Congregational singing is not karaoke

One of our guys at church has just come off the sound team, and after a break of a decade is getting back into playing flute for our church band. “As I get deeper into practising,” he said, “I’m finding that a lot of the new songs aren’t written for worship, but performance.”

As it’s what I’ve been saying for a number of frustrated years, Amen to that. He was referring particularly to the range of notes of the tunes, which is so wide as to make them unsingable, or only singable in parts, for most non-performers. My friend then went on to discuss Elvis’s wide vocal range, which is probably not relevant to most worship settings.

As it happens, I’ve been struggling this very morning to try and find a key for just such a new song, drawn as so many are now from videos originating in large and theologically dubious churches in the USA. This particular song is not theologically dubious, and is in fact quite good… to listen to. But the chap who adopted it for us sent me the music in the key of G, adding that “G worked well if you don’t try and sing the bottom G to begin with or else it’s too high for the congregation in the sustained high of the chorus.”

Well, he’s right about that – the repeated bottom Gs are too low even for me to sing with volume if I am leading a church, and I’m a bass-baritone who likes to raise a laugh at practices by channeling Lee Marvin. I can just about sound convincing if I pitch it up a tone, and I’m fine with the top notes – because I’ve been performing for half a century and had an unusually wide range to begin with. It’ll be too high for most average baritone blokes. My wife, a bog-standard soprano, is just about OK with either key, but a bit strained at the top.

So whichever key we choose, we’ll either find half the people ducking out from the beginning because it’s too low, or jumping up an octave and finding themselves stranded on the middle section. This is a ridiculous situation for congregational worship, especially since songs are now written almost entirely by paid “worship leaders” with recording contracts on CCM (“Contemporary Christian Music”) subsidiaries of Sony. Professionals should know their job.

Therein lies the problem of course – their attention is focused on the next album, not the vocal abilities of ordinary worshippers seeking to glorify God in song. And even were that not so, since the genre is essentially Stadium Rock with Halellujahs, performers can’t hear what is going on among the unamplified masses. And so the writing, as writing for congregational singing, is almost uniformly bad nowadays. That’s even without mentioning the variations of tunes across verses, and the multiplication of song-sections congregations must learn, rather than worshippers “picking up a good tune” as in the past.

The other, and more important, side of the coin is the mindset this inculcates in worshippers. The particular song I’ve mentioned was requested by a young member of the church, who has evidently heard the videos and loves the song. The culture we live in is one of absorption more than participation, though there is a strange crossover in the form of karaoke, in which usually listening individuals seek to emulate popular commercial singers to a backing track. Needless to say, most can’t, or can’t do it well, even though no doubt the occasional budding performer emerges through that activity. But today’s younger worshippers have virtually no experience of singable songs, so they know no better – and neither does anyone take time to consider that it may be spiritually important, or that Christian culture ought to be distinctive, because theologically informed.

My pastor wonders why men at football matches bellow soccer anthems lustily, and yet become shrinking violets in church. I don’t think the answer is primarily spiritual (at least in decent churches) but musical. Time was when hymns were written by the pastors of churches, emerging from their preaching or from pastoral needs. They were not paid for it. Tunes often came, I guess, from church organists, or else from popular folk-songs, and once again there was no publishing deal for most of them.

As a result you will almost always find that the old hymns and choruses known to people, and sung with gusto to this day, almost all have a range of an octave or less, with at most an occasional note a semitone or a tone higher. That was because everybody involved knew that congregational singing has to accommodate blokes who sing deep, girls who sing high, and everybody in between. And they will sing the tune in unison, not (like a choir) having parts written for their special vocal range. The song I’ve been struggling with today straddles an octave and a half.

The deliberate limitation of range should be elementary to anyone purporting to write worship music, and of course its spiritual significance is that hymnody’s whole purpose is to unite the whole body of Christ – men, women and children – in the united physical and mental and emotional and spiritual activity that is singing. You are supposed to be thinking about the truths of God, not whether you’ll have to try to drop an octave to sing the Bridge Section. “Christ unites – Octaves divide.” As a writer for others you should be considering first and foremost how you achieve that for a congregation, not primarily your own spiritual elevation.

