“Criteria for Good Church Music”

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

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

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.

General Considerations

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?


“What Does a Biblical Music Director Look Like?” – Paul S. Jones

The New Testament, especially the Apostle Paul, lays out the qualifications of a pastor (1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). A pastor is also to be like Christ, the Great Shepherd, in the ways in which he leads the people of God (1 Cor 11:1; John 21:15-17). Pastors are given the responsibility of teaching sound doctrine and of making sure the believers are well-versed in that doctrine (Eph 4:11-14). Music directors, song leaders, and worship leaders are sometimes called music pastors. What are the qualifications of the people in these roles?

Last week I briefly discussed, Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today, by Paul S. Jones, former music director and organist at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. In one essay, he considers this question, “What does a biblical music director look like?” He offers four essential qualifications:

  1. Musician
  2. Theologian-Pastor
  3. Administrator
  4. Teacher

That a music director is a musician should go without saying. To Jones, the director must be proficient in an instrument. The music director should also be able to sing, to conduct, and should be knowledgeable of music history, theory, and performance. Why is knowledge of this sort necessary? While Jones does not elaborate this point, I think the reason is that the music pastor must be able to discern between music that is fitting for worship, (or a particular service) and music that is not.

That a music director possesses theological training might not be so obvious in today’s evangelical milieu. The words of a well-written hymn communicate a message that must be judged as true or false according to the Scriptures. Someone who is not theologically trained cannot lead the congregation in this area.

As an administrator, the music director must be organized. Music ministry in a church is constant. Every Sunday requires thought and preparation, let alone additional music ministry such as a choir or other prepared music ministry.

Finally, the music director should have a teaching ministry in the church, which can take various forms. For many, leading a choir, vocal, or instrumental ensembles is one opportunity to teach. A music director also raises the level of understanding of the musicians and vocalists. In Jones’s situation, he also published regular essays on music for the congregation’s benefit.

I found an example of Jones’s music director in my own pastor. Pastor Martin has a bachelor’s degree in music and a PhD. in Theology. He is also very organized in the way he plans hymns and music ministry. He also patiently teaches both the adult and children’s choirs. He has walked us through Jones’s article, “The Anatomy of a Hymn,” using our hymnal. Each week he sends out an email for us to use in preparation for worship, which nearly always includes a short explanation of one of the hymns we will be singing.

The difficulty, as Jones points out at the end of his essay, is finding music directors with these qualifications–they are rare. How do we maintain such a high standard?

Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today by Paul S. Jones

Reading and writing about (and listening to) music is one thing. Reading and writing about church music is something altogether different because of the sharp divides within evangelicalism over the subject. To have a discussion about any subject, we have to be willing to be wrong, and we have to be willing to listen to our betters. (This assumes of course that some people know better than we do.) Paul S. Jones is a church musician, first and foremost, and in that role also an author who understands church music well. While I might, hesitantly, disagree with some of his points, I find them still worthy of discussion and consideration.

Jones published his writings in the book, Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today, (2006). The book is a collection of essays that he wrote while being the organist and music director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Penn. (Jones and others created a website a number of years ago, but the website might not be maintained today.). Singing and Making Music is comprised of over 30 short articles, organized into four sections:

  1. Corporate Worship
  2. Hymnody and Psalmody
  3. Issues
  4. Composers and Composition

Jones outlines three reasons for writing another book on church music. The first reason is simply the responsibility of learning. He states, “every worshiper (pastor and layperson) and Christian musician (performer and academic) may benefit from reading, since it is entirely possible to live in the subculture of the evangelical church without encountering some of [these ideas about church music]” (xi). In other words, the congregation has a responsibility to be educated about church music.

The second reason for the book is to assist church leaders who do not have adequate training in music. Jones explains, “Decisions about church music need not be made on the basis of limited experience, personal preference, or expediency” (xii). (I personally have experienced this decision-making process, and I am happy to move away from it.) He, thus, questions how evangelicalism has come to a point in history where church leaders are ignorant of music, church music or otherwise.

