  Styles based on areas (and characterized by famous composers) arose.  Many different song forms , especially secular forms, became prevalent.    Chromaticism became more common, to the extent that some highly chromatic works (for their time) actually sound rather odd to our ears.

Consonance and Dissonance

It is worth noting at this point that what was defined as a consonant interval (since, now that we have polyphony, we have clear harmony) was basically the perfect 5th.  This primarily mattered at the beginning and ends of works (or at stopping points in the song, what we call a cadence).  Striking dissonance occurred at times during the work, primarily because the lines were considered independent melodic lines.  Vertical harmony was not thought about as much.  Additionally, there was an avoided dissonant interval called the tritone (an augmented 4th or diminished 5th), which can be heard by playing an F and a B natural together.  In some way, the “devil” was referred to as being present in music with this interval; to fix it, they would lower it to a perfect 4th.

Perfect Art

Another interesting thing to note is that some considered certain composers, such as Heinrich Isaac and Josquin des Prez, to have attained vocal polyphonic perfection.  Glareanus referred to Josquin’s music as ars perfecta: “a perfect art, to which nothing can be added, so nothing can be expected after it but deterioration of old age.”

Instrumental Music

Instrumental music rose significantly, especially between 1450 and 1550.  Independent instrumental music was primarily from memory or improvised before, thus we have little record of it.  Publications on instruments began to be printed – the advent of the printing press was a big deal in music! – and we know much more about instrumental music this time period.

At the beginning of the 16th century, instrumental music was closely associated with vocal music; i.e., similar style and performance.  Instruments would double of replace voices in secular and sacred polyphonic compositions.  During the 16th century, compositions were increasingly written directly for instruments.

Dance music was widespread and highly regarded in the Renaissance.  The primary use of instrumental music was still dance music, but

The Reformation

You might notice that the 16th century was when the Reformation began in Germany.  Music in the Lutheran Church in the 16th century was prominent and reflected Luther’s convictions (and affections; he was a singer, composer, admirer of polyphony, and a lutist).  He altered words of the liturgy for use in his own church (though desired to keep it in Latin).

One distinctive innovation in music by the Lutheran Church was a strophic (repeating verses) congregational hymn called the Choral or Kirchenlied (church song), referred to as a chorale in English.  These actually only consisted of a text and a tune and were not written originally as four-part hymns as we are used to today.  However, it lent itself to harmonic enrichment (and counterpoint during the Baroque period of classical music) and much Lutheran church music grew out of this chorale style, similar to how music in the Catholic church grew out of plainchant.  It is interesting to note that the chorale was intended to be sung as a congregation, and thus intentionally had simpler and more singable tunes that the typical sacred or church music.

Another interesting development in the Lutheran musical tradition was that of the contrafacta – existing melodies that were re-purposed (with new texts) for use in the church.  At times, it was somewhat startling; for example, Bach set the tune from Hassler’s song My peace of mind is shattered [by a tender maiden’s charms] to the sacred words My heart is filled with longing (and, later, O Head, all bloody and wounded).

As in the Roman church, polyphony developed in Lutheran music as well, and composers specifically wrote polyphonic chorale settings, as well as other forms (e.g., the chorale motet).

The Counter-Reformation

The Council of Trent, aimed at purging the [Roman] church of abuses and laxities, addressed music as well.  Some contended that basing the music on secular works profaned the Mass, or that complicated polyphony made it impossible to understand the words.  Musicians were accused of using inappropriate instruments, being careless, having irreverent attitudes, etc.  The point of me including this is to show that arguments about appropriate instruments or appropriate styles/arrangements and the idea of being separate from the “world” (not wanting to use secular tunes) is hardly new and goes back very far.

Additionally, though not noted earlier, the church resisted certain time signatures (those that were in duple feel) because it was a “mockery of the Trinity.”  In fact, rhythms in triple feels were considered to be perfect (equivalent to our modern 3/4 time signature), whereas those in duple were imperfect (equivalent to our modern 2/4).

The most important composer during the Counter-Reformation period was Palestrina (1525 or 1526 to 1594).  He has been called the Prince of Music and his works the “absolute perfection” of church style.  His music captured the essence of the sober, conservative aspect of the Counter-Reformation.  Even not long after he died, it became common to speak of the “style of Palestrina” and students were taught to emulate it.