Not that this is deep religious doctrine – its well known in secular territory too. Roll Out the Barrel has a range of just an octave. The National Anthem spans just seven notes. You’ll Never Walk Alone, the Liverpool F.C. anthem bellowed out by thousands, has just six. And notice that does not limit good melody at all. Even a professionally crafted and utterly memorable hymn tune like Sine Nomine by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, sung to For All the Saints, has just one note that peeps out above the octave.

Sadly, none of this will change until the Juggernaut of Commercial Christian Music, mainly from America, somehow loses its wheels, and songwriting returns either to the people or the pastors. I don’t think the multitude of worship-leader courses and church-music degrees stoop to such mundane considerations as “singability.” Even so, I quietly wish that the Holy Spirit might prompt new Christians to value Gregorian chant or Charles Wesley more than the Top 100 issued by the CCLI licencing body.

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30)

There’s a lost simplicity about that, don’t you think? Jesus doesn’t even designate a worship leader.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Congregational singing is not karaoke

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    Having spent my childhood and youth in the 50’s and 60’s as a member of a Baptist congregation, I learned to sing parts. It was a joy, when my voice broke, to learn the bass parts from hearing my dad sing them, and I was gratified to be commended by my fellow-worshippers for the not unpleasant sound I made. Similarly, at secondary school there was an act of worship at the start of every day, including a hymn at the start and the finish. Most of the many hymns we sang, and learned by repetition, had four-part musical arrangements written for them. Accompaniment was confined to an organ or piano; and that worked well.

    Nowadays, all those hymns and tunes I learnt remain in cold storage (unless I sit at my piano and sing them alone, or with my family). It is normal practice now for singing at local church services to by led by a worship group and a band (guitars, keyboard, drums, etc). I’m not opposed to the use of musical instruments per se, but hymns are rarely sung. Many (not all, I agree) of the modern songs are banal and lacking in doctrinal content, the tunes are unmemorable, and there is little or no scope for part-singing. Furthermore it seems de rigeur to play the music as loud as possible, making the whole experience (for me at least) quite unpleasant. This assessment is not wholly a consequence of my age, either – not so long ago a young (and, I would say, godly) person told me that she sometimes deliberately arrives late at church in order to miss some of the worship.
    Jon, I second your aspiration for a return to (or at least the incorporation of) a more traditional style. Is there a budding Wesley out there who has the imagination to write something like, ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise!’?

    I’ve joined a choral society. Currently we are practicing for our Christmas concert. Hymns, carols and choral arrangements all with parts, and of a quality that a John Rutter would approve of. Hallelujah!

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Good for you!

    In my previous church, although harmony was the kind of individual pursuit of those with a background like yours (or mine, to some extent), we had developed the tradition of a scratch Christmas choir, under the skilled tutelage of a maths teacher. One could see the familiarity with singing parts growing year on year.

    I tried to reproduce it my first year down here, but without that tradition it was hard work – I has only one tenor, who couldn’t get out of the habit of singing the tune!

    Like you, although I have no problem with interesting new stuff, I bewail the lack of memorable melody (caused, I think, by fitting tunes to chords and instrumentation rather than following the golden rule that the melody should sound good acapella before you arrange it), the limited and experiential range of lyrics, and (despite being a rock guitarist) excessive volume.

    I’m also convinced that enjoyment is downstream of culture, in that an outsider coming into a church where singing is enthusiastic will find Ancient and Modern, Moody and Sankey or chanted psalms attractive – however that fellowship happens to have evolved. “Contemporary” is just another possibility (and again, I was active at the start of “contemporary Christian music” back in the early 70s, backing Kendrick, Ishmael, Parchment, etc). The reputation for hymns to be “funeral marches” has to do with dead congregations more than anything about the music.

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