The third reason for the book is a catchall–to answer questions or chase personal inquiries. Above all, Jones’s desire “is to help shape music ministry by biblical standards for the glory of God” (xiii). He reiterates this principle a few paragraphs later, and thus summarizes his philosophy of church music, “The Lord God expects us to glorify him with excellent music that is written, played, and sung according to the principles that he has revealed in Scripture and in the cosmos” (xiv). Church music is a grave matter.

In my next few posts, I plan on perusing a few essays because the ideas Jones put forth are worth pondering.

The Student’s Guide to Music History by R. J. Stove

I tend to binge on subjects that interest me at the time, and since Christmas, music has once again caught my attention. It is because I am not a musician, nor have I studied music formally, that I strive to make up the difference at an older age. As I told my daughter when she was young, people like us may never make music, but we must be good listeners. Being a good listener–educated and informed–takes quite a bit of work, mainly in the form of reading and especially listening.

A number of years ago I picked up the thin book, A Student’s Guide to Music History by R. J. Stove, published by ISI. The author, Stove, is an organist and composer from Australia, and he has written other books and published quite a few articles on music for “The Imaginative Conservative.”

Of course, covering the history of western music in 117 pages is so brief as to be nearly futile. Yet, Stove adds enough detail and lists of works as to keep it interesting. (I found myself creating a list of music to listen to.) His style is light, and he often employees contemporary metaphors to illustrate the life and habits of composers. For example, when comparing Beethoven to Shubert, he says, “Whereas Beethoven slaved over every phrase as if sawing through granite, Shubert routinely discarded entire symphonies and operas with less regret than most of us feel at abandoning extracted teeth” (44).

My grade school required music class each year, and we often reviewed the great composers of the past. In most situations, and probably because we were children, the great composers were portrayed as great men and women–people of character. In contrast, Stove seems to find it necessary to bring attention to at least one vice for many of the composers, and I am not certain as to his motive for doing so. I speculate that he was attempting a balanced portrait, of sorts. Reading his few pages devoted to Liszt, the reader not only comes away understanding Liszt’s deficiency as a composer, but he also knows the names of Liszt’s children from an illicit relationship (55-57). Still, to me, given the brevity of the work, I would prefer to read more of the stylistic nuances of each composer, and how they differed from one another, rather than the details of moral wrongs they committed. I expected a “Music History” to explain what to listen to in the music and what its distinguishing characteristics are.

On the whole, I recommend A Student’s Guide to Music History. Perhaps you are like me, untrained in music, and you are looking for a place to start. I would suggest that you read this book, and then pick out a sampling of the compositions to listen to. To be good listeners, we need people like Stove to help us along the way.

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

About the time I finished writing the essays on A Conservative Christian Declaration, Rod Dreher published his book The Benedict Option. Dreher’s book caught my attention because Dreher mentions two of the authors of the Declaration by name, Scott Aniol and Ryan Martin. Out of curiosity, I borrowed the book to see what he had to say. It is the first book of his that I have read, and I found it complementary (though not exactly the same) to the Declaration.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor for The American Conservative where, according to his bio, he “focuses on social and cultural conservatism, with a particular interest in religion in the public square.” He belongs to an Orthodox church in Louisiana, and his definition of Christian is broad enough to include Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Because quite a few people have written reviews on The Benedict Option, I will not add another one. I will, however, summarize Dreher’s argument in terms of conservative Christianity. I think his book could be distilled to pleading with conservatives to be conservatives no matter what. I define a conservative as one who receives a tradition, preserves it, and perpetuates it to the next generation. Dreher is not so much concerned with what is specifically being conserved as long as it fits within a general rubric of “Western Civilization.” Modernism has begun to erode civilization because it fragments people, especially noticed in city life. How many people in the city have no interaction with the people who live next door. And, unless the postman makes a mistake once in a while, they would never even know their name.

