Added 21 February 2002

Some thoughts on church music

Or, the bass player gets grouchy!

Apart from my own playing in bands for the past twenty odd years, in recent years I have been playing the electric bass in church services on a fairly regular bass. I have played on a variety of material, from gospel and modern choruses to traditional "Ancient and Modern" hymns (which most would now probably consider ancient rather than modern!), and with a number of musicians from different backgrounds. The somewhat none-too-serious tone of the subtitle of this piece apart, what follows are thoughts arising from experiences of the past ten years of church music, and also my own thoughts on church music per se. The latter should be taken as my opinion only and not as a claim that if you don't do it this way, you're doing it wrong!

Playing in church

1. Playing in church is rather different from playing in the orchestra or the band, no matter what your musical background. In the latter two settings you are trying to impress people with your mastery of your instrument, or at least to turn in a dazzling (even if visually) performance. In church you are there primarily to serve the worship and help direct people's minds to the object (or Person) of their worship. In a sense you should be invisible, or at least not protruding into people's thoughts.

2. Occasionally I have felt that sometimes a group has turned in a "performance", albeit for perfectly innocent reasons. There is nothing wrong with trying something different, whether it's new arrangements, new sounds or new songs. However, if it is drawing too much attention to the performer, then it is diminished in its role as worship music. Sometimes I have felt that some church musicians are frustrated artists. That's fine; but if you really want to do performance style music, start your own group and do it outside!

3. There are two extremes to be avoided: heartless technical perfection, note perfect but performed mechanically, and raw and unpolished enthusiasm. The latter is done sincerely but since bad timekeeping, duff notes and the like are distracting (and draw attention to the musicians in an unwelcome way!), it is just as bad in a way. The ideal is to perform with sincerity while aiming to play as well as possible.

4. Learning: nobody in this life has ever learnt all they can about music. There is always room for improvement, and if you have reached a good level of competence, then you need to practise to keep it there. There are two things in particular that I find are missing or rather limited in many musicians: the ability to improvise and the ability to read music. Both will greatly help you in both church worship and in music generally. Also, if somebody (especially the leader of the group) is trying to teach you a new way to do something, don't shrug it off and say you've always done it the old way. Even if you don't adopt a new idea or technique in the rest of your playing outside church, be willing to at least try it, provided it is not going to be overly intrusive on the material being performed. Sometimes musicians who have been playing for years can be the most unwilling to stretch themselves.

5. Improvising (running on from 4. above): this is rather different from the meaning of improvisation in performance music (which in this latter sense is perfectly legitimate in its context). To improvise in the context of playing in church implies more of a sixth sense, an ability to hang onto the progress of a song or piece even if somebody else makes a slip, or to know the right note to play even if it's not actually been written for you. Electric instrumentalists tend to have this ability more simply because they come from a background where written music is used less: the most you usually get as a guitarist is the chords written above the music. Similarly, bassists may find that the left-hand piano parts aren't always suitable for their instrument and may need simplification or modification.

Where improvisation is often inappropriate is either the playing of lengthy solo pieces by one instrument or else the modification of harmonies (ie chords) without prior agreement with the other musicians. It's worth remembering that modification of harmony can be done inadvertently (see point 8. below). Lengthy (or often even short) solos are inappropriate again simply because they draw attention elsewhere than the proper object or Person of worship. In a non-worship setting they're fine.

6. Musical timekeeping: failure to keep in time with one another is one of the most rudimentary mistakes a group of musicians can make, and sometimes I think one of the most alarming! Somebody once wrote that the basic drummer who can keep time always gets the gig ahead of the flashy drummer who can't, and the same surely is true of all instruments and singers. It's better to keep your playing restrained and in time than being clever and losing it. This remark applies in particular to instrumentalists (mainly pianists and guitarists) who also sing: in the enthusiasm of doing both, you can lose the beat. Stick to your main task and stay in time.

Incidentally, when there is a drummer playing, the other musicians should be taking the time from him or her. Even if the piano plays the intro, the drummer should then be getting the feel for the speed but should pick up the job of keeping the beat. Everyone - and that includes piano and organ - should be taking the beat from the drummer.