Moving into the 17th and 18th centuries, the music of Europe had become a fairly consistent “language,” and it was dominantly Italian.  In fact, even Bach, who was very influenced by the German music tradition, owed much to the Italy, as did Handel, whose work is as Italian as German, according to A History of Western Music (6th edition, page 253).  The term baroque itself actually means abnormal, bizarre, exaggerated, grotesque, or in bad taste.  It was originally used to refer to art and architecture of this same time period, but was later applied to the music as well, as historians saw the same sort of stylistic ideas in the music as in the visual arts.


Early baroque music exhibited a lot of experimentation, but by the middle of the 17th century, it had coalesced into a firm musical vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.  Idiomatic writing – writing for specific instruments using techniques or ideas that were peculiar to the instrument – became much more prevalent.  Composers specifically wrote music with the aim of expressing or arousing affections (rage, excitement, grandeur, heroism, contemplation, wonder, exaltation).


Rhythm changed significantly in the Baroque period.  The Renaissance period saw even rhythmic flows, whereas the Baroque period saw both very regular and very free rhythmic flows.  It was not until the 17th century that measures wast most commonly used, using barlines to denote patterns of strong and weak beats.  Composers even used irregular and flexible rhythms to contrast regular rhythms – such as a recitative contrasted with an aria, or a prelude and fugue.

Texture and Harmony

The texture of a piece shifted by the time we get to the Baroque period.  In the Renaissance, the typical texture was a polyphony of independent voices, each with their own melodic line.  In the Baroque, this shifted to a bass line, a florid treble, and an unobtrusive harmony.  The idea of a single line being accompanied by the others was not particularly new; however, the emphasis on the bass and treble voices was new.

Because the chordal structure became to be articulated so clearly, dissonance became to be thought of less as a simple interval between two voices (e.g., a 2nd, or a tritone) than as an individual tone that did not fit into that particular chord.  Greater variety of dissonance was then tolerated, though certain conventions tended to govern when they could occur.

Chromaticism was experimented as well, and some highly chromatic works survive.  Later composers submitted chromaticism to tonal harmony.  The traditional major and minor sort of tonal harmony that we are so familiar with and use extensively today also came about during the Baroque period.

Influences on Church Music

Two big forms of music also became popular, the opera and the oratorio; these have bearing on how we understand the history of church music.  Why?  Because the oratorio was essentially an opera without the drama.  In other words, the musical styles of each were very similar.

Another interesting point is that most of the innovations in Baroque music appeared outside the church, and the church was affected by the music.  The Roman Catholic Church resisted the new styles and never really completely abandoned the Palestrina style.  In fact, two styles became prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church; the stile antico and the stile moderno.

It is worth mentioning here some interesting coincidences of history.  The Baroque period is typically dated from 1600-1750 (Bach’s dates are 1685-1750).  In addition to America being colonized and beginning to not like England so much (towards the end of the Baroque period; 1776 is only 26 years after 1750!), some names you might have heard of that lived at this time Isaac Watts, Jonathan Edwards, Anne Bradstreet, William Bradford, and Samuel Sewall, Basically, most of the famous puritans were active during the Baroque period.

Protestant Church Music in the Baroque Period

At this point, for my purposes, I will stop covering the development of music in the Roman Catholic Church, instead focusing on the Protestant churches.  Prior to the Baroque period, in 6th century, a number of conflicting views on music came up.  Calvin did not allow anything but voices singing from the Psalter.  Luther was very supportive of music (and one of the most famous and greatest composers to have lived, J. S. Bach, wrote in this legacy), including instrumental, as well as singing “human” songs – i.e., hymns not based on the Psalms.  Part of Calvin’s position appears to have come from a strong reaction against anything the “Papists” did.  These two opposing views form the primary musical conflict in the Protestant church for several centuries after the Reformation (and, in some small ways, even through today).  They are:

  • We should only have vocal music (no instruments)
  • We should only sing Psalms (no human-written songs)

For example, Isaac Watts, during the Baroque period, met up with fierce opposition as he began writing his hymns (even if they were based on the Psalms at times).  The “vocal music only” view was passed on to the Puritans, who avoided all use of instruments in church, though apparently enjoying them outside of the church context.

