What is 'Good' Christian Music?
Date added: 21/09/2016
WHAT IS ‘GOOD’ CHRISTIAN MUSIC?
Rev’d Dr Sidney L Green
Following on from the fascinating article also published on this site ‘The Five Ways Music Contributes to Our Spiritual Lives’,by Frederick W Schmidt, in which he investigates the answer to the question, “Can you explain what role that music plays in worship and in the spiritual lives of those who attend church?” The article raises some interesting and important questions about the results experienced through music making in church. Schmidt seems to agree with the twelfth-century mystic, theologian, abbess and preacher Hildegard von Bingen who saw music as an all-inclusive prism through which could be expressed all the wonders of both heaven and earth.
“Music was, to her, the sacred technology which could best tune humanity, redirect our hearts toward heaven and put our feet back onto the wholesome pathways that will lead us to God.”
It seems to me, however, that there is a question that needs to be asked before we make judgements about the results we can expect from the use of music in worship and that is, ‘What sort of music will produce these spiritual results that we long for? In other words, ‘What is ‘good’ Christian music?’
It might be assumed that we need first of all to discuss what 'good' music is before we can go on to talk about good 'Christian' music, Yet we are aware immediately that to pontificate on this matter is to throw ourselves open to the criticism of being snobs, upright or inverted, depending on the definition given. On the other hand, to talk straightaway about `Christian' music is to assume that there is such a thing as music that is in essence 'Christian' over against other 'pagan' forms.
'Why should the devil have all the best tunes ?' cried William Booth, and so began the Salvation Army practice of putting new words to what were originally popular 'worldly songs'. They tried to 'Christianise' what was essentially pagan. However, Charles Cleall in his fascinating analysis of rhythms and other features of music, argues that certain moods are evoked by particular rhythms, of which some are so sensuous as to be beyond 'Christianising'. In his defence one has only to listen to some of the sensuous 'pop' music of today, more often than not now inextricably linked with video productions that have obvious highly sexual references, to find it hard to imagine how such music could be anything but pagan. However, it is difficult to put a finger on particular music, of any style and in any context and to be able to say that, to all listeners, it is overtly Christian and could be nothing else.
If it is difficult to define 'good' music or 'Christian' music in the nebulous terms that these two adjectives evoke we must be more utilitarian in our approach. The description 'good' can have no meaning apart from the context in which it is used. It is a relative term. For example what may be 'good' music for a 'Dancing with Stars' dance couple on television is unlikely to be 'good' for the massed Brigade of Guards on a formal parade at Buckingham Palace. What makes any music 'good' is, surely, how well it is suited to the purpose for which it is being used. This utilitarian approach may not please those who like to be thought of as purists in this field but without it the decision as to what is 'good' or not becomes simply a matter of personal preference and upon such we cannot pass judgment.
In 1957 the revised edition of the Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Committee ‘Music in Church’ was published. It listed four factors which it considered as having equal importance in the matter of selecting music for use in Christian worship.
(a) It should be a fitting expression of the words; the words matter most.
(b) It should be good as music.
(c) It should be in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy.
(d) It should be fitted to the conditions existing in the church for which it is required.
In the light of our definition of 'good' music, point (b) can be considered met if all the remaining points are fulfilled. Although in 1957 no-one could have foreseen the revolution which was to take place in music, both classical and popular, during the 1960’s to the present day, these three remaining factors are still worth considering as a framework for our thinking.
- 1. A fitting expression of the words.
One could begin by asking the question, 'Why were words ever set to music in the first place?' or more simply, 'Why do humans sing?' Surely the answer to this is that music adds an extra dimension of its own to the emotion expressed in the words. Music, by its very nature, is involved with the emotions - we sing for joy or we mourn with a lament. When words are expressing something that affects us deeply and emotionally, the addition of music can be an aid to that expression.
