Some of this post is probably going to come across as needlessly critical, and some of it is probably personal opinion. But I’m trying to base all of this on putting the congregation first, and I think there are some problems in this area. A lot of my problems with the ways worship songs are sometimes sung are basically extensions of what I’ve already said about how they’re sometimes written. But I’ll spell out some of the extensions anyway.
Congregations, even the good singers among them, really benefit from a clear melody to follow. Which means, as well as writing clear melodies (see earlier post), those leading the music have to sing them clearly. And unfortunately there’s a fairly popular way of singing modern church music which I rather rudely call ‘warbling’, that involves a lot of deliberately vague rhythm, with hardly any of the notes actually on a beat, and lots of extra little passing notes and trailings-off added into the essential lines of the tune. It sounds a bit like a gospelly Celine Dion, and it makes it really quite hard to pick up and follow a song you don’t know – and for that matter can put you off a song you think you know without those ornaments. This isn’t made easier, of course, by the fact that a lot of these songs are transcribed from how their writers sing them – so you can end up with a published version including a lot of the warble. It then takes serious willpower and cheek to try and ‘refine’ that version down to something melodically more straightforward (though personally I find a lot of the published versions so hard to read (and I learnt classically, though not singing) that I end up approximating a, usually much more straightforward, version of the tune). In general, though, I’d encourage anyone who sings the tune in church contexts to remember that they’re not there to perform to or at the other people in the room, they’re there to enable the congregation to sing themselves. A congregation isn’t an audience, and I think some of us with mikes pointing in our faces and, love it or loathe it, basically leading soft-rock bands, are tempted to forget that. Of course, if you’re singing a harmony line then options are much more open on what you do (and I’m going to do another post sometime on countermelodies etc.).
The other thing, for this post anyway, that bothers me about common worship song practice is the endless chant habit (this is related to part of my earlier post on song structure). I don’t, in fairness, think this is that common in most ordinary churches, but it seems to be de rigueur for live worship recordings to involve repeating the middle 8, or another, perhaps even shorter, phrase, over and over with gradually evolving arrangement and emotion, before finally plunging back into, probably, the chorus. Now there are two problems I have with this. The first isn’t that important: it’s that I’m pretty listening to most of those recordings that the repetition is a kind of ‘rehearsed spontaneity’ – apparently being done on the fly but actually you can tell the band have rehearsed the changes in dynamic and when the drum-beat changes, etc. And in secular or religious rock, I just find that sort of trick annoying and kind of cheap.
The real problem with the chant habit, though, is it’s structural role. For one thing, I don’t think it adds much spiritually to the worshipping experience. There is definitely a place for repeated chants that you enter into as a kind of meditation – your conscious mind staying with a simple repeated phrase while the other parts of you are able to enter deeper into God’s presence without the distration of conscious thought always trying to go somewhere. But in general, I don’t think that’s the experience the congregations are having at these points in worship songs. They’re more usually being whipped up into an emotional frenzy by basically the same crowd-herding techniques used by straight-ahead stadium rock bands. Which doesn’t have anything distinctively Christian about it, and is potentially creating harmful confusion between the euphoria of a great rock gig and the spiritual encounter with the divine. Let’s not manipulate our congregations, folks. Assume they’re on side, or try and persuade them, by all means. But I’m not so sure about dragging them towards where you want to be through emotion alone. Is that them worshipping in spirit and truth?
Have I gone too far? Maybe. Argue back if so, I’d be interested to hear some opposing views.