Leonard Bernstein gave a famous series of six lectures on music at Harvard university in the early 1970s. Throughout the series, Bernstein was demonstrating how music communicates as an art form. In one lecture in particular, he discusses the addition of words to music. Poetry is itself an art form. When words are added to music, Bernstein argued, we have an art form wrapped within another art form, which creates something new–the most powerful form of art created by man. Enter Paul S. Jones. Given that music and poetry combine to form the most powerful of artistic endeavors, what constitutes good church music?
Entire books, of course, could be written on the subject, and Jones wrote merely a few pages in his book, Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (2006). His considerations, as he calls them, are worthy of discussion. Jones recognizes that two difficult questions immediately arise when discussing church music. How does one choose music for worship 1) objectively and 2) knowledgeably? Objectivity is an attempt at some criteria other than one’s own preferences or tastes. Objectivity requires judgment, and that in turn requires knowledge. We have to be humble at this point and admit that some people know more about music than others. For those of us who do not pretend to have talent of singing or playing an instrument, this is a reminder that we have a duty to be good listeners.
Textual considerations must include doctrinal fidelity, of course. The congregation should not sing songs that teach bad theology or theology contrary to the doctrinal statement of the church. Textual considerations also pertain to the subject matter. The Old Testament psalms, for example, exalt God for who he is and what he has accomplished. As the Christian church, our hymnody also exalts Christ for who he is and what he accomplishes for us in redemption. The poetic text should lead us toward God and away from ourselves.
Musical considerations include, among other things, melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and performance. The melody should be singable without being predictable or trite. Jones states that the harmony “should be interesting.” An interesting harmony makes singing parts enjoyable and listening to music pleasant. The rhythm of the music should complement the rhythm of the poetry without overshadowing it. Form is the structure and phrasing of the music. Finally, performance refers to the aesthetics and associations of the music.
Jones’s general considerations reiterate and expand briefly on a couple of points he made earlier. First, the joining of the arts of poetry and music is extremely important. They must be well-matched and complementary. This point leads to the second. Church music must be appropriate. The music should convey the right view of God, and it should be fitting for the service in which it is used.
Jones works through these principles in more detail in “The Anatomy of A Hymn Tune.” Although brief, his points are worth considering. (If you want a concrete example of Jones’s considerations, I suggest you watch one of the services of Tenth Presbyterian.) They are worth talking about before and after church. What do these principles look like? To whom should we listen in regard to these matters? How do we who are not music directors become good listeners? Or, as it pertains to congregational singing, how do we become good participants?