Polytonaly Yours, With Love

The opening lines of “It Is Well” don’t normally include clashing polytonality and inscrutably rhythmic patterns. I took a creative risk this morning. Note clusters. Non-functional harmonic groups. Painting with colors that are so far outside of our normal 3-chord pop-tastic worship that at one point I was screaming inside for a 3rd hand, so that I could fully realize the Eb / D(6/9) / Dbmaj9 stack that I wanted. I know. Using chord notation at that point is just gratuitous. You get my point.

And then, because I like my church and enjoy my current level of employment with them, the crashing cacophony resolved down into notes that made sense, notes that made happy, notes that made me fairly certain that I will be welcome back next week. But for a little while, it was glorious.

I blame Alex Wen, my ne’er-do-well teaching assistant. That kid causes me more trouble. He has a frustrating habit of dropping by, serving up some canapĂ© of intriguing speculation, and then leaving me to process and re-process for the remainder of the week. I enjoy it so much that I don’t have the heart to tell him that it’s supposed to work the other way around.

This week, it was on the role of music in worship. Alex was talking about the use of aggressive and difficult music, modern compositions that will not yield easily to passive listening, but that richly reward the engaged.

Which left me thinking about the role of music in church. Not just in worship, but in the institution at large, the cultural and social phenomenon that the gathered people construct around themselves.

Music is nearly gone from public education. We recruit our best musicians at APU either from secluded art-intensive high schools, or from other countries that still consider a musically literate public to be a worthwhile expense. The musicians who grew up in the church come to us either as butt rock guitar strummers of the most parochial kind, or as power-pop vocalists. Some are very good, but good only in the narrowly confined musical space that is useful for corporate worship. Good at dreamy delays and 3-note gospel harmony. Good at ripping off Coldplay. Good at dropping out after the bridge to build up to the final chorus.

Can we do more? Should we do more? Should we, as the church, be elevating the musical language of our congregants? Should we be force-feeding them dissonance, poly or even a-tonality, and complex musical ideas until they know how to understand that rich language of tension and resolution? Should we give them musical meat that is not yet useful in worship, until it is? Can we move to repair some of the musical poverty caused by our federal abrogation of all non-testable educational outcomes? Can we train up young players to understand and appreciate music that is just beyond them, until it isn’t? Should we bring in talented artists capable of transforming and elevating the congregation’s perception of what music is? Can we set them loose to play things that are not trite rearrangements of popular hymn melodies?

Once we move beyond music as marketing, music as useful, music as emotional scripting, is there a role for music in the church qua music?

13 thoughts on “Polytonaly Yours, With Love

  1. Eric

    Hi, Mike;

    Re: need for third hand – Henry Cowell used his forearm in The Tides of Manaunaun – that’ll get you at least a dozen or more notes.

    You’re fortunate to have a student like Alex (Michaelangelo wrote “Ancora imparo” – I am still learning – at 87). What a difficult question for any musician to confront: Why do I do what I do? What is the purpose of music? Does music have a purpose? (Forgive me if I’ve enlarged the scope of your musings).

    I’m particularly interested that you wonder about the role of music “[N]ot just in worship, but in the institution at large…” as well as moving “beyond music as marketing, music as useful, music as emotional scripting…” In Ephesians 5:19, St. Paul writes “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord…”, and in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” Paul seems to view song both as instructive (Speak to one another with psalms) and as a means of expressing (otherwise) inexpressible joy and gratitude to God (Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord).

    My field is music of the 16th-18th centuries, perhaps not entirely relevant to this discussion. But there are some interesting parallels. Renaissance and baroque composers conceived of music in strongly rhetorical terms. That is, the goal of music was to move the passions/emotions of the listener in the same manner as spoken oration, or in other words, to argue convincingly. In the same way that most listeners remain unaware of the specific rhetorical and logical constructions a trained orator uses to present his arguments, most listeners didn’t/don’t perceive the musical figures and patterns employed by the composer, only the result.