Classical (1750-1830) and Romantic (1830-1900) Periods

The next few centuries (1750 through about 1900) of classical music appears to have affected the church, at least with respect to congregational music, relatively little.  Non-participatory church music did continue to evolve with the movements in classical music – which at this point were developed outside of the church.  For example, oratorios and small chamber group music continued to be written for the church in the style of the day; e.g., Mendelssohn’s Elijah.  The Psalter and hymns were continued to be used, and more and more hymns were written.  John Newton spanned the end of the Baroque and beginning of the Classical period; the Wesleys were active in the early 19th century; many others were active in the 19th century, such as Havergal, Bliss, Crosby, Doane, Dix, Gabriel, Hastings, Kirkpatrick, Lowry, Mason, Neale, Sankey, Smart, Stebbins, Sweney, and many lesser known hymn writers.

In the 19th century, the primary development in hymnody was what we know of as a refrain or chorus.  Strictly speaking, a hymn did not have a refrain; gospel songs had refrains and spread quickly during the 19th century.

One other interesting development that did appear to occur during the 19th century is that hymns became a little more in the style of folk music.  For example, compare O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, an old chorale, to something like A Shelter in the Time of Storm.  The music to the latter is remarkably more simple and more “folky” than the former.  It’s interesting to note that the music style of new hymn tunes appeared to begin to take much more from folk music rather than classical music.

What About Rock?

At this point, the history “classically” influenced music of the church – primarily from the Lutheran tradition, which actually was somewhat of a mix of folk/popular music of the day and church polyphony – is up to date.  Little has changed in terms of musical style since the 19th century with respect to a traditional hymn style of music.

So what about contemporary music, where did that come from?  For the most part, popular music forms are highly influenced by folk music.  Folk music simply refers to the common music of the working class; the non-academic, non-church music.  Contemporary Christian music is essentially a branch of rock and roll music, which emerged as a style in the 1950s.  It derived most directly from another style called rhythm and blues, which itself was influenced by a number of styles; blues, boogie woogie, jazz, swing music, gospel, country and western, and traditional folk music.  Much early rock can more distinctly be heard as emerging from these influences (e.g., some of Elvis’ works are much more recognizably influenced by country, blues, or boogie; other artists can clearly be heard to be more influenced by country/western music).  A related style to rock that came out of “hillbilly” music was termed rockabilly.  It is very recognizably influenced by western music, a sort of combination of rhythm and blues with bluegrass or western music.

I also wanted to briefly address a few common criticisms that I’ve found related to contemporary (or “rock”) music.

The Backbeat

I’ve frequently read criticisms of any music with a backbeat.  What’s a backbeat?  An emphasis on a beat in a measure that is typically not emphasized, at least not in classical music (for example, 2 and 4 rather than 1 and 3).  Just a few comments.

  • This is all over jazz, not just rock music.
  • Assuming that emphasizing beats 1 and 3 in 4/4 time is good and 2 and 4 is bad seems to be entirely unfounded.  I have never read anything that has stated why beats 1 and 3 are good.  We cannot simply assume our position is right and argue against another position from that assumption.  Typically, arguments take this form: a backbeat emphasizes the unnatural beats of 2 and 4.  Unnatural? According to whom?  This appears to be entirely a cultural upbringing issue.
  • What about contemporary music that does emphasize beats 1 and 3?  Or is in 3/4 or 6/8?  For example, what about something like … Celtic rock?


Another frequent argument I have read is that rock music (and highly rhythmic music) makes you want to dance.  The assumption is that it makes you want to dance immorally.  I would reject this with two simple propositions.

First, dancing itself is not immoral, so music making you want to move is not, by itself, wrong.  Bluegrass makes me want to move (tap my foot, clap, snap, squaredance, whatever).

Secondly, what kind of dance you associate with music is not inherent in the music.  We learn to dance certain ways to certain music.  Some people swing dance to rock music.  Some people waltz in a classical-ish waltzy style, and some people waltz by just holding on to each other and swaying.  Depending on which they’re accustomed to – either by doing it or by watching it – that’s what they’ll probably think of when they feel like dancing to a specific music style.

