Mixed-up, messed-up

Once upon a time, on a Sunday . . .

Many hyphens were missing  — and just as many hyphens, duplicated.
There were ties that should have been slurs.
There were notes written off the beat that were sung on the beat (and vice versa).
There were 16th notes sung as 8ths, and 8ths sung as quarters.
(All the above is based on one song’s PowerPoint slides.)

There were poppish, me-focused words shoe-horned in with worship words.
There were underscores used in two different ways in the notation.
There was a mixed metaphor — in the same line, God was asked to reign and to flow.

The above relates to the material being used in congregational singing — material that should have been prepared with better quality.  I was thankful, by the way, that there were no women singing tenor an octave too high.  That over-zealous practice makes an upside-down mess of the sonic state of affairs, too.

A great deal of the problem can be summed up in these words:  disconnect between the visual and the sonic/aural.  

Now, I’m in a minority here, and I know it.  I suspect that less than 1% of the churchians out experience anything like my heightened awareness of all this.  But I also suspect that if the the visual and sonic were better connected, things would be much better.¹  Most of the other folks wouldn’t be able to identify why,but they would benefit from the new coherence just the same.

Having spent countless hours following music scores while either audiating or auditing a recording doesn’t help.  Score study and close attention to detail are part and parcel of who I am.  My only choices appear to be 1) deny this huge component of me, have a section of my brain cut out, and stop doing what I’m paid to do in my vocational life; 2) take over every congregational process in my path, or 3) stay distracted during musical sections of gathered worship.  Since (1) and (2) really aren’t viable options, I’m kind of stuck with (3).

In the real-time working out of some of the songs referred to above, on that isolated-but-oh-so-typical Sunday morning, the pulse was destroyed by constant, visual beat-division that not only distracted but also slowed several songs down.  The leader might have felt the congregation was dragging, but his own arm was the main problem:  he was turning on its head a basic principle of the visual evocation of musical pulse.

This problem is often seen in lesser-trained band conductors, not to mention a lot of cheer-leadery song leaders who’re desperate to get things moving, while ironically having the opposite effect by “pumping things up” with their arms.  For an example, see this video from the Harding University lectures last fall, and notice

  • 1:08-1:22 (“The Battle Belongs to the Lord”) — not a bad tempo, really, but way too much division of beat
  • the beginning and ending tempos of “Marching to Zion” (which begins 3:12) — radically slower toward the end, likely largely the result of an over-divided beat pattern
  • the beginning of “Blessed Be your Name” near 6:35

In pointing to that Harding lectureship leader, whom I do not know, I am not intending to be unkind.  He appears to be strong-voiced and enthusiastic about good things, and I’m sure he loves God.  He is simply unskilled in the use of the hand/arm to evoke musical sound, and he unintentionally creates a disconnect between the visual and the sonic.

For my part:  I find it nearly impossible to worship when stuff is so mixed-up and disconnected.

Please don’t bother suggesting, “You need to chill out.”   That would be unhelpful.

B. Casey, date undisclosed (but it wasn’t 6/28 or 7/5)

¹ This Rx begs an acknowledgment—namely, that another disconnect is far more eternally significant:  the disconnect between 1) what we read in scripture and 2) how we live.

3 thoughts on “Mixed-up, messed-up

  1. godschildrenorg 07/09/2015 / 6:25 pm

    Oh, Brian…is it true–only 2% of the general population appreciate classical music? Now, I’m wondering what % of the population even notices music notations, or has a clue what you are talking about. I was thinking this morning about how my appreciation of the types of music was shaped by 1. My father’s tenor voice singing classical music when he was doing things at home. 2. My 4 years in high school choir, and 2 years in A Capella at ACC 3. 4 years in high school band with excellent directors for all those groups. If it comforts you any…last night, I would not let myself go to sleep because I was listening to Beethoven’s piano concertos! Take comfort…you are not going to chill unless you unlearn all of your training! You are just fine like you are…in my opinion! Aunt Anne currently in Dallas, TX.


    • Brian Casey 07/11/2015 / 8:11 am

      Truth be told, I’m probably almost as concerned over the public’s taste in secular music and so-called “artists.” 🙂 As the “art” goes, so goes the populus. (Good thing this is temporary world.) I do listen to classic rock and a bit of jazz sometimes … and wish I knew more acoustic folk, where you can actually hear the words and the soul, and there is even a real tune!

      The music notation-in-congregational-music thing is a continual bug for me on two levels: personal and congregational. I can’t do much about either level, it seems.

      Have had some good discussion on this post on Facebook. May end up pasting all that in here…. Thanks for affirming my status quo once again. 🙂


  2. Brian Casey 07/12/2015 / 11:41 am

    These comments shared via Facebook:
    Galen Harrill:
    Brian – I’m certainly not musically trained like you are, but there was a time when we were more musically literate in our churches. A couple of observations:
    1. Some now want to get rid of musical notes completely because they are deemed too distracting. I don’t think you want to go there, but my reasons for not wanting to go there are:
    a. Harmonies are muddied as alto, tenor and base have to guess where to go, and each individual “speaks” their interpretation of things differently.
    b. Timing is also muddied for the same reasons
    c. We are speeding up the process of musical ignorance in our churches. For a cappella congregations, this is suicidal. In some places, I think this may be intentional suicide.
    2. In the case of your Harding example, laziness or ignorance is obvious in the singers themselves. Even when a song leader is spot on, congregations drag, leaving the leader with a few options, two I list here:
    a. Admonish the congregation to keep up before every song.
    b. Slow down himself so he’s not running away from the bulk of singers.
    An interesting piece on Radio Lab on timing demonstrates we are wired for a certain comfort zone in pace. The take-away for me was that a slight working-over in pace might actually force us to think through our singing a bit more, and might squeeze more meaning out of what we are singing. I have the link here: http://www.radiolab.org/story/269783-speedy-beet/
    3. Many of our newer songs are now deemed and classified as “irregular” in timing. Indeed. And trying to figure out what exactly a dotted 16th note sounds like coupled with an 8th, a quarter or anything else is pert’ near impossible for us mere musical mortals so we again come up with a congregational consensus which may or may not have anything to do with what is actually written.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Brian Casey:
    Galen, thanks so much for writing all this out. To confirm: I’m absolutely with you on the need for notation (and in your decrying of suicide-by-removal-of-notation!). I believe in it even for churches that use instruments, although train wrecks are much less likely there. To remove notation is to suggest that we are not a literate society, most of whom had general music training in elementary and middle school, and most of whom can be helped, in some measure by music notation. (I’ve even heard the cry that music notation is “elitist.” Balderdash. No one says it should be a test of where you get to sit on Sunday, or that it’s a criterion for standing with the Lord.)

