I honestly cannot think of the last worship track I heard that had an actual lead instrument on it. I would hazard a guess it was probably the last time I listened to Stuart Townend‘s Creation Sings (I really must buy his more recent album), which is largely a shining counterexample to what I’m about to write. But I think it’s the exception that proves the rule to be honest.
What I mean is that there’s never really any melodic use of instruments, or countermelody of any kind, in worship music. In most other allied rock-type genres, it would be normal for a lead guitar or keyboard to carry some kind of melody at some point, either in a solo or playing melodic lines of some kind that interact with the lead vocal. But that’s hardly ever done in Christian, certainly church, music. I’ve heard the odd sax obbligato line on a Hillsong track I think, and there’s Stuart Townend and occasional other Celtic-inspired people with fiddle or whistle taking a melody line that isn’t the vocal tune. But it’s very rare.
Now there is a clear argument against having instrument solos in congregational songs. There is the odd song and situation where they can fit and be natural, but I experimented (and it was an experiment) with having instrumental solos in my church on a more regular basis and the feedback was basically: for most of the congregation, sitting / standing and listening to a solo is not worshipful in the way that singing collectively is. It’s an interruption.
But, that’s not all there is to this story. All, pretty much, of the instrumentation in generic worship music tends to be backing and texture – maybe riffs at most if somebody got adventurous with an electric guitar or a horn arrangement. On the other hand, I’ve been playing violin in various church music contexts for over a decade now. Now that’s definitely a melody instrument, and coming out of a flirtation with jazz and ongoing interest with folk and the blues, I’ve generally used it to play backing lines or to up the energy levels and play solo-like lines alongside the vocals in the higher-energy parts of songs. And although my playing was pretty rough and unbridled in the earlier part of that time and there were inevitably some pleas for restraint, in general I’ve had good feedback.
I think basically there’s only so far you can go with sheer tune and accompaniment. I don’t think it’s an accident that the vast majority of all Western music has developed some kind of countermelody or answering phrase structure at some point – and that includes sacred music, whether it’s complex Renaissance and Baroque polyphony, the last-verse descants of nineteenth-century hymnody or the call-and-response phrasing of traditional gospel. There is inherently something more exciting about having a countermelody line going on. And contrary to what might be expected, and to the general congregational experience of solos, it makes singing the melody more engaging, not less, to have another line going on alongside or even to some extent fighting with it (have you noticed how a significant proportion of people will start harmonising instinctively if you set them to singing a simple repeated chant? Same kind of thing). So actually, melody instrument lines that sit across the tune – that are, perhaps, improvised or half-written in interaction with it – seem to make the congregational experience work better, as well as perhaps being a more satisfying offering for gifted Christian instrumentalists.
So bring on the wailing guitars, the honking saxes, the funky slapped and popped basses and the incredibly fiddly keyboard lines. It all has a place in our musical offerings!