If you have difficulty in keeping time, try practising at home with a metronome, or better still, a drum machine (either a purpose-built machine or one on your PC). They are very unforgiving, but after a few sessions of playing in time with one you will notice your timekeeping improve dramatically.

7. Tuning - this is the other area where one badly-tuned instrument can make the whole song sound less than pleasant to the ear. You can sometimes get away with playing the wrong chord, but if you are out of tune with everyone else you may as well paint a target on your chest. Some instruments have such an ability to cut through or underpin everything else (violin and bass spring immediately to mind) that it is imperative they be tuned as perfectly as possible. Electronic tuners are excellent provided the organ and piano are tuned to concert pitch, or as close as possible. Improvisation does not mean playing regardless of tuning!

8. The bass instruments: an unfortunate tendency I have noticed is some confusion in the bass registers. This has caused particularly ugly harmonic clashes on occasion, since different instruments playing different bass notes clash once you get below a certain note (say C below Middle C). If you don't believe me, try playing two or three notes together near the left-hand end of the piano and see whether you like the sound.

The main culprits in the past I have found to be pianists who start playing their own thing with the left hand, usually throwing in thirds between different tonic or root notes to make a left-hand run. This would sound fine on its own, but when the bass and/or other instruments are still playing a tonic or fifth, then it clashes. If there is a bass playing then the pianist should either play the left hand as written or else keep bass notes within one octave of middle C. Likewise bass players should respect other bass instruments: eg if there is a cello, don't try to compete with it for playing melodic parts, or it just sounds like a battle between two instruments. In particular, a bass playing on the traditional four-part hymns should usually play the notes as written, as each one is part of a calculated harmony and to do otherwise will often clash with the organ pedals.

9. Guitars: in some ways guitars can be tricky in church music. Even on modern songs which are apparently written for guitar, a lot were in fact primarily written on the piano, and the chords you see written above the music don't always correspond to the reality of what is being played. If you can read music and understand how chords are made up, it is often a good idea to read through a song and see what is really being played, and if necessary write the chords in yourself.

Playing guitar on hymns is possible, but again the chords need to be checked, and as the harmonies often mean chords change very quickly, care needs to be taken that the guitar parts don't sound too "breathless". In some ways playing guitar on the older songs is more akin to playing Spanish or classical guitar than to the folk strumming more usually associated with church guitar music. If other instruments are already providing the bass parts (piano, bass, cello or other) then you may be able to get away with just using the top three strings rather than forming six-string chords.

In some ways guitarists have to restrain themselves more than most (and I'm speaking as someone who played primarily guitar for 15 years). In the average band, the guitar is seen as the key instrument, whereas in church it has to drop back to a supporting role with everyone else.

10. Organs: most organists are so technically capable it seems churlish to make any criticism of them. The only thing I would say is beware of being so loud you can't hear the rest of the group, and especially beware of losing the timing this way.

11. Synth players: similar temptations to those of guitarists, really. In a band you would tend to be there to cut across the rest of the music with a unique sound, whereas again, in church the object is not to draw attention to yourself. Synths tend to sound best in the worship setting when adding an extra layer of sound, such as strings, or else filling out with an organ if there is no traditional organist. It is worth noting that many synth players tend to read chords like guitar players rather than reading music like pianists.

12. Singers: firstly, make sure you can sing. The voice is one of those things that we are born with and which we can't change for a different model, unlike instruments. It is very hard to tell somebody if their singing really is throwing everyone else out, but sometimes it has to be done. Be honest with yourself before God. I for one have often wished I could sing but know I really sound pretty rough, even for a rock musician (I'm not sure even lessons could help).

The other problem area can be harmonies. These do sound nice in the right place but should not be the overriding priority, which is instead to give a firm vocal lead. If that means singing unison most of the time, so be it.