    As for your Rx . . . I don’t think 2.a. is a good idea — church people don’t react well to musically related exhortations, plus, it gets monotonous. I’m thinking that your 2.b. may come from experience with one or more song leaders who rush; my observation is that 90+% of the problem in a cappella churches is in the dragging/slow direction. (This reality is exacerbated by the musical reality, these days, that says that when you take away instruments from songs originally conceived with instruments, there’s a need to sing them faster to account for the lack of instrumental energy. So, the CofC groups that attempt pop Christian songs should often intentionally sing the songs faster than the tempos they know from the radio.)

    I just listened to the Radio Lab segment. Fun. It took a while to get to the crux for our purposes here– the “point of indifference.” Weird label, but point taken! I would counter by saying that the existence of this tempo threshold is a *problem* in human nature — we move toward our comfort zones. What we need is variety and appropriateness in such expressions. Not everything should be the same. That we gravitate to a tempo window around 94-96 beats per minute may be a reality (although the phrase “studies have shown” should always be followed by “but later studies may show otherwise”!). But trained musicians (after all, they have more insight into these things than the general populus) would generally agree that there is an acceptable tempo window, or even a precise tempo, *for each musical composition* — not one tempo window for every song or piece ever written. Each composition has its own qualities that lead to tempo decisions. 1920s blues songs would sound dumb at 120 BPM, and Sousa is dumb at 54 or 76. You get the idea. If this differentiation is the case in art music, I assert that it is also the case in church music. Tempos need to be different — although within a bit more conservative window than band music or string quartets.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “deemed and classified as “irregular.'” Most pop songs are pretty regular in terms of melody and meter. You may be referring to syncopation. The last time I heard syncopation done well in a congregational song was … never. 😐

    Galen Harrill Brian – Enjoying the fact that I am actually having this conversation as it is usually all one-sided in my head. By the way, I agree with you that 2a is not a good option, that different tempos are necessary and should be used for different types of songs, that syncopation has never been done well, and that we drag waaaaayyyyy too often on absolutely everything. As to irregularity, I”m refering mostly to the last edition of Howard’s book, which I don’t seem to have a copy of, so I’m going by memory….

    Brian Casey Conversations: good. smile emoticon The Songs of Faith and Praise designation might have referred to poetic meter. Remember the one-page index in Great Songs No. 2 that references hymn tune names? The tune name was followed by syllabic designations, e.g., “L.M.” (long meter”), “7,6,7,6” or “S.M.” (Simple Meter). I suppose many more modern poems are irregular in that sense. . . .

    Tony A. Mowrer I love good acappella singing but it’s been a very long time since I experienced it in worship. In my current fellowship, we have a pianist with two MA’s in music (performance and composition) accompanying us most of the time and we still use books with printed music so we don’t often experience the angst you describe. I well-remember that angst and steel myself against it before visiting Arkansas every summer.

    Brian Casey Yes, the use of books/hymnals can help immeasurably with the notation part. I’m kind of missing books. Whenever they’re pulled out, there’s often an apology for their use. Silly,. that. Anyway, the Paperless Hymnal (with which I have worked on the periphery with volumes 11 and 12) does a good job of editing — providing its users keep up with the revisions/updates.

    Brian Casey Arkansas Angst. I get that, too, unfortunately. AA can now mean something different for a few of us, I guess.

    Tony A. Mowrer: Very funny!

    Brian Hamby I was attending west over hills in 93 in Austin when the beginning of a lot of this started for the church of Christ. I won’t name the responsible party’s names. You might remember that the music notation at that time was just horrible. Not following any rules of taught and accepted music theory part writing. I tried to address it and my college music theory teacher who retired there also tried to address it. The majority won, we had no place in that environment.

    Brian Casey Brian — interesting insight from Austin. Maybe early Paperless Hymnal releases weren’t as well edited then. I don’t think I saw any of their slides till after 2000. There are revisions, and the editing is pretty good now. (I’ve helped with some of it.)  :-)

    My observation of some of the travelling praise teams that had their start in the 90s tells me that one, in particular, was unintentionally, uneducatedly turning four-part writing upside down. This popular arranger, with whom I had a nice sit-down once, confessed that he had no formal music training. People who heard those arrangements began to think that was the way to do it. Doubled 3rds, parallel motion galore, breaking voice leading rules right & left. I recently came across one of his arrangements that had a sustained, low, harmonic fourth in bass and tenor (bass on sol, tenor on do). Kind of Renaissance-y, if it were up an octave! But not good writing. You and I could make the case that some parallel motion makes sense if the poppish song basically imitates barre chords. But one has to know what he’s doing when he writes parallel 5ths, and most arrangers simply don’t know what they’re doing.

    The last comment you made is sadly resonant for me.


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