Just be aware that we’re here

True confession:  I am unable to sing an unfamiliar song in a church gathering unless musical notation is provided.

(Pause to ponder that.  Please.)

You may think the songs in your church are “easy,” but they all are built of the same melodic and harmonic materials, so they sound a lot more alike than you may realize.  Plus, the number of notes and musical tones I deal with in an average day simply does not allow me to retain the particular, banal melody of your new favorite song, whether we repeat it 8x or 20x.  No, really, I have tried recently, thinking, “I’ll bet I look silly, standing here and not singing when she knows I’m a professional musician.”  So I listen, and I try to remember “how it goes.”  By the 7th or 8th time the same phrase rolls around, I try it, and sure enough, I get something wrong — I end up substituting the melody or rhythm of derivative song #453 instead of #454.  They really do all sound alike.

You may think I should just get over myself and sing the song incorrectly.  But that is not who I am.  Some of it is a matter of choice — I choose not to do too many things carelessly and inaccurately — and some of it simply results from the glut of notes and tones in my particular life.  Many tunes do become indistinguishable after a while; I am sincere when I say I am unable to sing at times.

You may think that I could just worship without singing.  And you would be correct.  I’m trying, but it’s difficult for a musician to avoid music, focusing on only the words, when music is all around him.

You may think that I’m in a tiny minority, and you’re right.  Just be aware that we’re here — me and a few others.  Maybe we’re 5%, and maybe we’re 25%, but we have trouble worshipping with your church when you don’t provide musical notation so that we can avoid the distraction of being inaccurate with the music.  And, perhaps of more weighty statistical interest:  a huge proportion (I’d wager 50% or more) of churchgoers still exists that would be helped, to some degree (if not completely enabled), by music notation.  They may not know or admit it all the time, but they are partially musically literate, having been educated in our public schools, and they can sing more heartily if they have notes in front of them than if they have just the words.

You may think that what I’m calling for – musical notation in church gatherings in literate populations — is an elitist measure.  There seems to be a connection between this “elitist” criticism, which I steadfastly resist, and the passionate pursuit of “church growth.” When people (preachers and others whose livelihood depends on more people coming through the doors) get together to try to solve the church world’s problems apart from scripture, they can come up with all sorts of junk ideas, and this is one of them.  Aside:  I’ve also never believed the rule that says your church won’t grow past 75-80% of its seating capacity.  I find this principle largely shallow and self-serving; it leads to a drive for a newer, bigger building, which in turn makes it look like the preacher is doing great things, or else people wouldn’t have flocked to him and needed a bigger building.  While the lack of musical notation is not self-serving for preachers in the same way, it is also shallow and amounts to ignorance shown toward the worthy, generally and musically literate people who fill the seats.

You may think that there are larger Kingdom causes to be spending time on, and again, you’re right.  But this one deserves some attention, as well.

Church leaders, please consider taking the step of providing the words and the music for your assemblies.  It hurts no one, and it helps more of us than you probably realize.

P.S.  James Tackett of Paperless Hymnal (and, presumably others doing similar things in other denominations), keep up the good work of providing the words AND the music!


6 thoughts on “Just be aware that we’re here

  1. godschildrenorg 09/27/2012 / 2:39 pm

    What an amazing concept…help those of us who can worship better if notation is there along with the words! I do eventually catch on to the tune much of the time, but sometimes I stand there mute straining to hear the new melody while facing new words. When I realize that I’ve been singing the wrong tune…well, it is distracting to say the least. Dan had a beautiful deep bass voice. He gave up trying to sing bass – new songs – invent your own harmony? Yes, Brian, we are here. Is it okay to be us?


    • Brian Casey 09/30/2012 / 10:45 am

      Yes, for those of us who read music well, not having the notated music is the most bothersome. It’s also less of a bother, presumably, for those whose minds aren’t filled with as many notes and sound. They can differentiate the songs better than I. It’s not just the contemporary songs, either, although the problem of PowerPoint words-only clearly resides within churches that have a regular diet of contemporary music. There are handfuls of hymn tunes that sound somewhat alike — “Lord of All Being, Throned Afar” and “Father and Friend” come to mind. And dozens of gospel songs sound alike, too. The familiarity and harmony factors come into play, too — 1) if the song is a long-time favorite and has been sung regularly in a particular setting *with notation,* notation becomes less important over time, and 2) the more the harmony is lost to words-only displays and “worship bands,” the less the congregation can and will be involved.

      I must admit I’m a little saddened by the question “Is it okay to be us?” Honestly, I’m not sure how okay it is. But we are still us, I suppose!


  2. Tod Martin 09/27/2012 / 6:33 pm

    I heartily agree. So many new songs, even the few with really good lyrics, have mediocre tunes that just sort of wander aimlessly, and it’s really hard to follow the melody and even harder to try to “hear” a harmony part. It also seems that many were originally composed for instrumental use, and don’t naturally conform to the intervals that we’re accustomed to singing when we sing songs with harmony notated.


    • Brian Casey 09/30/2012 / 10:53 am

      Hey, Tod. Thanks for reading and chiming in. There are some good lyrics out there now — probably better, in the aggregate, than the diet many in the CofC (particularly in the South) grew up with. The main problem, in my book, is with the “aimlessly wandering” tunes and the lack of notation to help us find the way melodically or harmonically.

      And you’re absolutely right that the original instrumental conception comes into play here. If you or anyone else “out there” might be interested in further material in this area, I’d ask you to take a look at my online (free) book: http://campus.houghton.edu/webs/employees/bcasey/ca/Casey-CA2-Music.pdf. Pages 29 and following, found at that link to Section Two, deals with a few implications of using contemporary songs in a cappella settings.


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