The Song Service of the Church, Part 2

There is a more detailed description of all kinds of worship on this same web site at http://www.dovercoc.org/Sermons/worship.html . Here we are focusing upon the song worship of the church. The earlier web page, http://www.dovercoc.org/Sermons/songservice.html , dealt almost entirely with the spiritual aspects of song worship. This piece will necessarily delve into music literature and music history to answer the following questions:

1. How did we get to the kind of worship that our songbooks represent?

2. Is it all right to have a song book?

3. How did we arrive at the notation of songs that we have in our song books? Has music always been written this way?

4. Are we missing some things because of the changes over time about how music is done?

5. How do we compensate for some of the musical information that is missing from our song books?


The song "Come Let Us All Unite to Sing," also indexed as "God Is Love," is probably the best representation of 20th and 21st century a cappella music that we can find in our hymnals. It is written in a major key, usually D major. It is in 4/4 time, the most frequent time signature used in our contemporary world. The song itself begins in an almost complete D major scale (E is missing), thoroughly establishing the tonality of the song within the first two measures. "God Is Love" will make an easy comparison as we begin to move away from what the 21st century worship it represents to ways that music both in and out of church has been done over the decades.

Until at least the 700s A. D., music could only be represented by writing down the words. The Psalms of David 1000 years before Christ had the words but no notation of key signatures, time signatures, notes, dynamic markings, or accidentals. The time of this absence of musical notation existed until at least 700 A. D. and probably continued until the time of Guido de Arezzo in the 1100s. From the days of David through the time of Guido, people had papyrus or parchment for their "songbooks" and the existence of songbooks was not commented on in any of the writings of the New Testament. The people of old had song books and it is all right for us to have them too.

Before the time of the staff or standardized pitches, for a person to learn a song, he or she had to be in the presence of someone who already knew and could sing the song. There was no way that someone in Spain could write a song to someone in Jerusalem, send it by mail, and have the person in Jerusalem pick up the parchment and sing it, key and notes and all, without the two ever meeting. This put some severe limitations on how the people could learn new songs. We don't have those limitations.

There are a few obscure evidences that there may have been a shaped-note system after A. D. 700. The next notable use of a shaped-note pitch system rose in the early 1800s and continued into the early 1900s.

In a pure shaped-note system, a staff system with lines and spaces provides redundant information. The shaped note system gives information about pitches, and can give information about rhythm. Where shaped notes do not give information is when a change in octaves in needed. In "God Is Love," the singer wouldn't know in shaped notes whether the pitch of the word "love" at the end of the second measure was low D or high D. The ambiguity in octave information is what has led to our modern-day system of using round notes but on a staff.

Image result for heighted neumes


Thank you, Wikipedia, for the above illustration from medieval music. Regarding the use of the musical staff, most music historians point to the time of a monk named Guido of the Italian town of Arezzo, who began the first system. Using a song from the Catholic church, heightened neumes looked like the illustration above to try to indicate the relative pitches of the notes. It wasn't long before Guido added a red line through the middle of the neumes (below) to provide a marker, a middle marker, to denote the key note of the pitches. If it had been in the key of C, the red line would have represented middle C on our pianos.


Neumes with line


From there, it was "off to the races" among musicians as far as adding lines and spaces to create a staff to denote pitches. At one point there were as many as 20 lines and 18 spaces. By the 1600s, the Grand Staff was gradually arrived at with five lines and four spaces for the higher notes, called the treble clef, and five lines and four spaces for the lower notes, called the bass clef. When middle C or a note near it is being called for, an 11th line to show the location of middle C is shown between the upper and lower staves. Ledger lines are shown when a really high or really low note is needed. In vocal music, that doesn't happen very often.

Along with this evolving system, time signatures were gradually added. These are the numbers that look like fractions at the beginning of the songs. The top number shows how many beats are in a measure and the bottom number shows what kind of note gets one beat. A 4/4 means that there will be four beats in a measure, and a quarter note will get one beat.