So the conclusion, for me?  We do need to be careful with associations; that is, if it’s dance music, what kind of dancing is associated?  However, music making you want to move is not inherently bad.  Scriptural evidence?  Miriam and her dancers.  I have a hard time imagining her calling to the other women to come grab their “timbrels “(which were actually frame drums, similar to a bodhran) and dance to music that was not dance-ish.  Same with David’s dancing.  I’m sure the music was dance music.

One other issue is that people assume if it makes you want to move, it is appealing to your flesh.  I don’t think this is the case … same reason as above, and again, much music makes us want to move and we think nothing of it (bluegrass music, western music, waltzes, a lot of folk music, Irish music, etc.)  Either we have to be consistent and apply it everywhere, including music we like, or we don’t apply it anywhere. :)

Emphasis on Rhythm

Another argument I have heard is that contemporary music emphasizes rhythm too much.  I would here like to make a distinction between style and volume.  I agree that drums can be too loud … i.e., painfully sort of too loud.  I’m not talking about something being too loud, though, but rather on the style of music emphasizing rhythm too much.

Typically, the argument takes the verse about making melody in your hearts and says that therefore, God likes melody.  By extension, God likes harmony (because harmony is just another melody).  Rhythm is just there enough to make sure the music works out.

I’ve seen all kinds of really bad arguments here.  Some try to say that melody speaks to your heart, harmony to your soul, and rhythm to your body.  Some try to say that since God doesn’t mention instruments here, that instruments shouldn’t be used in the church.  Some try to say that this means music must be “melodious” and “sound nice”/”pleasing.”

All of these are reading in our opinions into the text.  Here’s my basic idea: singing requires melody.  If you sing without a melody, you’re not singing, you’re … chanting (not referring to plainsong).  So, when Paul says to sing, of course he’d use the word “melody.”

Here’s where I think we need to be careful.  I would venture to guess that the melodies Paul sang were very, very different from our melodies.  They did not have western music theory.  In fact, it may not have sounded very melodious to us at all.  So, the idea that it needs to sound nice?  That’s a cultural thing.  That will vary.  The idea that harmony and/or rhythm aren’t mentioned?  Well, you don’t sing rhythm – unless you’re in sight-singing class 😉 And, lastly, taking this one verse and drawing conclusions about what kind of music God likes seems remarkably unfaithful to the text.  There’s no mention of music style.  Paul’s talking about singing.  Not music style. :)

Secular vs. Sacred

I’ve also read that contemporary music is a religious text in a secular style.  I will simply say this: all music is inherently secular.  We might call it “sacred” music … but if you take away the words, is it sacred?  If you set good words to secular classical music, is it still secular?  What about an oratorio (such as The Messiah) which was written in the secular opera style, minus the drama?  Is that sacred or secular?  What about something like the hymn Be Still My Soul, the tune of which we commonly now use comes from a symphony entitled Finlandia?  Secular art form (a symphony).

At this point, some might try to attempt to show how western classical music was influenced by the church and is therefore basically sacred.  I disagree strongly.  At best, it came from the Roman Catholic church… but as you can see from the music history above, that basically stopped before the Baroque period.  After the Reformation, starting with the Baroque, music began to be developed entirely in the secular realm, with the church merely being a patron of the arts.  Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Handel, Haydn … did they write for a/the church?  Yes.  Did they write exclusively for the church?  No.  One does not typically write piano sonatas for churches. 😉

Singing Style

Breathiness, scooping, sliding… basically, non-classical-style of singing.  Is this wrong?

First, scooping is not inherently bad.  Scooping is not evil.  Scooping is not by itself sensual.  I think you would be hard-pressed to show me how it is.  Can a singing style be sensual?  Yes.  However, I don’t think these three automatically make it so.  To say that it does would require a lot of study, and I simply have not seen that study.  For me, I can pick up on a sensual style of singing, but it typically has nothing to do with these… it’s typically their tone of voice and suggestive lyrics.

Secondly, I’d like to point out that the “crooners” had a ton of sliding, scooping, etc., just not the breathy/airy tone.  I personally don’t really like breathy/airy tones… however, I would have a hard time finding someone to agree that Bing Crosby singing White Christmas is being sensual and sexually provocative because he’s sliding and scooping into notes.

