Worship through song: could we do better?

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One of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the abundance of musical talent that dwells amongst us. Across the globe we find what seems to be a very blessed group of people throughout all genres and instrumentation. 

Having been a member of the Seventh-day Adventist community since birth I can say with certainty that a Sabbath service is never complete without the delights of a special item, contemporary movement routine and (most importantly to me) congregational singing. 

In several of our churches I have heard a common thread of conversation pertaining to the frequent use of current contemporary Christian music instead of older hymns and gospel classics. In some instances, I have seen certain demographic groups exit in protest to the music choices selected for congregational worship. 

I have spent a great deal of time asking myself what it is about congregational singing that fills me with such joy and can overwhelm me to tears (or should I say used to). 

In an effort to explore this shift into my own diminishing worship experience, I delved into some of the key fundamentals of group music to establish what elements are common throughout history as forming the core of a good chant, battle cry, national anthem or campfire song that stirs the soul and moves even the most tone deaf to want to raise their voice to the heavens. Surely there had to be more to the argument than a generational intolerance to a new era of music and change in genre style. 

Of course, this is not the first time that congregational singing has been a hot topic. Martin Luther identified the need for congregations to effectively participate in church services and recognised that one of the best ways for people to learn Scripture was to weave it through the repetition of song, hence his development of a framework especially for congregational singing. Some of the fundamentals of this framework involved keeping both the lyrics and tune simple to allow for greater participation of the whole congregation. 

As a conservatorium trained musician and lover of a vast range of genres (especially contemporary), I found myself asking, is our church music encompassing the needs of the greater congregation or mostly appealing to the musicians of the church? After all, isn’t music for everyone, not just musicians?

Through prayerful searching into more information on this topic, I was blessed to discover a thesis by Daniel Read (2017) titled Why We Sing Along: Measurable Traits of Successful Congregational Songs. Finally, a pioneer who had gone before to explore just what elements of music are recognised as being fundamental to congregational singing.

His work looks into common elements that encourage congregational participation through the genres of hymns, gospel songs, praise choruses and contemporary worship music, and identifies the main regular features to look for when selecting repertoire. While these features are delved into with great complexity, the following points outline a brief explanation. 

1. Pitch proximity: this element demonstrates how a listener is able to respond faster when the notes of a song are closer together rather than where larger intervals are written. This ability to respond faster during singing provides the singer with a positive response that is encouraging and satisfying.

2. Step declination: here, the musical pattern of a song and how far it travels from the central pitch is studied in conjunction to the impact this has on the success of Christian congregation singing. It has been found that songs that follow a lesser melodic contour and remain close to the pitch centre receive greater participation from an untrained singer. 

3. Melodic regression: looks into the pattern of intervals written into the music. As a result of larger intervals, we see a melody travel in one direction further from the central pitch as opposed to smaller intervals that can be easier to predict by the layperson’s limited vocal ability and don’t travel as far from the central pitch.

4. Exposure effect: it is known that we all prefer familiarity, and repetition is a factor that develops such familiarity. Importantly, studies show it is less effective when repetition is conscious; rather subconscious exposure such as background radio listening or exposure through a solo performance enhances this exposure effect.

Although not worded identically, we see commonality when learning the fundamentals of choir leading. Just as a trained choir director has to choose appropriate repertoire for a group of (possibly) untrained vocalists, so too do worship leaders in our churches need to factor in the singability of the repertoire chosen for their congregations.

In a nutshell, congregational music should be simple, easy for the layperson to follow and have a level of familiarity to it. Most importantly, congregational worship should be oriented towards participation and not performance. 

Too often I have heard an older church member groan about the modern music that is becoming increasingly predominant in congregational singing. However, what might appear to be a gap between the stylistic taste of music amongst generations could actually be that our older members have both witnessed and experienced the thrill of congregational singing at its peak. It is possible that composers of past eras have encompassed the above elements more successfully than our latest contemporary Christian song writers. 

In the 1900s we saw the emergence of brilliant contemporary Christian music that began to emulate the sounds of pop and rock enjoyed outside the church setting. I wonder however, if we have taken these brilliant songs (that were written especially for solo artists) and added them into the repertoire for congregations where their success (measured as congregational participation and satisfaction) is decreased. And while challenging and enjoyable for the musicians of the church to perform, do not meet the criteria of being predictable, singable or successful for our less-musical congregants to feel connected with.

This said, the purpose of this commentary is to urge worship leaders to think of the entire church when selecting the repertoire for congregation singing. While a change in bar length between verses might add something new to an old hymn, it might also be the defining factor that causes a participant to stop singing after they’ve begun to sing at the wrong time. Sure, that technical, syncopated phrase might add artistry to a repetitive song, but does it throw off the congregation to a point where their worship experience with the Lord has been interrupted?

I would encourage the many talented musicians of our Adventist churches to continue to share their God-given abilities at church through solo pieces that bring the less musically talented great joy and amazement, or better yet put such talents into creating new compositions written especially for the congregation where scripturally founded lyrics, simple melodies and familiarity encourage greater participation and satisfaction from all participants looking to enjoy the experience of worship through song.

Corina Sills has a Masters of Vocal Pedagogy from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music.

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