This paragraph, from an essay about 18th century American church song, reminded me why I have a visceral dislike of certain kinds of music prevalent in liberal religious congregations today:
“When it was composed, this music [American 18th century four-part church song] was experienced rather than heard because it was not written for an audience’s appreciation or to tickle an ear — it was written to be experienced in performance by performers. How it ‘sounded’ to a non-participant was of very little importance. This is no novel concept; it is one of the essential pre-conditions of genuine church song. Clearly, a basic function of congregational music within the service should be to participate actively in worship through music. This active participation in worship is, of course, one of the foundation-stones of Protestantism, a democratization of religion that was one of the great achievements of the Reformation. If congregational song is to fulfill this function, it is obvious that no performer-audience relationship is possible; all members of the congregation must participate actively in the process of making music. Thus, congregation music must make its impact felt not through the hearing experience, as with choir music, but through the performing experience. …” [“The American Tradition of Church Song,” in Music and Musicians in Early America: Aspects of the History of Music in Early America and the History of Early American Music, Irving Lowens (New York: Norton, 1964), p. 283.]
The paradigmatic composer of this American music was William Billings (link to some sound files of Billing’s music performed both by professional choirs and amateurs). Billings wrote songs that can be sung by average people with average voices, yet they are musically interesting enough to hold the attention of sophisticated musicians. The songs are written in four-part harmony where each part has enough melodic interest to keep all singers interested and involved. The songs are unaccompanied, and are in that sense truly democratic — there is no paid accompanist, no soloist who is more important than the other singers; just as in political democracy, everyone has to participate in this music to make it work. And as is true of a robust democracy, education is an integral part of the process; Billings was one many New England singing-school masters who taught young people how to sing in four-part harmony. We’re talking about truly democratic music.
This is why I have a visceral dislike of praise bands: the sole reason for the existence of praise bands is to drown us out so that we don’t really have to participate, or so other can ignore us if we sound bad; that is profoundly anti-democratic. This is why I don’t care for song leaders who use a microphone in church to make sure their solo harmony part is heard above the unwashed masses who sing in unison; their purpose is not to get everyone singing together, their purpose is to have the masses singing so they can perform a solo over it; again, this is not democratic in the sense Lowens uses the word in the paragraph above.
I wish I had an easy solution to the problem, but I don’t. The solution to the problem simple, but not easy — the solution is to take the time to teach people how to sing, just like the solution to the problem of not enough volunteers in our congregations is to teach people how to do lay leadership. In a culture that values consumption over self-cultivation, education is a tough sell, unless it is education that directly improves your earning potential so that you can increase your consumption. As long as we have people coming into our congregations expecting to consume religion (rather than co-create it), I guess we’re going to have problems with congregational singing.