It’s Addictive

You’ll have to define addiction.  I’m addicted to music.  I love it.  I play it all the time.  Does this mean it’s hard to go without it?  Well, I know people who would hate to have to go cold turkey without any music for a week.  Does this mean that it’s hard to break the habit of listening to a style once you find out it’s bad?  That implies you find out it’s bad.  This second meaning seems to be what the arguments are referring to, but it’s assuming the style is bad.

Rock Musicians

Picking quotes from rock musicians… well, Ill just say two things.  First, it’s not fair to pick quotes from people like Metallica or Nirvana to disprove all music that emphasizes beats 2 and 4 instead of 1 and 3.  Second, was Liszt really any better than Mick Jagger?  Was Beethoven?  Schubert?  These people were not Christians.  They were likely deists in that they in some way believed in God, but they did not really recognize Him.  Does someone believing in monotheism automatically mean their music is good?

By the way, that first point, about the lack of realization that there are many, many styles of contemporary music; I think this is an important one.  Just because someone listens to certain CCM or does contemporary music in their church doesn’t automatically mean they approve of all other related styles and all CCM artists.  It’s the same with classical music.  Listening to Bach doesn’t mean you automatically approve of all classical music, whether it’s Ave Maria or some wacky immoral opera from the 19th century.  It wouldn’t be fair to assume the latter; it’s not fair to assume the former.  By listening to, say, Sovereign Grace Music CDs, I’m not saying that I approve of listening to Metallica just because they share a few common rhythms and perhaps some other stylistic ideas.

The real topper to this, for me, is Wagner.  Some people like his music.  The traditional wedding march (“Here Comes the Bride”) comes from one of his operas.  Wagner was anti-semitic, he specifically wrote his music to glorify man (and especially the German).  His music was Hitler’s favorite for the same reasons.  So, if we want to say that we can’t listen to rock music because of certain rock music composers or performers, then we can’t listen to classical music, either, because of Wagner. :)  Lastly, I can find people who said the opposite things about rock/CCM.  So we get into a quote-shouting-match.  Not very helpful.  Maybe sticking to biblical principles is better than taking fallen, depraved human being’s word for it.

Some also like to point to specific CCM artists.  Well, I would like to point out that there are a lot of preachers who have fallen into sexual sin.  Preachers, therefore, are inherently bad, and we should not have them.  Silly, I know, but I hope it shows the logical point: pointing to a CCM artist as though this discredits the music style is … well, kinda silly.  Furthermore, I can find good CCM artists who live the life they sing about, and who sing and write great words.

And, incidentally, there are many, many, many, many bad secular performers of classical music, but this does not reflect on the classical music style.  This reflects that humans are depraved, regardless of music style.

There are probably other arguments I could mention, but I guess for now I’ll stop, I’m almost at 5000 words, hehe.


We need to be careful how we argue about music.  We need to make sure we have our music history and music theory right.  We need to make sure we know where contemporary music comes from and where hymn music comes from and treat them consistently in our arguments.  We need to make sure we don’t read into the Bible.  We need to make sure we don’t make logical fallacies when arguing about music.  And, lastly, we need to make sure we guard against pointing to music as though it is responsible for what human depravity is responsible for.  The fact that many “rebellious young people” like rock probably isn’t so much that rock music is so inherently bad in comparison to other music styles, but that rock music is the popular style.  I would imagine that 200 years ago, rebellious young people listened to the popular music of their day, too.

My bottom line for music: look at the lyrics.  I have found that much of the lyrics that the “weak” or “ecumenical” or “hypocritical” CCM artists sing are not that great.  Also, don’t judge a style by performers; after all, we’re not having the performer in our church, nor does playing in one style automatically assume that we are approving of any given artist who also happens to play in that style (or some related style).