If this is so then there are certain points that become immediately obvious. Firstly, not all of the words used in worship, liturgical or otherwise, are suitable to set to music. This is not to deny emotional feeling in these areas but rather to affirm that there are other parts of the liturgy where emotion is more naturally explicit in the words such as, of course, the Gloria or the Sursum Corda in the Eucharist. On the other hand the Prayers and, some would argue, the Creed are not suitable for the addition of music being more naturally said than sung. This will raise the vexed question of whether the versicles and responses in the Daily Offices should be sung. Having heard certain ministers attempting the impossible there is certainly a case for them being said in some circumstances! To put music where it is not required only serves to destroy the many benefits it can bring where rightly used.
Secondly, the tunes, both melody and harmony, to which either the liturgy or more particularly the words of hymns are set must reflect accurately the mood found in the words. It is highly debatable whether or not there is such a thing as a completely 'neutral' tune which, as long as the words fit the metre, will 'do' for any hymn. Yet this belief seems perpetuated in the practice of grouping tunes metrically so that the choice of tune is arrived at rather like the permutation on a football pools coupon. It would appear that the most suitable tunes are usually those that were actually written with the particular words being sung in mind. A few years ago this might have seemed an impossible search but it is not quite so difficult today with many traditional hymns having more than one tune written for them. So many of our hymns have become so wedded to traditional tunes that congregations find it very hard to admit that they do not do justice to the words. They simply like singing the tune. Yet, in the atmosphere that prevails of continuing liturgical experiment and reform, linked with the publication of completely new and modern books of songs for worship, original tunes written either for traditional words or for original words are more easily available.
We cannot leave this topic without mentioning the psalms, especially as they form such an important feature of Anglican worship and are more often than not sung. If we are honest there are very few ordinary worshippers who actually enjoy singing the psalms and canticles to the usual Anglican chant. There may be some who profess to enjoy them, but, when pressed, the enjoyment is more likely to be found in the sense of achievement felt when a long and particularly difficult psalm has been successfully completed. The tunes of the chants are featureless and lacking a recognisable rhythm. Even the best of pointing is an obstacle to the untrained (and even the trained!) singer. This is found to be true even of worshippers who have been singing psalms in the usual way for years. It is often said that it is this practice of chanting the psalms that keeps many non-churchgoers from attending Anglican worship regularly. No-one denies the aesthetic beauty of the choir of King's College, Cambridge singing the Penitential Psalms, but there is little beauty, let alone worship, in the sight and sound of a congregation struggling to sing their way through a psalm set to an obscure chant. Here is an example of where it would be better to say the words, if the church concerned insists on keeping to the Prayer Book versions or the Revised Psalter form. The well known paraphrases can sometimes meet a need here although theologically and liturgically they have been found questionable. Newer forms of the psalms for singing have now been published and the music for these are much easier for a congregation to grasp than chanting. It seems strange that musicians are still attempting to write new forms of psalms for chanting, for even the very clever system of Joseph Gelineau leaves most ordinary congregations cold.
2. In keeping with the Spirit of the Liturgy.
Apart from what has been noted above, the moves towards liturgical reform and experiment have brought us to the situation where we have the possibility of using rites that are varied in style and language reflecting either the seventeenth or the twentieth century. This brings with it problems about church music that our forefathers rarely had to face. As well as being a fitting expression of the words, music must be stylistically suitable for the setting in which it is used. In other words, it is not really helpful to have twenty-first century music and/or words for hymns that express quite clearly twenty-first century concepts and thought forms in a service where the liturgy retains forms of archaic language. If we are using twenty-first century rites we should try, whenever possible, to use twenty-first century music and words and not those from the nineteenth century and earlier, of which our traditional hymn books are full. This is not to rule out all the traditional hymns but to suggest that much care should be taken in choosing those that do not contain obsolete words and deliberate archaisms.
Of course, the demand for good twentieth century hymns at the moment far exceeds supply. Here is a challenge for the hymnwriter and the composer of today. The Church is in need, and this need is eloquently voiced by Kenneth Long.