    At the same time, however, there are works with technical oddities like polyphonic word-splitting (e.g. one voice sings “Al-le” and another finishes “lu-ia”) and rhythmic complexity that make it impossible to understand the words. That didn’t seem to matter, as the music was intended to be sung to the glory of GOD, who could, of course, understand all. Is it too much of a stretch to view these extremes as illustrative of Paul’s two goals of instruction (swaying the passions of the listener) and expressing the inexpressible in worship?

    To be clear, I equate the aim of “moving the passions of the listener” with instruction rather than with “emotional scripting.” I think that’s why Paul describes a mix of psalms (Tehillim, or praises – songs about God, his nature, attributes and the narrative of his relationship to his people), hymns (songs of worship, adoration and prayer addressed to God in gratitude and thanksgiving) and spiritual songs.

    “Should we, as the church, be elevating the musical language of our congregants?” Absolutely, though not (not that I’m imagining you are advocating this) as an end it itself, but as a means of enlarging and enriching the role of music in worship. The street songs of 16th century Venice were as far removed from the polychoral motets of Giovanni Gabrieli as Britney Spears is from Ralph Vaughan Williams, but the least musically literate congregant of St. Mark’s could not have been unmoved by the power and majesty of Gabrieli’s music. Give them meat, not milk.


  2. Joel C Bennett

    Mike, your post hung words on something that has been creeping around the corners of my mind for quite a while. Let me start by saying I really don’t like church music. It seems to me that it is often used as an emotional manipulator (that could be an awesome Pixes song title) to trick the audience into an emotional experience. For whatever reason the “emo-sperience” is considered more significant than say, a compelling lecture on post-modernism.

    I would love to see churches begin to develop musical worship that reaches for something more than a bridge that makes 20% of the audience weep (E-minor works most of the time). As you said, it would be great to see a complex musical piece performed in the name of God that achieves some sort of creative worth.

    I’d be interested to hear if anybody has made this concept practically work without feeling like Marty McFly after playing Johnny B. Goode at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. The next time I am asked to play for a church service I’ll make it a condition that I get a 10 minute Yngwie Malmstein style bagpipe solo whilst wearing an Indian head dress. I’ll be sure to report back my findings.

  3. Bobby

    I found a small error…

    “The musicians who grew up in the church come to us either as butt rock guitar strummers of the most parochial kind, or as power-pop vocalists.”

    should read:

    “The musicians who grew up in the church come to us either as butt rock guitar strummers of the most parochial kind (Bobby), or as power-pop vocalists.”

    Can’t believe you passed up that one!

    And on topic – isn’t that why they collect an offering? To give time to the music minister to expose the congregation to something they might not be ready to accept as worship yet?

  4. Scott

    “Give them meat, not milk.”

    Yes, but not all at once. Stomachs that haven’t graduated past milk are not ready for a hefty steak. However, phasing in solid food is a good start. Trouble is, while children are a captive audience, congregants are not. If they don’t want to start chewing, they might just go somewhere else. Or do what they can to get you fired.

    Don Neuen does something interesting at the Crystal Cathedral- he educates. I don’t attend there, but I’ve seen a few broadcasts in which he gives a SHORT explanation about what the choir is going to sing and what it means- what it meant to the composer, and why it is important. And then everyone sings with big fat vibratos and the organ blares and the point is often compromised… but the idea is good.

    It’s tempting to just prove you have clusters of steel and jump into the deep end, but few people will be ready enough to join you, even if they wanted to. As frustrating as it is, sometimes you just have to show everyone how to kick water while holding on to the side. You might be embarrassed if Michael Phelps came to visit, but at least nobody drowns.

  5. Eric

    That’s a very good point, Scott, and I didn’t mean to advocate a sudden change of diet.

    IF the place of music in worship is to instruct or to offer praise, the role of the congregation should be active and participatory. Whether they are singing or listening, they should be able to be actively engaged in the music, and you’re right, that takes some education. In answer to Mike’s original question of whether we should be “force-feeding them dissonance, poly- or even a-tonality, and complex musical ideas until they know how to understand that rich language of tension and resolution”, perhaps the image of force-feeding is a bit too strong, but as Scott puts it “phasing in solid food is a good start.”

