Monday, April 14, 2008

What “your music” says about …

So, getting back to the comment about “your music.” These were obviously two statements, related in specific contexts in which I was not present, that stirred up some free association issues for me.

When someone says “hymns are no longer the music of the church,” I think they are saying more than they mean to, or care to, or understand, about the music of the church.

What does is mean that hymns have been replaced by non-hymns? I’ll walk into this by trying to be clear about what hymns are and what I understand to be non-hymns. Hymns are poems, written in praise of God, meant to be sung by a group of average singers – generally mixed in age and gender. As Poems, they generally consist of multiple stanzas or verses, use words that are at once simple and rich in metaphor and allusion, and express a progression of thought or narrative. (check out some hymn texts in earlier posts) Non-hymns – to sketch a caricature – are usually limited to a single verse/chorus (sometimes simply a chorus), stick to a single idea which is uncomplicated and undeveloped, and may be repeated a number of times with or without variation. Again, to generalize, Non-hymns are often sub-culture specific, and may be rhythmically complicated (and thus more difficult for a group of average singers to sing well) or so simple as to not sustain interest over time. (Hey, it’s my blog and I can use as many stereo-types as I want!)

When “hymns” are no longer the music of the church, the result often is that there is a severe limiting of “the peoples’ song.” One of the primary biblical means of expressing praise – music – is kept in the hands of the worship leader qua performer. The congregation may enjoy the music, but participate less and less in the folk art of the church. Further, the congregation sees less and less of the artistry and achievements of the church historic, when all that is sung (or heard) is new.

Let’s be clear about this: there are wretched hymn tunes. But one area in which non-hymns are seldom critiqued is the nature of the melodies employed. There is a craft to writing a truly singable and memorable tune. Very few musicians have this. I definitely do not. Many new songs do not have tunes that you want to whistle, hum, or have in your head apart from the words. Taking a cue from Alice Parker, I look for melodies that can stand alone, that I want to hum, whistle, or sing even if I don’t know or can’t remember the words. Here’s where I take issue with some recent attempts to write new melodies to old hymns. Yeah, I’m talking to you, RUF Hymnal … if you can’t produce a better tune, then resign yourself to mastering the old one. Don’t content yourself with just a new tune. And, while you’re at it, maybe you could think about writing tunes for the whole church to enjoy. Just because it works rhythmically and sounds good with a guitar doesn’t cut it in the world of melodic craft. A melody is a melody, and should be able to stand alone.

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