If you want to smile, smile: if you don't, don't. Some teachers discourage smiling in any case as they claim it clashes with the facial muscles needed to produce the notes (by altering the shape of the mouth). Some people like to see the choir smiling, some think it looks corny. So be yourself. One of my pet prejudices, incidentally, is songleaders continually bursting into a song with exhortations to praise and worship. This may have its place at times, and may have been the case with the Israelites, but among more reserved races (such as the Anglo-Saxons!) it can seem offputting. I for one would sooner concentrate my thoughts rather than be interrupted every few lines by somebody telling me what I know I ought to be doing anyway. But as I said, this is a personal prejudice: if this sort of song leading works for you and/or your congregation, then fine.

13. Finally, remember that the PA team are your friends! Take their advice: they are often in a better position to hear what is going on overall than you are. And don't undermine them by fiddling with your volume after they've set you up.

Some brief notes on writing church music

Whole volumes could probably be written on the subject of church music (and some undoubtedly have!). This is not a structured essay as such but just some thoughts, partly based on observation of present-day congregations and partly on reading church history. A good overview of Christian music down the centuries is "The Story of Christian Music" by Andrew Wilson-Dickson, published by Lion.

Most people tend to regard themselves, or at least be regarded by others, as "traditionalists" or "modernists", the first preferring the old hymns, the second the latest choruses. In fact this is an oversimplification. A rock musician such as myself may prefer Ancient and Modern hymns in a church setting, whereas I know some older people who would probably not even listen to the Beatles but who enjoy the choruses of Graham Kendrick. C S Lewis, whom most people would instinctively regard as a traditionalist, was not over keen on much church music, was not at all keen on the sound of the organ and thought there should be fewer rather than more hymns in church.

The question of style and idiom inevitably comes to the forefront of most people's thoughts in such a discussion as this, but I think this is in danger of missing the most important thing, which is the lyrics of a song. Although style and structure of the music are important, a certain amount can be forgiven if the lyrical (ie theological) content of a song is sound. In practice this should mean that the song is biblically based or at the very least not throwing up anything which is biblically questionable or even heretical. "My Sweet Lord", the George Harrison classic of the seventies, would probably have to be ruled out (to take one example) on the grounds that as it threw in the name of Hare Krishna, thus making it unsuitable for worship in a Christian church. (This is not to malign Harrison's character or to question his sincerity, by the way). On the other hand, songs of worship are designed to be sung as that - songs of devotion to God - and are not primarily doctrinal statements, although they may imply a doctrine (eg, that Jesus is truly man but also truly Son of God). In combatting the vagueness of some modern lyrics there is a danger that one could end up producing verses which would be better suited to a confession of faith (which of course has its place!) than a hymn or song.

I think also one needs to make a distinction between church music and what I call "personal music". I listen to rock or jazz-rock on my car stereo but I wouldn't always play it in a public setting, even among friends, because not all of them appreciate it. Likewise some Christian music is good for a listener - it may give them a tune and decent words to sing, and help them to express a feeling or state of mind appropriate to them - but might be less appropriate in the setting of a church because a large number of other people might be unable to appreciate it. I think blues is another good example of this: musically it is a time-honoured way of expressing one's feelings (and a lot of psalms, at least in part, seem to "sing the blues"), but it would be odd if everyone in a church service suddenly felt like singing the blues! Similarly the intricacies of some orchestral music or choral pieces are really best listened to and appreciated, whereas getting a congregation to sing such styles might merely result in much effort being spent on the technical execution rather than people actually thinking of God.

If music is to be sung by a large group of people together, of varying ages and backgrounds, then to a certain degree it needs to be accessible to everybody (more on this below). Of course, there is an opposite danger, that writers might be tempted to "dumb down" their work, but simplicity does not have to equal banality or triviality. I suspect as a support for this argument that one of the reasons why Lennon and McCartney are still popular today is because their best-loved songs are readily appreciable when heard for the first or second time.

