Recently I watched an intriguing YouTube video by bass player and composer Adam Neely called “Learning to Like Contemporary Christian Music (the music I hate).” Adam takes us on a interesting journey as he studies the style and form of some of the big names in modern contemporary worship. I agree with much of what he said. Adam’s chief criticism comes to a surprising and unexpected climax, though, when he complains CCM players are not allowed to indulge in “musicking.” Instead of breaking from the mold by improvising and taking the music in unexpected and delightful directions, players are instructed stick to the program. This act, to him, seems less worshipful.
Adam Neely, we must remember, is a professional entertainer (with Christian roots in his past) who loves music for the sake of music. So it’s not surprising he would be annoyed when he observes musicians being told to “hold back.” By contrast, a robust Christian theology teaches us that church music is not so much about entertainment as it is about edification. It is more about understanding and communicating the text with appropriate music than it is about enjoying the music as an end in itself. It more about experiencing God’s grace and expressing our affection toward God on this basis than it is about delighting in the emotions caused by music itself. It is about mutual edification, not entertainment.
William Billings (1746-1800) and his use of the fuging (pronounced “fee-YOO-ging”) tune is one of the best illustrations of this conflict between edification and entertainment in American church music history. “Billings was somewhat of an eccentric: a tanner by trade who had a booming voice, a withered arm, and a stunted leg. He must have been a remarkable presence when he stood before a class” (Ogasapian, 36). Billings was also an albino with a savvy marketing mind. By use of his peculiar appearance and gifts, Billings traveled around America utilizing singing schools as a means of peddling his music (think “The Music Man: Church Edition”). Not long after publishing his first work, “The New-England Psalm-Singer,” Billings lamented its poor quality and promoted his next work as the new and improved edition. Singing schools, once established as a serious means of teaching congregants how to read music, had devolved by this time into a social occasion for youth. Billings used the frivolity of singing schools to his advantage. While Billings was not the only American to compose and popularize the fuging tune, he stands out as its most prolific and influential promoter in America.
Fuging tunes were musically light-hearted and fun to sing. The dominate characteristic came at the end, where one voice would begin singing the melody, followed by a second part, then a third and perhaps a fourth, all entering the melody at overlapping sections much like a rousing round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The result was a cacophony of unintelligible noise that encouraged singers to compete against each other until they finally joined together in the end.
Compounding the problem, Billings and many of his American contemporaries were self-taught composers. They crafted their compositions poorly, frequently using “parallel fifths and octaves, chords without thirds, and improperly prepared or resolved dissonances” (Music and Westermeyer, 90). Their melodies were difficult for the average congregant to sing, and in some churches the congregations even stopped singing altogether while the choir sang on.
Some may think I am being too hard on Billings. But it’s not just me—God soon raised up other competent church musicians who opposed the work of Billings (and lest we forget, God raised up Billings, too). In fact, the opposition was so strong that most of our modern hymnals contain few if any of Billings’s tunes. I am not opposed to appreciating Billings when it comes to educational or choral settings. Some may recognize the title When Jesus Wept, or perhaps the patriotic tune CHESTER. These are some of his most enduring contributions to American music. But for good reason his contributions to American church music when it comes to congregational singing are minimal.
I began by talking about Adam Neely’s criticism that CCM does not do enough “musicking.” I think the example of Billings and the fuging tune points us in the opposite direction. I am not the first person, and I certainly will not be the last, to point out that modern CCM often contains elements very similar to Billing’s fuging tune style—hard to sing melodies, worship leadership that sings while the congregation remains silent (or at least muted), part-writing that excludes rules that have stood the test of time (by that I mean centuries), and a confusing cacophony of noise.
In many ways, it is not so much what is present in, but what is absent from this kind of worship that is most telling. Sure, it may be fun for the band to perform their favorite worship hit, and somewhat fun for the people listening (depending on the abilities of the band and the sensitivities of the people), but God’s people have come to church not to be entertained, or listen to others worship, but to participate in the worship themselves. “Musicking,” as fun as it may be, focuses on the individual performer and not on corporate worship. “Musicking” makes church music the chief end of our joy, when it should be a God-ordained means of expressing our joy. It’s not performance—it’s prostration.
“In many ways, it is not so much what is present in,
but what is absent from this kind of worship that is most telling.”
At the same time, I find an unexpected warning in this whole story for myself. By my own admission I am somewhat a “self-taught” composer. Though I have taken private music lessons for most of my life, I only minored in music in college. Since then I have had the opportunity to take private lessons in composition from some incredibly talented and amazing composers, and their influence has made an invaluable impact on my writing. But I can’t pretend to have climbed the same mountains, earned the same degrees, or gained the same kind of knowledge and skill as those talented professionals. I might give arranging a try every now and then, but for the most part I focus on my strengths of lyric and melody writing, then ask other people to arrange my music.
What’s my point? Church musicians need to be careful and honest about their levels of competency in various areas of music. This is right and fair before God and before our people. I am speaking not only to church leaders, but to anyone involved in some way in church music. If you contribute to the music in your church, and you sense your own incompetency in certain areas, don’t ignore the problem or pretend you are something you are not. Don’t be a “Church Music Man”! Rather, let’s commit together to make an enduring impact on the history of church music by continually developing ourselves. Steward the gift. God, the giver of good gifts, has given us time and opportunity. Let’s not waste it.
Church Music in the United States: 1760-1901 by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).
Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).
A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).