    Your point about losing your audience is a valid consideration. Obviously every congregation will be a bit different, with different tastes and tolerances, and I wasn’t imagining that familiar standards would suddenly (or even gradually) be replaced with Ambrosian chant and Charles Ives (which might never enter the picture). From past experience, I know that if I stretch the ears of my listeners too far, they usually let me know.

    My perspective on worship music is from the other direction. I grew up in NC in a Lutheran church with a mix of German chorales and Sacred Harp, switched to Anglican chant and Victorian hymns in college, added Franco-Flemish polyphony and Gregorian chant in grad school and topped it off with Benjamin Britten and John Rutter. I’ve only begun to appreciate contemporary “praise” music since we left the Episcopal church a few years ago, and I have to admit that it took me some time. On the other hand, as important as music in worship is to me, it would never be my reason for choosing a place of worship. I need good solid scriptural food, too.

  6. harmonicminer

    In the times of music’s former glory, when the very best music was made in church, by the best musicians in the world, people went to church with a different attitude than they have now. Before the incredible proliferation of denominations in America, there wasn’t that much choice. People went to what was available where they lived. There was a good deal more local homogeneity in what was available and socially acceptable. I’m not saying that was all good, but it did lead to a captive audience of sorts, and the job of church musicians wasn’t to help the priests and pastors draw people into the church, it was to please the aesthetic tastes OF the priests and pastors, who were usually educated well beyond the average for the culture, and had frequently had some serious music study themselves.

    Small churches now have the same marketing problems as mom and pop grocery stores, namely that there is a LOT of competition, and medium and bigger stores can afford glitzier ads and surroundings, and occasional loss-leader sales campaigns.

    Bluntly: as long as music remains a major vehicle to get people INTO the church, and keep them happy while they’re there, this whole problem is unfixable. No pastor wants to risk losing people over a few notes, and lowest common denominator always wins in marketing, which is what it has become.

    Pastors and priests used to have the courage (and it didn’t take much then) to essentially impose on people whatever they thought was appropriate, knowing that people had little choice in the matter, particularly in religiously homogeneous areas with similar worship styles everywhere.

    Democracy is, at least for awhile, generally better than tyranny, until the electorate becomes so stupid that it votes to repeal natural laws. I think we’re in a similar spiral in church music, where each generation’s experience is thinner than the last, and the same dynamics rule church music that rule selection of music for movie trailers.. or maybe bubble-gum ads.

    By definition, a church musician USED to be a musician first. These days, to be a song writer, you really only need to be a lyricist, because there aren’t any new songs being composed, really. You don’t have to sing, you can stylize. And you only need to know about 5 or 6 chords in about 5 or 6 keys, and you’re in.

    Ironic sidebar: European church musicians sneered at American church musicians for about 250 years, finding 19th century gospel songs a poor substitute for the masters. It was. But no one’s even GOING to church anymore in most of Europe, while we, at least, are singing music that is only a little worse than 19th century gospel song.

    Things could be worse.

  7. Daniel Semsen

    At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, I’m going to be honest here…

    I am a commercial musician–one that has strengths in the styles of film and rock.
    I’m not really a jazzy-type (sorry Mike & Phil…but it’s true…)

    So maybe I prefer 5 or 6 chords in 5 or 6 keys (rock)…not that those are the only ones I know, but perhaps they are my favorite–ESPECIALLY when I drop out at the bridge and build it back up for the final chorus (hey…it works). And maybe I enjoy the orchestration and composition that exists to create mood (filmic) rather than the kind that exists to EXIST.

    I’m not a brilliant person, and I’m not a creative genius…but I AM starting to make a living (just starting) as a musician in L.A. Is there anything wrong with doing it with simple chords and repetitive rhythms?


    At least, I don’t think so.