By the 1500 and 1600s a concept of tonality--of being in a particular key--was developing in Europe. Keyboard instruments such as the clavier and later the harpsichord were invented, forerunners of the piano. The early ones had to be in one key and one key only. They didn't have flats and sharps. Being asked to change key signatures on one's clavier was a major undertaking. They had only what we would think of as white keys, and they all had to be manually turned to tune the instrument to any particular key. People didn't ask others to change a song from the key of C to the key of D unless there was some really, really good reason to do so. It took hours of peg-turning to change keys.

In the years before Johann Sebastian Bach's time, musicians gradually experimented with keys and keyboards. What we think of as white keys were black then, and the sharps and flats that were being added were white keys. By the time Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, keyboards had keys for 24 major and minor scales. Bach's piece was the first or one of the first compositions to show that if the clavier or harpsichord was tuned just right, you could change keys in the middle of a song. Sometime after that, the switch of black keys over to white began.

That's quite a bit of musicology, but it brings us back around to the question of "Can we worship like the first century church in terms of how the music was done?" The answer is "No." In the first century, people did not have anything resembling the major key of "God is Love." They sang in modes rather than keys. One of the modes of music in Christ's time sounded somewhat like our minor keys. These keys can be heard in songs like "Greensleeves [What Child is This?], "The Battle Belongs to the Lord," and "Give Of Your Best To The Master." Singing in a minor key, which we rarely do in church music in churches of Christ, would be our one musical connection to the people of the first century. The other modes of the first century, as discovered through archeology, represent scales and tonalities that likely few of us could sing or ever learn to sing. We've never heard them.

The question has been asked, because of these changes over time, are we missing some things that the first century church had? In terms of spiritual meaning, no. We still sing, not play, and we do so with the spirit (heart) and the mind (understanding, intellect). We sing in ways that speak to each other. If the way we sing does not speak or edify others, we shouldn't sing that way. We sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, just as the churches in Ephesus and Colossae did. But would we sound like them? No. There is no scriptural evidence that the change in misicality is displeasing to God, though. He listens to hearts.

There are some things that our song books seem to be lacking. These omissions go back nearly one hundred years, and to people familiar with written music outside of hymnals, they are a curiosity. Why are there no tempo (speed) markings on these songs? Go to your local music store and browse the sheet music. Most of it will have either Italian words like allegro or a mathematical marking like M.M.=92 at the upper left-hand corner of the first page to give some idea about how fast the song should go.

The other omissions have to do with loudness (dynamic) markings. Rare is the song in our hymnals that have any symbols such as p (piano, softly) or mf (mezzo-forte, medium loud) or ff (fortissimo, as loud as you can sing without distortion). Music outside of song books has these markings everywhere.

The result is that song leaders and congregations are left without the guidance of the songs' composers as to what was originally intended. Sometimes a tempo can be inferred from looking at what the words of the song are about. Can you imagine singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" at less than 80 beats per minute? Wouldn't someone think us hypocritical if we sang songs about going to Heaven at the speed of a dirge? Or that we were not showing the proper respect to the death, burial, and resurrection by singing "As I Survey the Wondrous Cross" at the speed of a John Phillip Sousa march?

The third dimension of music that we can use to speak to one another is pitch. Songs are written in different keys not because their composers were trying to be as difficult as possible, but because the best participation and performance of those songs was found through experimentation to be in those keys. Although sometimes we song leaders get caught without a pitch pipe or tuning fork on our persons when we are called upon to lead, if we know ahead of time, it is a good idea to use those. This gives variation as well as precision.

What if we don't do any of those things to create variation in the song worships that we lead? We get songs that are low, slow, and all the same volume. This is the combination of which slumber is made. After three or four low, slow, monotonic songs, even the most dynamic preacher is going to have a hard time trying to keep his audience awake. If we use the cues that the words and the "fit" of the notes give us, we can have song services that keep our minds fully engaged and ready to move on to other parts of the worship service.


[ Please click on the doorway above to return to the sermons index page]