A Bit on Psalmody

As many of you know, I’ve been collaborating on a project to set Psalms antiphonally to be sung during worship. I just finished Book I of the Psalter, and I’m considering making this collection publically available in booklet form.

But the question remains – why? Not only, why antiphonal psalms, but why psalms, or why sing? Why is it important to carefully consider the music we use for worship?

This article from Johanan Rakkav answers these questions beautifully. I’ll summarize his points here and make some comments of my own.

  1. “The melody, harmony and rhythm are in proper order and balance.” This is interesting first of all because even Haïk-Vantoura’s system only describes a melody. Although I’m not a proponent of strict monophony as James Jordan is, the biblical text seems to give no specific reason for harmony.
  2. “The modal palette is diatonic-chromatic and rich in variety.”
  3. “The ornaments are clear, precise and limited in principle to at most three notes on a syllable.” This is from the fact that Haïk-Vantoura’s system never has more than three notes in a single melisma.
  4. “The ambitus of the melody is limited to the normal human vocal range.”
  5. “The harmonic structure is rich, yet simple and well-organized.”
  6. “The music is reserved and respectful in its attitude toward God.” We are not trying to draw attention to the performer when we sing, however beautiful our melodies might be. The melody always should point towards God.
  7. “The music makes the words easier, not harder to understand.”
  8. “The emotions expressed by the music run the gamut of Godly human experience.” This is probably one of the more difficult things to achieve.
  9. “The music was intended to be accompanied by suitable acoustic instruments.” Pianos, maybe guitars, in modern terms. The accompaniment should accompany, not overwhelm. This is why I am strongly opposed to organs as a worship instrument. There is a reason it is called the king of instruments – it plays second fiddle to no one, and that includes the human voice. Any church with an organ will most likely have weak singing instead of robust roaring war songs. An organ (and similarly played instruments that overwhelm) are good in themselves, but they render true biblical singing extremely difficult and often downright impossible.
  10. “The music (thanks to its melody, harmonic structure, and rhythm, in that order) goes out of its way to avoid confusion between spirituality and sensuality.” This addresses the use of instruments such as bass drums or bass guitars, and similar instruments designed to invoke a visceral response. Again, there is nothing wrong with those sorts of things necessarily, but their use in worship should be extremely limited. I would add, though, that “Spiritual” does not mean quiet and contemplative. The Spirit is loud, roaring, and often violent, and that’s what Spiritual means. So there might be a place where instruments of this sort would be allowed, but I believe our current understanding of this is too immature to consider those options.
  11. “The music as a whole was created and performed by inspired “professionals”.” This is true…under the Old Covenant, when every act of worship was performed or overseen by a trained professional or intermediary. In the New Covenant, we are all called to draw near to the throne of God, and thus are required to train ourselves in the art of worship as far as our gifts allow.
  12. “The music suits the lyrics and shares a common inspiration.” A great deal of modern hymns are a mishmash of tunes and words that fit metrically and thus are paired together in our hymnals. It’s not often that the music is written for a specific hymn or psalm. However, to ensure that the music complements the words, the music must be composed specifically for the lyrics in order to convey the correct emotions and frame of mind.
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9 comments