Thus, preserving and perpetuating a certain set of values becomes monastic within our fragmenting society. The term monastic literally means to stand alone. And that is what happens–a group of people stand alone because of the values that unite them. At the same time, however, they interact with others who do not share those values. They work with them, eat with them, drive with them on the highway, do business with them. As long as these interacts share a mutual value of some kind, such as, be kind to strangers, society can survive. But what happens when one set of values are hostile toward another? This question is more to Dreher’s point, and the reason for the urgency expressed in his book.

The Benedict Option can be summarized by this statement of Dreher’s, “[We need] a way to live the tradition in community, so that it can survive through a time of great testing.” When one value system oppresses another by means of hostility, will the conservatives preserve and perpetuate their values? Will they persevere or will they succumb to the pressure? Dreher gives options how conservatives might persevere, and he draws from “The Rule of Benedict” for guidance.

James Matthew Wilson, “Christian Politics Is the Benedict Option Now
Thomas Ascik, “Fearing Dreher: What Many Critics Ignore About the Benedict Option
Edmund Waldstein, “The Mirror of the Benedict Option
Scott Aniol, “The Benedict Option: The Christian Option

A Conservative Christian Declaration, Part 3

Perhaps you have had the unfortunate experience of walking into a room where a group of friends are in the middle or the end of a conversation. You politely listen for a while trying to figure out what the subject is. What are they talking about? Sometimes a kind person tries to catch you up. Sometimes you leave as lost as you were when you entered. Sometimes you make a foolish comment letting everyone know that you are clueless, to which your friends respond by changing the subject.

If I have one criticism or qualm with A Conservative Christian Declaration, this is it. (And though I mention this criticism here, I am sure that the authors will accept it with the Christian charity with which I offer it.) In the preface, Scott Aniol mentions that these men have been involved in a conversation among themselves for some time. Not only in the events leading up to its publication, but also in the years preceding. If you have been part of this conversation, everything in this book makes sense to you. If you are new, however, I think your understanding might be limit, perhaps severely. This likely confusion is the reason I have written these articles, which I hope “catch you up” to the conversation in progress.

In this post in particular I offer this small piece of advice when reading A Conservative Christian Declaration. For most of us, the first question we ask when reading a book like this is, “Do I agree with it?” I am going to ask you to set that question aside for the moment. You can ask that question later after you understand what is being said, and not beforehand. So, first, ask these three questions while reading each article: 1) What are they talking about? After you have read the article, for example, “On Transcendentals,” can you answer the question for yourself, “What is a transcendental?”

You may find that you need additional help apart from the articles. I would suggest reading my other two posts on the meaning of conservative and Christian. Even more so, I recommend browsing Religious Affections website. These same authors regularly contribute articles there. You will probably find something that will improve your understanding. I think it safe to say that you could also contact any one of these gentlemen, and they would be glad to answer any questions you might have. The first question is what? What are we talking about?

The second question is, Why is it it important to conservative Christianity? In other words, why did the authors put it in this book? If you recall, a conservative as one who preserves and perpetuates a set of ideas. A conservative Christian preserves and perpetuates Christianity. And as I discussed before, Christianity is more than the gospel, though no less than the gospel. The authors do not always explain the reasons an article is included. We know they believe it is important to Christianity because they included it in the book. We have to reflect on the question, Why is, for example, beauty (Article 6) important to conservative Christianity? What does it add to Christianity, and What do we lose if we give it up?

The third question to keep in mind while reading the articles is personal. Now that I understand what they are talking about, and I know why it is important to conservative Christianity. How do I–if I want to be a conservative Christian–incorporate these affirmations and denials into my life? What does this look like for me? If the whole counsel of God (Article 2) is important to Christianity, then how do I incorporate the whole counsel of God in my life. An easy answer is that I make reading the entire Bible a priority in my personal life. No law commands it. The authors are not requiring every believer to read through their Bible in one year. Yet, the Bible is of great importance to my spiritual well-being as a Christian. Therefore, I make it so.

