Tempus non fugit (3)

Tempo in music is, to a great extent, a subjective matter.  Yet there are some guidelines and “windows of acceptability” that demand the attention of leaders.  Some of these conventions appear to be inherent to human nature and our perception, but they also may change with time.  In this third of a three-part series, I’d like to state and comment on some of these principles and guidelines.

Only a few readers took 15 seconds to respond to the poll in the first post, three days ago, so those results are inconclusive.  I’ll mention that only one respondent thought church singing was too fast, in the overall analysis.  My personal observation in a cappella churches — which, remember, do not, as a rule, use professional musicians or choirs — is that there may be one leader in each church who feels it incumbent on him to use very fast tempos for virtually every song.  He feels this way, I have surmised, because most everyone else in his church leads things too slowly — which would be one scenario that led to inconclusive poll results — or he just feels he must be the life of the party.  I think I was this guy, to some minor extent, for a few years, but now, I simply try my best to choose good tempos, which means a variety. 

In my last post, I listed song titles from one particular Sunday morning assembly, along with the (invariably too slow!) tempos used, followed by my own recommended tempos.   I’m relatively un-apologetically opinionated in this area of church life — and periodically, admittedly arrogant — but in no way do I suggest that my tempos are absolutes.  I only specified numbers in order to put things clearly.

Some factors to be considered when specifying a tempo include

  • rhythmic configuration in the song
  • traditional mood/affect
  • any intended alteration of traditional mood/affect
  • previous song
  • succeeding song
  • the congregation:  average age, average musical ability, history, current situations
  • the worship and edification hall
  • instrumentation, if any
    • if no instruments, tempos generally need to be faster (witness the abridgment of Michael Card’s simply beautiful “Jesus, Let Us Come To Know You” — this song has had a beat dropped out of every measure in a cappella churches because we are uncomfortable with holding notes too long in slow tempos)
    • “fill” instruments can help to “fill the gaps,” therefore, slower tempos can be effective with less mental effort, and with less damage to the overall mood

Tempo is not completely a matter of taste.  It’s not just “to each his own” when deciding one can (il)legitimately sing “Joy to the World” at the same tempo as “Amazing Grace”  or “Abide with Me.”  Besides generally accepted principles (we use ‘em in accounting; why not in congregational singing?), it has long been held that tempo in music is directly related to the human gait.  If one can’t have a little spring in his step when singing or hearing “Joy to the World,” I think the tempo is too slow, and I’m sure you’ll agree!


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