Posted in Church Music, Controversies, Music History, Music Styles, Music Theory | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Reasons for Analyzing Songs

Why be so picky about songs?  Here’s my reasoning.  If you disagree, I really would encourage you to comment; I’m not perfect and I will readily say I can be wrong… I encourage you to convince me of my error :)

One thing I do want to be clear of … I do remind myself regularly not to judge others who are not as picky or analytical as me.  It may feel like I am inherently telling other people how they should look at songs; perhaps that is the case, but that is not my goal.  My goal is to try to be faithful to Christ in what I sing and what I recommend others to sing (by picking songs for a corporate worship service).  Do I think someone else is unfaithful to Christ because they do a song that I would not have done?  No.  Are there times that I think they must not have thought something through?  Yes. :)  Do I make mistakes, too?  Definitely.

Also, one other preface: these are not based on looking at other church’s and trying to come up with where they fall short.  This is based primarily on experiences of my own and those I have talked to, and thinking through how we can be more faithful to Christ in these areas.  In other words, this is not reactionary in a “you guys are doing it wrongly, look how we do it!” way, but a “how can we improve in this area” way.  Hopefully that makes sense.  The goal is to better shepherd the church and better worship Christ, and to not let tradition, familiarity, or apathy get in the way of that.

The Gospel Is Important

The area that I am the most picky about and the most analytical about is the gospel.  If a song gets the gospel wrong or if it’s ambiguous, I want to know about it.  If it says Christ came to save me from something that, in fact, He didn’t … that’s bad.  If the song gives a bad reason for coming to Christ or talks about it in a non-committal way (you know how it goes – the “if the world doesn’t satisfy you, why don’t you try Jesus?” mentality) … that’s bad.  We don’t trust Christ because we’re not satisfied with what the world has to offer us.  Now, can I “explain” that sort of song?  Sure – the world offers us sin and death, and I’m not satisfied with that, so I trust Christ for righteousness and life.  But I only can do that because I already know the truth… but the “try-Jesus” or “add-on Jesus” gospel is alive and well today, and not everyone knows the truth of the gospel.

If it is ambiguous about it or unclear, I still think that’s usually bad… why?  Because there may be people that don’t know enough to “fill in the blanks” as a more mature believer might be able to do.  I do not want a song I pick to teach someone wrongly about the gospel!

Now, that said, does a song need to explain the full gospel every single time?  No.  On the other hand, I still want to be aware of what it say and what it does not say.  The differences between Amazing Grace and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and All I Have Is Christ should be known to me, I should be aware of what each song is saying and what they do not say about the gospel.

We Should Sing with Understanding

With the most important issue aside – the gospel – my second primary reasoning is that we should sing with understanding.  That means we need to think about the words we sing.  That means that the words should be “worth” thinking about that (there’s some leeway there, I admit) and they should be accurate.  That “accurate” word is important… it’s encompassing a lot of things.  It’s not just that the song “doesn’t teach bad theology.”  It’s that it teaches good theology, that it teaches and encourages correct ways to view things, that it does not take verses or biblical references out of context, etc.

Here’s a hypothetical situation that I do not want to be in.  I encourage the congregation that I lead in music to really think and ponder and be encouraged by the words we sing.  After the service, someone comes up to me and says “You know, Paul, I was really thinking about the words that we sang … and, did you realize that the song is actually incorrect?  Did you realize it’s teaching something about Christ that is not true?”  Ouch.  Here’s an example that I used recently on a Facebook conversation :)  Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending was written by Wesley, who appears to have a different theology about the Rapture and the 2nd Coming.  That’s fine.  However, my church believes in a pre-tribulation rapture.  That particular song appears to place the rapture at the end of the tribulation, right at the same time as the 2nd Coming and the beginning of the millennial kingdom.

Now, I realize people may disagree with my theological position on this, and that’s fine.  However, I cannot encourage people to really think about the words of this song when the words are teaching a theology that isn’t what we actually believe.  What profit is that to them?  And what kind of shepherd am I being if I encourage people to let themselves be taught by words that are teaching something I don’t want to be taught?

We Should Not Encourage Singing Without Understanding

It’s possible that there are songs where we, for the most part, understand and are able to think about them as we sing… so, the question may come up – what about something where there’s a verse in a song where we don’t understand it?  Should we still sing it?

