Praise Bands and Priesthood of All Believers (part 2)

In my last post (Praise Bands and Priesthood of All Believers, part 1) I wrote:

The role of musical leaders – whether praise bands, organists, or choirs – is to support the congregation’s voice. When musical leaders drown out their congregations by intention or negligence, they are demonstrating pastoral insensitivity and irresponsibility.

Now I’d like to investigate the cause of this problem, particularly as it occurs in the use of contemporary worship music – that which is developed and disseminated through the contemporary Christian music industry. (Here is where opinions will really start to diverge!)

Let me throw out an idea: Contemporary worship music is created and proliferated as an all-encompassing aesthetic experience. A contemporary worship song (take the overwhelmingly-popular “Oceans” for example) is written and recorded by a particular group of musicians (Hillsong United in our example). That recording is disseminated through record sales and electronic media (YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, radio, etc.), and these media are how congregants and worship leaders learn the song. Even live performances at large conferences tend to match the musical texture and form of the popular recording.

A brief comparison of several recordings of “Oceans,” available on YouTube, illustrates this point. Each of four I surveyed—two live recordings from large events and two studio versions—were performed by the Hillsong United musicians. The performances feature nearly identical tempos, remarkably similar instrumental and vocal timbres, and comparable formal structures. In the live performances, the audiences seem to know what will happen in the sequence of the song and they sing according to their expectations.

So form and performance practice of contemporary worship music, while established by the songwriters, is canonized by its distributors and is expected by congregants. When the church I attended last Sunday morning sang “Oceans,” the band played the song almost exactly how Hillsong United recorded it. And I suspect that most of the congregants expected the song to be performed in this same way. In fact, the lead singer altered her vocal quality to imitate the sound of Hillsong United’s singer Taya Smith, which speaks volumes about how she believes the song is supposed to sound.

Here’s the tricky thing about contemporary worship music: Most of it is conceived in the genre/market/realm of solo or small ensemble performance. This breaks down into two points. 1) It is created with performance in mind; and 2) it is created to be performed by soloists or rock bands. You may heartily disagree with this, which is okay with me. But do a little experiment. Take a handful of your favorite contemporary worship songs and sing them with a group of people sitting in a circle, facing each other. Don’t use any instruments. Listen to the melodic monotony of most verses when they are unsupported by instrumental timbres and harmonies. Also notice the difficulty of ambiguous rhythmic syncopation.

Better yet, try to teach a contemporary worship song in this setting.

John Bell offers a few thoughts on the difficulty of participation in contemporary worship music:

The congregation is confronted with a row of microphones behind which stand a row of instrumentalists and singers . . . If the people don’t join in, it will not be because they can’t sing or feel shy. It may be because the physical line-up of musicians reminds them of a concert where they listen rather than of a community where they join in. Or it may be because they haven’t been taught the songs; or because the songs are from the performance rather than the participative category, and the musicians have not recognized that there is a difference.

(Bell, The Singing Thing, 120).

Again, my goal is not to deride contemporary worship music. I’m trying to show that, in contemporary worship music, the musical aesthetic – the way in which the song is performed – is every bit as significant as the text and music itself. To illustrate this point, simply imagine “Oceans” played at a faster tempo, or with piano and organ, or sung by a choir, or by a small group a cappella. Any of these variations in performance would disrupt the “Oceans” aesthetic that is expected to facilitate corporate worship (or private devotion). In less technical language, that would just seem weird to congregants who are familiar with the song.

This raises some challenging questions: If a song is conceived in the style of performance rather than participation, isn’t giving it an excellent performance the best thing a congregation can do with it? Does the song need to be altered to encourage congregational singing? If a congregation and its leaders cannot replicate performances of these songs, can they use them at all? How does alternative instrumentation affect the musical aesthetic, and what does this mean for a congregation’s worship?

I welcome your feedback on this topic, as always.

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