Finding Tunes for the Text

Dear Zion,

Last time we saw that what we sing to God in our lyrics and musical text is the most important thing for selecting music in worship services. In fact, what we sing even takes precedence over how we sing, or in other words, the tune, arrangement, and harmony. We can all agree that the music should reflect the mood and substance of our songs, but what other guidelines should churches consider when thinking about the musical tune of the text?

If the text has priority over tune, then we must select musical arrangements that speak to the whole spectrum of biblical emotion. Music affects our emotions; in fact, that is one of the chief beauties of good music. John Calvin, the great Reformer, noted that, “…we find by experience that music has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another.”[1] Since music can move our hearts so profoundly, we must be careful to select music that evokes the emotions Scripture commands us to sing about. In worship, people will and should experience grief (Psalm 6:7), hope (Psalm 62:5), humility (Psalm 51), joy (Philippians 4:4), and “reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). These emotions will overlap, also, so that we “rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11) and are “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (II Corinthians 6:10). If our musical style either confuses us with no emotions – as some hymns can do – or if the music repetitively maintains the same emotional pitch – as some contemporary songs may do – we are losing the rich emotional experience that Scripture reminds us of as we come into the presence of our holy Lord.

Secondly, if text has priority over tune, then the dominant “sound” of our singing should be the congregational voice. Many churches have a certain “style” or “sound” that they try to cultivate. But Scripture commands us to make our corporate voices the main “style” of our singing. Psalm 22:3 reminds us that the Lord sits enthroned on the praises of His people. Therefore, the tunes we select must be appropriate for a congregation to sing. We have childrens’ voices and grandparents’ voices, sopranos and basses, trained and untrained musicians, and choir members and those new to music; but in corporate worship, we all lift our voices up to the Lord together in praise “to make a joyful noise” (Psalm 98:4). Further, any instruments used to accompany the singing should aid the congregation’s voice, but not overwhelm it. If you tend to think that you can only really “experience” worship when there’s an amazing guitar solo, a “grooving” beat, or when the organ really belts it out, what place do you give to the congregational voice?

Thirdly, if text has priority over tune, then we should strive to select musical arrangements that will be as enduring as our texts. Time and again, Scripture reminds us of the permanence of God’s Word. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:18 that heaven and earth will pass away before the law of the Lord will change. And so if our text is driven by God’s Word by singing psalms and biblical words, the music that we use should be equally long-lasting. Our hymnals have songs in them that have withstood the test of time, and have been sung by God’s people throughout the ages. Nevertheless, even in our hymnals there are songs which do not seem so timeless, and many of the newer contemporary songs have not been tested by time. We have sung “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” for over 500 years, and we will continue for hundreds more if Christ tarries. But does anyone think we will be singing “Shine Jesus, Shine” or “The Butterfly Song” hundreds of years from now? When we write new songs, these should strive for durability as well.

In all of these things, we strive to improve, and yet selecting music is an art, not a science. The emphasis continues to remain on having biblically sound words. Next month, we’ll consider how to get along with other Christians when we cannot always agree on what song is the best.

Praying for worship that is faithful to the glory of God in tune and text,
Pastor Brian

[1] John Calvin, “Preface” to the Genevan Psalter (1545), p. 3. This quotation is from an English translation (from the Calvini Opera, vol. 6, pp. 172ff) by Charles Garside, Jr. as part of an unpublished bachelor’s thesis at Princeton University.

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