I am of the opinion that as I, as a “lead worshiper” or worship-in-song-leader, should not pick a song that I do not understand completely.  Does it mean I understand every single thing the song is trying to say?  No.  But I should be able to know what everything a song says means.  If there’s something that I don’t understand, I shouldn’t pick it.  Does it mean the song is bad?  No, not necessarily.  What we don’t want to do, though, is get people (or ourselves) into the habit of simply ignoring things we don’t understand.  I realize there will be songs where some people may not understand it; but what I don’t want to happen is that they don’t understand it, they come and ask me, and I say “uhhh well I don’t know, I was hoping no one would notice.”  Songs aren’t sacred, holy ground that we dare not tread on; it’s okay to say that we don’t do this song because there are parts of it we don’t understand.  Or, just don’t sing the parts you don’t understand.  Often, we will simply cut a verse or two if we disagree or don’t understand that particular verse. :)

One might ask why it’s so bad to sing without understanding.  Well, singing in the church has, as best I can tell, two  biblical purposes… one primary, and one secondary.

  1. Worship God (i.e., our singing is directed directly towards Him)
  2. Encourage others (i.e., our singing is also directed “towards” others)

Let’s deal with #1 especially.  If I am directly worshiping God … how can I assume that He is pleased when I try to worship Him with words where I don’t actually know what I’m saying?  “Well, He understands,” one might reply  Yes, but we don’t, and that’s the point.  How can God be pleased when we try to worship without knowing what we’re actually saying?  Especially when we are choosing to sing those words.  Does this mean that if you don’t understand every single word in a song that I think you’re not really worshiping?  No.  But I do think that we should strive to understand what we are saying … and if we don’t understand it, then maybe we should not choose to sing those words – especially since we have so many resources at our fingertips.  We are not short of songs these days. :)

Sing Because of the Song, not Tradition

Do all songs need to be amazingly profound?  No.  Not all the Psalms were, either.  Do all songs need to be long? No.  Do all songs need to mention any particular specific topic?  No.

However, I think it’s important to remember that we need to sing songs because we know they are good.  That means we have to know what’s in them and make a conscious decision of yes, this song will help our congregation really worship God, encourage others, etc… or no, this song will not really help; there’s better ones we could do, and this one really isn’t worth doing.  Now, a decision I make for my congregation may different from yours, and that’s okay; we have different people in our congregations. :)

The important part, though, is that we don’t start doing songs simply because it’s a song that we’ve “always” done.  The sort of “it was good enough before” sort of mentality.  Tradition – the practices and songs of those who have come before us – can be good and can be encouraging; however, tradition needs to be analyzed, because people who have come before us made mistakes or believed differently, too.  :)

Here’s a short version of these few paragraphs: Christ is worth us constantly making sure that our worship of Him is good, biblical, engaging, and real.  Doing something not so good or not so engaging or not so biblical simply for tradition’s sake is not good.  Clearly, this also means that not doing things simply because they are traditional is also not good.


Make sure your songs are good.  Make really sure that your songs’ depiction of the gospel is good and accurate. Don’t do or not do things simply because of tradition.  And, lastly, remember that Christ is worth us trying to honor Him as best we can; it’s far more important than we honor Him well than hold up tradition or non-tradition. :)

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Church Music Performance


Church music does include a performance.  This is a tricky subject because of our terminology and what it implies. What is a performance?

A person’s rendering of a dramatic role, song, or piece of music.

This makes sense.  With this definition, any music played in front of other people and is meant for them to hear is inherently a “performance.”

So what’s really the issue?  I’m sure we’ve heard that the orchestra/band/choir/pianist/whomever is not “performing” or that the music on Sunday should not be a “performance.”  I think what is attempting to be said – and it’s correct – is more related to the reason for the performance.

An Audience of One

When church musicians perform, there should be one ultimate goal in view; that is, it should be done to the glory of Christ.  We all know this; the question is… how?

I have heard, and I’m sure many of you have, too, the phrase an audience of one.  In the contexts I’ve typically heard it, it’s either a well-meant attempt to abate nervousness (just play for God, ignore the fact that people are listening) or it’s a well-meant attempt to avoid doing a performance in church.


While I agree that we often get too nervous, I don’t think the fix for this is to ignore the fact that people are there and just play for God.  Do I really think so highly of people and so lowly of God that I would rather play for Him rather than people?  As though in some way, making mistakes is less important when playing for Him?  One on hand, I can see how that logically works: people are less “forgiving” or more “judgmental” than God.  On the other hand, it makes it sound like doing our best for God takes less effort than playing for people.

