I. Tempus Crawlus
II. Beatus Leapfrogus
I. Tempus Crawlus. In the movie Speed, the bus went through blockages. In the typical a cappella church assembly, the congregation doesn’t make it through the speed roadblocks very effectively. Speed of music — known by the Italian word tempo — is significant in the human musical experience, and bad tempos can block worship.
This much is presumed obvious: a tempo can be 1) too quick or 2) too slow. It can also be “just right,” within a window of acceptability. On the one hand, if a song is too quick, people can hardly catch their breath. They may temporarily feel a sense of excitement, but the excitement turns out to be fleeting and shallow. Whatever the main goal in church music is, it is not to rush things to the point that no one can breathe or think. (Remember, here, that “upbeat” is a reasonable goal for some assembly activities, but that word describes a mood, not a tempo.)
More commonly in a cappella churches, though, song tempos are too slow. “O Happy Day,” which happens to have been #162 in the hymnal I grew up with, was the epitome of songs mocked because of slow tempo. Leaving alone for a moment the truth that one can be happy or joyful without being lickety-split fast, we can also acknowledge that gospel songs like “O Happy Day” and “Blessed Assurance” and “Anywhere with Jesus,” when sung too slowly, can cast a death-pall over a church hall. Besides a lifeless mood, another result of slow tempos is otherwise unnecessary breathing in the middle of phrases and clauses. When it takes too long to get through a sentence, we need extra air! Textually extraneous breaths, in turn, can go hand in hand with a lack of understanding on the part of those singing.
Using the same tempo for everything is plain and boring. Singing too fast is as unwise as singing too slowly. Leaders should take care to aim for a variety of appropriate tempos in church music.
II. Beatus Leapfrogus. Beat-skipping continues to be the main bane of vain Church of Christ attempts to sing without instruments. (This is a syndrome essentially unique to a cappella group singing, since in instrumental accompaniments there is almost always a regular, impossible-to-ignore beat.) Although the problem of leap-frogging over beats is most often experienced in contemporary songs conceived with instrumental accompaniment, this roadblock can be experienced in virtually any song that contains a sustained note.
Take just about any song that has a melodic note that lasts for more than a couple of beats. “I Love You, Lord” and “Breathe” and “Refiner’s Fire” come to mind. Shoot — even “10,000 Reasons,” which is popular for several good reasons, has a 7-beat melodic rest for instrumentals. When the time for sustaining comes, the duration is nearly impossible for impatient a cappellists to endure! In more “hymnic” styles, the problem is less pronounced, but still present. Think these words in an appropriately moderate tempo: “A -bide with me. Fast falls the e-ven-tide.” The syllable “tide” should last for 4 beats, yet many leaders will be heard to leap over 1-1.5 beats.
In a real sense, beat-skipping and too-fast tempos are symptom of the same malady: nervous impatience. For more on tempo in congregational music, see here and here and here and here. (Really. This stuff is important enough that I keep writing about it.)
Tempus crawlus (and its more rare cousin, tempus fugit) and beatus leapfrogus constitute rhythmic roadblocks to congregational worship.