Just give me the words, then

ppt lyr




I’ve written quite a bit – both on this blog and in personal correspondence – about the logical imperative for providing notated music in church gatherings.  (Here is one rather impassioned essay that deals with this topic.  And here is another, shorter, punchier one.)

Today, a few contrasting thoughts.

First off:  if the notation is going to have a mistake or some other disconnect every line or two, reading it can be almost as distracting as not having notated music to follow at all.

Now, I understand that many “contemporary” (a vague, often carelessly used term, but a fairly helpful one, nonetheless) songs are difficult to notate for congregational use.  “Here I Am To Worship” and “We Bow Down” (10 and 30 years old, respectively—are they both “contemporary”?) are two examples that include some syncopation.[1]  Syncopation is frequently ignored either in a cappella and other musical arrangements, or in the actual singing, or in both.

Aside:  there is more about syncopation, in congregational a cappella singing, in my book The Christian Assembly:  Worship Concepts, Trends, and Leadership with Purpose.

For some music readers, the disparity between a) what is written and b) what is sung constitutes a distraction.  They are faced with a choice of 1) singing it right, or . . . no, wait . . . they’re not singing it that way here in this church . . . should I keep the accuracy because Sara and Whitney are listening to me for help, or should I gravitate to what most people seem to be singing? . . . and by that time, 1 to 5 seconds later, the worshipful moment is probably lost.

“Amazing Grace,” believe it or not, is another one that simply needs to be notated differently.  The primary problem comes mid-song, on the word “me” in the first stanza.  The question is whether it’s a tonic (I-chord) harmonization or a dominant V-chord that’s to be sung.  The more “purist” types of hymnals, including some Great Songs of the Church versions, Praise for the Lord, and the Methodist Hymnal, use the I6 harmony exclusively.  My head hears that just fine, having grown up with it.  Most hymnals I have in my collection provide the other option, though — the more common-man, V-chord harmony.  The common expectation – and obviously I know that most people don’t know the technical terms, but they hear and expect nonetheless – is the V chord there.  Call it more “natural,” more common, more Appalachian, or whatever.  The fact is, most people expect and sing notes from the V/dominant chord.

There are two main points here:

  1. I and some others are distracted enough by such sight-to-sound disconnects that we think and write about them.
  2. Those who notate music would do well to consider notating things the way they’re sung, and/or teaching people to sing songs the way they’re notated.

So, if there’s going to be a notable disconnect in the notation, just give me the words, then.  Don’t provide music notation at all, because it’s not worth reading it if all it’s going to do is distract.  (Yes, it’s a curse, but it happens pretty much every Sunday for me, and I wish someone would do something about it.)


[1] Syncopation may be briefly defined as rhythmic patterns that accentuate sounds that are off the beat.

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