The nature of music

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 4.

Music, by common consent, has three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm.

  1. Melody is what we normally call the ‘tune’—what you can whistle.
  2. Harmony is the pleasing combination of sounds, where the melody is enhanced by harmonising notes sung or played at the same time as it. This is the essence of part-singing.
  3. Rhythm is the beat.

music natureGood music, of whatever genre, combines these three elements in balanced proportion. Sometimes one element will be in the limelight, sometimes another. No one element should consistently dominate the other two.

Here’s where the guitar can be a dangerous instrument. When played in strumming-style—as it tends to be in church band settings (as distinct from, say, classical Spanish-guitar music)—the rhythm element tends to dominate all the time.

Some Christians have lined up the three elements with the three aspects of our personhood: body, soul and spirit. Rhythm is the ‘body’ bit; it gets you clapping your hands and tapping your foot. Harmony is the ‘soul’ bit, stirring the emotions by its beauty in a way nothing else can. And melody is the ‘spirit’ bit, reflecting our response to the Holy Spirit of God, who witnesses with our own spirit as we worship.

While it would not be wise to push this correlation too far, it does provide a helpful insight into the way we might better play our music in a worship context.

Is rhythm the dominating feature? If so, how can we moderate it? Is there sufficient melody (tune) for people to be able to grasp it fairly readily and so enter into the song with enthusiasm? Is the song structured in such a way that people with a natural gift for harmonising can add depth and beauty to the singing by doing so in a congregational setting?

Speaking from my experience in churches over many years, I would like to see the domination of rhythm-based instruments reduced. It is lovely, for instance, when someone plays a violin or flute. And it’s great to have a competent, play-by-ear keyboard-player, too, who will do more than simply ape the guitar chords. This is particularly helpful when we sing more traditional hymns and carols, for which guitars are eminently unsuitable.

All this is relevant to singing in tongues or, as it is sometimes called, ‘singing in the Spirit’. In my judgment, and on past experience, guitars should never accompany singing in tongues. By its very nature it is a ‘spirit’ activity—the very last setting where dominant rhythm is appropriate. A sensitive background from a keyboard can be helpful, but more often than not it is far better if all the instruments fall silent and just let the best instruments of all, the voices of God’s people, range free.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]

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