    There is a place for all kinds and styles of music…and although I’m not advocating one style as better than the other, I do think the world still needs good rock and film musicians just like they need good jazz and classical musicians…you know…to each his own.

    hmm…I guess I don’t really see music as and end unto itself in the church–but rather as a tool to create community within the body of believers. So, yeah–I don’t really use my time to educate and introduce music to stretch the ears of my congregation or choir/orchestra members.
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  8. harmonicminer

    I think what I’m trying to say is that church music simply doesn’t fill the same role it once did. For most of western history since 500 AD or so, the only place anyone but the elite ever heard even mediocre performance was probably in church. But that performance wasn’t aimed to please “the masses”, it was aimed to meet standards set by a relatively elite audience, and the masses had no real choice, or impact on it.

    Now we live in mass media culture, and everyone has a zillion choices. So they make them. There is a sort of “mini-elite” in each genre, but there are just so many options and cross-connections that the notion of some set of standards to which church music should aspire is passe… sadly, I think.

    The beginning of this, the first hints, as I understand history, anyway, were when we had American cities with 30 churches in 26 denominations, each with its own musical heritage as time went on, and with different expectations on the part of attendees. All this before mass media.

    And since the mass media, the trendline has been mostly to a lowest common denominator everywhere, because there are not enough “local pockets of excellence” to hold up some standard, when everyone’s participation and allegiance to a particular thing is so fluid.

    I’m not knocking any one person’s taste, or any one genre, or anything like that. I am pointing out that the ability to direct a church choir (and all the necessary skills of judgment and musicianship that enter into that) is soon going to be as obsolete as the ability to improvise a baroque fugue. It is likely that no modern person is a fourth as good as Bach was at that. But in his time, there would have been a great many at that level (a fourth as good as Bach).

    We are losing skills in each generation, not because no one in each generation has the skills, but because there are FEWER in each generation who bother, and the traditions are simply lost, and after awhile no one even knows how to teach it anymore. Or cares.

    Sometimes I think we’re going to wind up in a musical version of this.

    Imagine a future where you’re brilliant if you can play a major 7th chord. In the land of power chords, the man who can add a 3rd is King.

    I’ll go take my evening medication now.

  9. aly hawkins

    I think there is an argument to be made for introducing complexity (whether musical or otherwise) to the worship experience for the sake of worship (as Eric already said so well). For me, this is the only compelling argument. I really do think our ideas about God have gotten more and more shallow in proportion to the shallowness of our churches, but I’m not sure if there is a cause-effect relationship at play (or what that relationship might be). Part of remedying that shallowness, I think, entails pushing for more complexity, whether in music or sermons or small group discussion topics or whatever. But the end goal, in my mind, is reappropriating an appropriate understanding of God’s complexity, of our own complexity, of the universe’s complexity, of the complexity of relationships, and so on. “Simple” worship is, in some ways, dishonest…or at least grossly inadequate.

    That said, most of our faith communities have grown so accustomed to “simple” that moving toward greater complexity must be a gradual process — just as moving toward greater intimacy (which is incredibly complex, and many times perplexing) in relationships is a process.

  10. harmonicminer

    I think I agree with most of that. What has happened in the last fifty years or so, little by little, is that our churches have become essentially arms of the mass media and public culture in too many ways. Most churches, it seems to me, have lost that tricky balance of being “in the world but not of it”. There was a time when “the best music in the world” was being heard in church. Now, no one even believes in such a thing, but if they did, it would be presumed to be happening at the LAPhil, or MTV, or the Grand Ole Opry, or the Baked Potato, or something…. but certainly not church.

    You can always tell when I’m rereading G.K. Chesterton.

  11. june

    I’ve been mulling this over since Michael first wrote it. I think Scott’s comment is accurate and I very much like the idea of educating listeners. (And, if we start educating in children’s church/Sunday School classes, it won’t all be for naught one generation later!) I have similar thoughts, questions and knee-jerk/blowing chunks tendencies when I see poorly made felt banners hanging in churches (“art?!”) and sanctuaries that double as gyms. Studying cathedrals in many long semesters of art history classes kind of wrecked me for the whole one-church-room-fits-all thing. No offense to the churches who have little space and are making the best of it with the lively Awana kids sharing space with everyone else. I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.

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