Complexity, therefore, is probably best avoided if you are writing for a church congregation. The 7/8 or 5/8 time signatures of Rush, for example, fascinating as they are to a large group of people, would just be bewildering or even annoying to others. Likewise jazz-style chords (the exotic ones such as thirteenths, seventh/flattened ninths, etc) need to be used sparingly if at all, as they may impart a feel to the music which is not appreciated by everyone (some people hate jazz!). The one thing I have noticed recently in some Christian worship songs, however, is use (and perhaps over-use) of syncopation in the vocal line. If you sing words at choppy intervals or taking a short break between them in song intended for listening, fine. However, it is very hard to teach a whole congregation to come in at just the right moment on such syncopated lines, and I have seen cases where confusion arose during the singing of such material! In the end, it has got to the point where the musicians and singers leading the worship have actually simplified the line themselves, thus overriding the composer's original intent - probably a forgiveable move if you want everyone to sing the song.

It is also worth noting that the same song can be played in different styles, although one has to be sensitive when doing this. Thus a song originally composed in the seventeenth century and usually played on the church organ can be played by a modern church group, provided that it is not done crassly. The electric bass has an advantage here in that it can fit in with most styles of music, even when playing the same music, whereas the guitarist usually has to modify either his parts or his own style of playing. Drums also need to be cautious here: as a drum-playing bassist friend of mine once said, drums in hymns can sound like a circus if done badly! The same applies, incidentally, to organists. I heard Graham Kendrick once say in a talk at our local church how some organists made his songs sound terrible. Then they went away and worked out proper organ-style parts for the songs, and after that they sounded much better!

There has been much made of the "old vs new" in Christian circles recently, particularly evangelical and fundamentalist ones. Sometimes the view prevails that God is doing a new thing, and that therefore it's time to replace all the old hymnbooks and bring in a worship band. Others view the new material, especially if it has the "Contempory Christian Music" label on it, with deep suspicion or, regrettably, even hatred if some websites are to be believed. A sense of proportion and balance needs to be brought back into the argument.

Firstly, individual songs should be judged on their own merits, remembering that the lyrics are more important than the music. David and the Israelites used the psalms to worship thousands of years ago: I doubt whether most people could comprehend or even enjoy the sound of lyres and trumpets done in an ancient Semitic way today, but virtually all Christians appreciate the psalms for the words.

Secondly, beware of change for change's sake. God does move in new ways, or at least does new things and moves in mysterious ways. However, his character does not change! There is always the danger that in our own society, with its ever-evolving complexities and rapid pace of development, we become fixated with being "contemporary". In reality the church rests on eternal realities which it then addresses in the idiom of the day (whether common Greek in the 1st century or rap music in the 21st) to its contemporaries around it.

Thirdly, don't always exalt the old because it is old. When the term "Ancient and Modern" was first used of hymns sung by Anglicans, the "Ancient" referred to any song that was over 25 years old! Nowadays many are at least 125 or even 225 years old, and the original verses have rightly seen some modifications in style to make them comprehensible to the modern ear. It is also worth remembering that while men such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and John Newton were great hymn writers, not all of their hymns were judged equally great by generations before: some have fallen by the wayside, the best having been preserved for posterity. The eighteenth century was indeed a golden age of hymn writing, but despite the popular myth of the pious Victorians, many hymns from the nineteenth century are now no longer sung, partly I believe because of a tendency to sentimentality. Certainly most of those in my old copy of the Prayer Book from that period I do not recognise. Good music will usually survive, regardless of style and tastes.

Finally, don't allow music to split the church. Music is, despite its importance in human life, a secondary issue in Christianity. We are set free from the law to be free people (Galatians 5:1) but also be responsible with that freedom (Galatians 5:13-14). We are likewise free to have disagreements on secondary issues (or "opinions", Romans 14:1) but not to engage in disputes over these (Romans 14:1-15:14 - the whole section is worth reading in this context. See also 1 Corinthians 8). Everything instead should be done in love and to the glory of God.


I have been helped in these thoughts by a number of books over the years. Some helped raise questions but I have not included them here because I disagreed with their authors' conclusions or thought that they would be unhelpful to most people. That is not to question their sincerity or their Christian faith. I would however suggest avoiding those Christian websites who employ angry, intemperate and hate-filled language, regardless of their point of view.

The Story of Christian Music, Andrew Wilson-Dickson, Lion Publishing.

The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, Steve Miller, Tyndale House Publishers, 1993.

Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer.

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