IM reader Tom sent me some responses to the Riff on “The Slow Death of Congregational Singing.” I thought his comments were well worth posting here for your reading and discussion.
I don’t read your work as much as I used to, but I caught and appreciated your excellent post on congregational singing. I just wanted to offer a few thoughts, mostly brief. To begin with, Americans of all stripes are increasingly reluctant to sing together. Observe, for example, how the National Anthem at sporting events has become mostly a performance, often with performers who sing in keys and/or with flourishes that the general public has no chance of singing along with. It is no longer fashionable or expected for Americans to sing in massed groups.
Beyond that, the increased adoption of contemporary-styled music and projected lyrics creates some very practical difficulties for congregational singing:
1. The rhythms are, generally speaking, more complex. A lot of praise choruses have syncopations that don’t come naturally to many people, especially older people who have not immersed themselves in CCM. Getting comfortable with those rhythms often takes more time than is available during a worship service. If the praise team has to rehearse in order to be “in sync”, what chance does an unrehearsed congregation have?
2. The “road map” of the songs is more complex. Contemporary worship songs have all sorts of “bridges” and (frequently ad lib) repeats that most hymns lack. It’s harder for a novice to figure out where the song is going, let alone guess what it’s going to sound like when it gets there.
3. Most of the instruments don’t play the tune. In a traditional worship setting, the accompanying instrument (piano or organ) always plays the melody, and a good accompanist will emphasize the melody above the harmony notes. In a typical praise band, the guitars are playing chords, and the drums merely reinforce rhythm; there may be a keyboard and/or other instrument playing the melody, but they are probably outnumbered (and possibly outgunned) by the guitars and drummer(s). This creates the need for the inevitable team of vocalists, who must, of course, be miked so that they may be heard over all of the electronic, amplified instruments. If the sound man is not particularly judicious, the result can be a blasting contest which drowns out the singing; if the vocalists mistake themselves for performers and start embellishing the tune, there may still not be any pattern that the congregation can easily follow.
It is, of course, quite true that many organists have drowned out their congregations over the years. But at least they were playing the tune when they did it, and everyone could hear what the tune was (possibly to the exclusion of their own thoughts…).
4. Less information about the songs is available to the average worshiper in advance; only the band has the full story. When only the words are available, especially when those only become available when the song starts, it’s nearly impossible for an individual worshiper to familiarize himself/herself with a new song ahead of time. In a traditional setting with hymnals, I, as an experienced musician, can often do a passable job of teaching myself an unfamiliar hymn simply by looking it over prior to the service; then, when the time comes to do the actual singing, I can join in heartily. With contemporary songs, no such luck; I’m at the mercy of whoever is leading the singing and running the Powerpoint. Personally, I find it frustrating.
5. The songs are transmitted largely through oral tradition (radio, recordings, and church meetings) rather than via printed materials. Praise choruses are often sung differently from one church to the next, and even all of the people in one particular place may not have learned it precisely the same way. The net result is often a group of people who are singing at the same time, but not necessarily singing together. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s a significant one. Furthermore, for a novice trying to learn the song, it can be confusing to try to figure out exactly who to follow. I think that this is where a lot of people, especially the nonmusical and/or those unfamiliar with the song, simply give up and drop out; I know that it’s happened to me more than once.
I’m not saying that all contemporary songs should be done away with, even though I don’t much care for many of them. But some of the stuff congregations are attempting to sing should be left as solo material, and nobody should underestimate the difficulties of congregational singing in a contemporary environment.
Yours in Christ,