Perhaps the solution for nervousness should be something more like that – at least in a church context: work on your performance so that you are able to direct attention to God and not to yourself.  Furthermore, think of the congregation not as an audience of judgmental strangers, but as a group of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, who actually desire to give glory to where it should go – God.

More could be said, but I’ll move on :)

Avoid Performance

The other context is such that we are trying to, in some way, not play for people so that we aren’t tempted to play in order to receive glory.  While this is definitely a good thing to avoid, the solution is not to ignore people.  If you are playing in church, and in front of people, you are inherently playing for other people to hear.  The question is, why are you playing?

This gets into a very touchy and personal topic, and one that has convicted me.  If my goal is truly to direct glory only to Christ and not at all to me, as the performer, how does that change how I play?  How does that change what I play?  Will this ever interfere with my musical ideals?  The answer to that last question is a resounding yes!  My skill as a performer allows me to do flashy things, but is that going to, in the context that I’m playing in, direct glory to me or to God?

This is a very contextual issue.  One church may react differently than another church.  One group of people may have a very hard time thinking about God during an entirely instrumental piece, and may need encouragement – such as lyrics on screen or a passage of Scripture to meditate on during the music.  Other groups may do this more automatically.  This requires wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit.  It may mean you don’t do a really cool piece.  It may mean you play simply.  It may mean you don’t play at all.  Which is better, silence or misdirected glory?

The Solution

So what’s the solution?  How can we perform in church?  What’s the point?  After talking to my pastor about this for a while, we came to the conclusion that it is the same problem as the preaching.

Preaching is, just as music is, for the glory of God.  Preaching, though, brings no glory to God if you preach alone in your closet!  God already knows about Himself, He does not need His Word explained to Him. 😉  So, to glorify God in preaching, one preaches to other people with a very specific goal.  The goal is not to bring glory to the preacher; the goal is to bring people to a better understanding of Christ, to encourage them to hold Him more dear, etc. This means that the secondary reason of preaching is to be heard by people.  The delivery, however, should reflect where the glory is supposed to go.

Music, similarly, is for the glory of God.  Church music, though, is inherently for others to listen to.  We are performing for others… but the goal of our performance is twofold.

Firstly, the goal of church music performance is the same as preaching: it’s to bring people to a better understanding of Christ, to encourage their affections for Him, to magnify Christ and increase our gratitude, etc.  The list can go on for a while, just as it can for preaching.

Secondly, the goal of the church music performance is, in congregational singing, to encourage others to sing.  We are told by Paul that we should teach and admonish each other – each other – with our songs.  That implies that we are very much singing for others to hear.  Individuals in the congregation are encouraging other individuals by their singing.


So, the conclusion?  We do perform.  Saying that church music shouldn’t be a performance kinda beats around the bush, I think, with terminology.  The point is not that we aren’t performing – that is, that we aren’t giving a rendition of a song or musical piece for others to hear… the point is that we are performing not so that people glorify us, but for people to glorify God.  That means the method of our performance should be different.

And at that point, there’s a lot of contextual and individual church decisions to be made.  Can the musicians be onstage?  One might argue that this encourages others to follow their example in worshiping God.  Others may argue that it is distracting and makes it feel more like a audience-is-not-participating concert.  This is going to be up to the wisdom and guidance, from the Holy Spirit, of the leaders of the church.

My opinion at the moment is that we should open and honest about this as we lead.  The congregation should hear that this is what we want to do, that we don’t want glory, that we want to lead them and encourage them and we are here in service to God and in service to them.  They’re not an audience nor simply the recipients; they are both recipients, but more importantly, they are participants, just as those on stage are.  We are all on fellow heirs in Christ and are all worshiping God, giving glory to Him, and not to ourselves.

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The Idolatry of Youth Culture in Worship

This is a Gospel Coalition video that is in the form of a … discussion-interview-type-thing.  I think it’s somewhat impromptu, so sometimes they aren’t entirely clear, but in general I think they bring up some good and sobering points.  How can we help our churches to avoid this sort of problem … or fix it, if it seems to be an issue already?  Things to think about.