In summary, to understand A Conservative Christian Declaration, ask yourself these three questions: What? Why? and How? I think it will help you make more sense of the discussion you have just walked into. I am thankful for the book, though the authors too know that it is not perfect. Regardless, it is worth considering.

Collingwood, The Principles of Art

I have quite a few books on art and aesthetics, but I did not have Collingwood. A number of years ago, I was introduced to Collingwood’s Idea of History. He is an Oxford fellow from the early 1900s who has a pleasing rhetorical style. The Principles of Art is not disappointing. His erudite style can be a little difficult to understand at times. He frequently quotes from different languages without translation (Greek, Latin, French, German, &c.). His rhetoric is also a bit old-fashioned I suppose for our uneducated, American ears. The second part of the book is a detailed philosophical thought experiment, which quite easily bogs down the reader. Given those caveats, Collingwood is rewarding to those who labor to understand him.

The first section of the book describes what art is not and what it is. The final section gives a conclusion and definition of art. Collingwood’s main argument is that art is a conscious expression of emotion. While art includes craft or skill, skill alone does not make art. Art is also not a copied or fabricated emotion. Collingwood admits we often call these works art, but wrongly.

Collingwood explains art like this. A person–the artist in this case–considers something, a person, an event, an idea, what have you. His reflection on said thing causes an emotional response inside him, unconsciously. It is not an idea or image that he can articulate or describe. As an artist he feels the need to express this emotion–to “let it out” we might say. So he does: he paints, sculpts, composes, &c.

Then we, the audience, come along, and we see or hear this work of art. As we reflect on it, we begin to feel the same type of emotion that the artist felt and expressed. We, in turn, become artists, seeking a medium of expression. The ability to enter into this participation with art is called refinement.

Perhaps a more concrete example will illustrate the point. The aria “Bist Du bei Mir” is a song about the love two people share that is steady and strong even in the face of death. More accurately, it is love that grows all the stronger at death. Here are the words in English:

If you are with me,
Then I will gladly go
Unto death and to my rest.
Ah how pleasing were my end
If your dear hands
Then shut my faithful eyes.

The poet, considering love and death, responds emotionally, has an emotion idea, as it were. He expresses that emotional idea in the poem. Then the soprano sings the aria. While singing it, the emotion wells up within her also. In her singing she communicates the same to the audience who in turn participates, the emotion being evoked (drawn out) from them. To Collingwood, the poet, soprano, and listener are all artists in this process.

I mentioned early on that Collingwood is one we should be slow to disagree with. Yet, I think in one place he has a wrong assumption, and consequently his conclusion comes a little short or is not quite complete. The wrong assumption is that the artist always expresses a noble affection, a right emotion. He never expresses a bad or evil emotion. In other words, whatever we feel is always right. Because of this, it is the artist who will save civilization, according to Collingwood.

This assumption leads consequently to a short coming in Collingwood’s conclusion. While I agree with him as far as he goes, I think the artist does more than express and evoke emotion. The emotion he expresses is always toward something. He asks us not only to feel something, but to direct that feeling toward something else. In the example of the aria, “Bist Du bei Mir,” the poet expresses an emotion toward love in death. He wants us to feel the same sentiment towards love in death, not just the sentiment.

A good artist draws out from us the right emotion toward something. A bad artist evokes from us the wrong emotion toward that thing. Another example is to contrast requia. Requia are liturgical songs written about death. Mozart’s requiem evokes a terrible fear of death. Should Christians fear death? Is Mozart making us feel the wrong emotion towards death? I think so. (Brahms on the hand helps us feel the right emotion towards death.)

In spite of any disagreement on these two points, I was pleasantly surprised by The Principles of Art. I am glad it has been added to my collection, and I look forward to reading it again.