'What we so desperately need at the moment is a large number of new hymns relevant to modern needs. In an age of atheism, communism, the napalm bomb, international strife, religious hatred, racial tensions, colour prejudice, callous materialism and a terrifying catalogue of social evils, can do not better than to cling to an image of a milksop Jesus leading his trembling sheep to a land of white robes and carbuncles? Such tired, irrelevant imagery colours too much of our Christian thinking and alienates many people from any organised religion.' 
3. It should be fitted to the conditions existing in the Church for which it is required.
'Conditions' here could equally well refer to the people who make up the church or the bricks and mortar of the building itself for both of these could have a dramatic affect upon the choice of music. Very often the acoustic properties, pillars or screens, pews or draughts will be responsible for enfeebling the musical life of any congregation in certain buildings. We are thrown back again to our definition of 'good' music. It is the suitability of any music for a given congregation that will make it either good or bad. What may be 'good' for one congregation will not necessarily be 'good' for another. We have all experienced what happens when a mediocre choir attempts to sing something that is too advanced for them or is just not their style. How much better are the results obtained by knowing ourselves and our own standards and limitations. There is no snobbery implied here but simply acknowledging ourselves to be ourselves. This dictum of 'Be yourself' applies very clearly in the choice of music for a local congregation. Every congregation is different and it is no sign of spiritual maturity or determination to be struggling with the musical side of worship in order to keep up with the Joneses in the next parish, What is essential is that a congregation should enjoy its music and find in it an aid to worship rather than an obstacle to be overcome.
We recognise that within any Christian community there will be genuine differences in musical appreciation and standards. However, what we are pleading for is not a stale uniformity or deliberate mediocrity but that each group allows for the others within the body of Christ and that a common desire to see each other built up through worship is fostered.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Can 'Christian' music be written only be convinced Christians ?
2. Is it better to sing something, even if not really suitable, than to sing nothing at all?
3. How can the musical 'condition' of a congregation be assessed ?
Rev’d. Dr. Sidney Green felt the call to ministry after nearly eight years as a military musician having trained at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall in the UK and serving in many countries in Europe and Canada. He emigrated from the UK to Adelaide in 2004 with his wife Jackie after 42 years of ministry as both a parish priest and a teacher.
During his time in this diocese, while technically retired, he has been constantly busy with locum ministry and lecturing.
He graduated from Kings College, London University with a Diploma in Theology and a Bachelor of Divinity and a Master of Theology. In retirement he gained his Doctor of Theology from Tabor College, Adelaide in 2013. He also has a Combined Certificate for the Ritual, History and Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church from the Institut de Theologie Orthodoxe, Paris and the Institut Oecumenique, Geneva 1972
He is an Adjunct Lecturer for Charles Sturt University School of Theology in Liturgical Theology and Ecclesiastical History at St. Barnabas College, Adelaide.
He is also Post-Doctoral Research Fellow of the Graeme Clark Research Institute, Adelaide.
 Peter van Poucke, Introduction to ‘Hildegard of Bingen. Symphonia harmoniae caelestium revelationum.’, St. Pieters & Paulus ABDIJ. Ms. COD. 9. Facsimile. Peer, Belgium: Alamire, 1991.
 See ‘Music and Holiness’ by Charles Cleall, (Epworth 1964).
 See ‘Music in the Church’ – Revised edition, (Church of England Information Office, 1957)
 While we no longer (it is hoped) sing hymns that contain such phrases as, 'Wail of Euroclydon', or 'Travelling through Idume's summer', although they are still found in standard hymnbooks, there are still many words and expressions that could leave the uninitiated perplexed. Some examples are: ‘abode; awful Father; bedewing; behest; bowers; divers mansions; harbinger; heavenly guerdon; Come my soul, thy suit prepare; There is a book who runs may read; With carbuncles do shine……’
 ‘The Music of the English Church’, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971)