Rev. Larry Peters, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, and author of one of our favorite blogs, had some thoughts about one of our favorite topics and graciously agreed to let us repost his article here:
I recently read an article on sacred music and how the music of the Church may be legitimately "modernized" and how it cannot be so "modernized." We generally spend much of a discussion like this talking about either text or sound, but this article brought up the issue of rhythm.
Now let me first admit that I am rhythm impaired and so can clap my hands, do hand motions, dance, or conduct only with great difficulty. I don't know whom to blame for this (well, yes I do, my parents and probably sin) and believe this to be a genetic handicap or disability. So it is with some fear that I venture into a subject which I can address only theoretically.
The rhythm of the music is united with the natural rhythm of the given sacred text, either through assuming the textual rhythm as its own, or by engaging in a gentle interplay with it. Strong metrical or rhythmic effects that might overshadow the meaning of the text are to be avoided.
Perhaps one of the significant things lost in the discussion of contemporary vs traditional music in the Church is the issue of rhythm. That which drives modern music is, in large measure, its rhythmic signature. Who has not sat at an intersection while the speakers of another vehicle punch out the beat to a song to which you did not plan on listening? From rap to pop, the beat, the rhythm, is what moves the music. Sure words count and so does the overall "sound" but rhythm is the primary factor in its success. Not so for the music of the Church. For the Church, text is always primary. When the music overwhelms or distracts from the text, the musical form is itself the problem.
This is often a problem with hymnody. The successful hymn is one in which the text and tune work together in a seamless pattern -- both, as it were, speaking the same language and message. The least successful hymns are those which require a choice -- text or tune -- because they do not go together. One of the problems in hymnwriting (both lyrics and music) is the difficulty in keeping the text and tune married, stanza upon stanza. This is, then, the successful character of chant, specifically Gregorian Chant. It it the text that drives the music and not the other way around.
There are wonderful tunes that I dearly love but they do not serve the text well and the hymn is disappointing to sing. There are also texts that conflict with the melody in such way that singing them is like swimming against the current. Congregations that do not sing these hymns are probably not able to say why they do not like to sing them but they know the difference between one of the profound unions of text and tune and one that is a shotgun wedding.
Modern music uses rhythm more effectively than almost any other musical element and it is for this reason that modern music is less effect as a common language or song in worship than the classic form of hymnody. It works as spectator music to listen to or as entertainment but it does not work nearly so well as the common song of the gathered assembly. The form itself actually detracts from congregational song. Sure, you get people humming along or singing under their breath. This is not the same as congregational song in which many voices become united sound, united so that every voice speaks as one. I think that this is a far greater issue than those who frame the debate as high culture vs low (or popular) culture and it also rescues us from the prison of likes and dislikes.
One more interesting tidbit from the article:
The human voice is always the primary instrument, and often the only instrument. Being an integral part of man, rather than his exterior creation, the voice has a unique capacity for intimate expression of the depth and breadth of human feeling and experience. It is equally accessible to all people and all cultures. When the organ or other instruments are used, it is for the purpose of supporting or enhancing, rather than dominating or supplanting, the voice.
This is another issue but not one unrelated to this issue. When the music makes it seem like the voice is secondary or peripheral to the song, we have problems with this music in service to the liturgy. Of course, this is an issue for voices and not a vocal track -- congregational song (chant and hymn) being primary to the criteria of effective and successful church music.