  1. thecoldcomposure

    I know this is an old post, but I have writers block, and I’m trying to find something to sharpen my intellectual claws on. Also, I haven’t read your blog in ages, so I’m catching up. Here’s my evaluation of summary of the basic points you gave.
    “The melody, harmony and rhythm are in proper order and balance”–Sounds a bit Platonic to me. Since I am genetically constituted to be a Calvinist, I like things that have proper order and balance (Bach, other Baroque Composers), but I don’t know if it is a Scriptural imperative that worship music needs to have these kinds of things. It seems like it takes more of a Greek view of art than a Judaistic view. More thoughts on this to come.
    “The modal palette is diatonic-chromatic and rich in variety.”–Can’t disagree with that. Modern worship music is terribly stale.
    “The ornaments are clear, precise and limited in principle to at most three notes on a syllable.”–No problem with that, either.
    “The ambitus of the melody is limited to the normal human vocal range.”–No problem with this as well. Ambitus is an awesome sounding word. It sounds like it should be the name of a metal band.
    “The harmonic structure is rich, yet simple and well-organized”–I agree. I miss harmony.
    “The music is reserved and respectful in its attitude toward God.”–As much as I wish I had some clever remark to put here, I can’t disagree with this either. Respect towards God in the way we do art is something that many Christian communities have neglected to think about.
    “The music makes the words easier, not harder to understand.”–This is important. One of the toughest struggles I have in songwriting is making the words fit the music in an adequate way. Err to one side, and you have music and lyrics that are totally incompatible and sound awkward; err to the other side, and the music and lyrics flow well, but don’t mean anything. This is tough, and so much modern worship music does a very shabby job of blending music and lyrics together.
    “The emotions expressed by the music run the gamut of Godly human experience.” –Amen, amen, amen. I have been very disappointed at how emotionally limited modern worship music is. It gives the impression that Christians have the emotional depth of a two year old. Joy, suffering, contemplation, wonder–all are compressed to fit the dictates of the I-V-vi-IV chord progression with the lead guitarist doing a bad impression of The Edge from U2. You cannot express serious emotion with uninspired pop music. Worship music is not serving the emotional needs of the church, especially those who have serious struggles. When I am worshiping, I don’t want to be told that “everything is fine.”
    “The music was intended to be accompanied by suitable acoustic instruments.”–Agree. I’m not opposed to electric instruments in theory, but they usually don’t work well in practice. I agree with you about the organ. For me, the organ gives the impression that worship is stately, dull, dismal and old-fashioned–like an exaggerated caricature of Calvinism. I think it carries far too much baggage as an instrument to be effective in worship. It’s also very hard to play.
    “The music (thanks to its melody, harmonic structure, and rhythm, in that order) goes out of its way to avoid confusion between spirituality and sensuality.” –Not quite sure what is meant by this. I can agree with this in some ways–we don’t want the sanctuary to become a divine mosh pit–but I feel like this might set up an unagreeable “Spirit/Flesh” dichotomy. It feels like Greek aesthetics creeping in, giving us a division between the “spiritual” realm of good and the “earthly” realm of evil, instead of using an Incarnational aesthetic. I like your comments about the Spiritual not merely being quite and contemplative. Question: How would we relate this to other cultures? Someone from a global South background or even from a black American Church background is not likely to start using antiphonal psalms. What do we do in this case? I don’t think we can reject other styles of music entirely just because they aren’t Western, but at the same time, I don’t want to fall into the kind of cheap relativism that insists that shabby art is just as good as quality art because the shabby art is “different.”
    “The music as a whole was created and performed by inspired “professionals”–Your commentary on this was great.
    “The music suits the lyrics and shares a common inspiration.”–Another great point, and I think that I dealt with this earlier. There are some hymns with very dark lyrics paired with bright melodies, which jar the senses when they are sung.

    • MadDawg Scientist

      I would be very interested to see your thoughts on balance. I think this derives a great deal from the natural world, in that there is One Author, and therefore there is a kind of balance in all that He does. Though I do agree that we don’t know exactly what this looks like in music (yet, anyway).

      Spirituality/sensuality: I think what is meant here is the fact that music makes us *feel* a certain way (happy, sad, repentant, etc.) is not necessarily (and probably not) helpful for our spiritual lives. I agree with your warnings about Greek aesthetics; however, I don’t quite think that’s his point.

      Concerning different cultures: we use antiphonal Psalms in our responsive readings in worship. It’s taken our Deep South congregation a while to get used to them (present company included) and even after a few years, it doesn’t quite seem natural. I think it’s one of those things we have to bring in gradually. because it’s hard to do new things. I think there is a place for stylistic variation, but I think the ability to do this correctly comes with maturity. We (Americans, mostly) have lost this musical maturity, so we have to start with the ABCs (antiphonals) before we can write our own stories and move on to greater, more glorious things. It’s obvious to me (from the wealth of glorious traditional music) that this is where we should head, but if you’re going to write “A Tale of Two Cities” you have to know the alphabet pretty well first.

      • thecoldcomposure

        1. I would be interested to see my thoughts on balance as well. It is an important subject with far too little material written on it. It does derive from the Natural World, but the natural world is not a place of perfect symmetry. God created the world with the touch of an artist, even an eccentric artist.
        2. I would agree that worship music should aim for more than a simple emotional response. The goal should be a combination of emotional and intellectual response, avoiding the extremes of mindless emotionalism (the charismatic fallacy) and cold rationalism (the Calvinist fallacy).
        3. Good point about stylistic variation coming with maturity, and needing to start with the ABCs. We’ve lowered the bar for Worship Music in America, and the results have not been pretty. I still would not use antiphonals if I were the worship leader of a church in somewhere like Uganda (In fact, I might not use antiphonals if I were the worship leader anywhere), but I think the principle is a good one.

      • MadDawg Scientist

        Something I would have added to his article that perhaps clarifies my own position: worship is warfare. Our music should reflect that and train us in it. How this relates to worship music has been the big question since 33 AD, sans the last 200 years of American Christianity

        The antiphonal style can get quite complicated at times: the most common application is in plainsong chanting, which uses a very simple repeating melody for the call and response. The Psalms are written in antiphonal style but not plainsong style. However, when you’re just beginning to learn the antiphonal style, plainsong is a good place to start. That’s what we do right now in our church for the responsive reading (which now has been terminologically replaced by “Antiphonal Psalm” in the liturgy, which is a good sign). I hope to move more towards the varied melodies present in the psalter (moving from glory to glory), but despite where we go, we gotta start with the Psalms.

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