Music defines modern churches perhaps as clearly as their theology, at least from a consumer perspective. Large churches often hold an early, “old folks” service replete with organ, hymns and even a choir. Their later services will more likely be one with “words on the wall,” that is, choruses lead by a praise team. Assembled on the lines of a modern rock group it will lead the congregation that will all be singing in unison, without any display of musical notation.

While neither can be construed as right or wrong, where did our current, polarized church music choices originate? Our Faith asked Stephen F. Duncan, educator, clergyman, writer, researcher and general polymath, how we got to now.

In the early church, Duncan noted, the more musical parts were performed by the leader with the congregation responding with a series of short choruses.

“In its most basic form, we started with music from the Jewish synagogal service,” he said. “You can recognize some of that still today with the responsorial psalm many churches use in their services as well as the ‘alleluia’ at the gospel reading. It was a single line with the leader doing the hard parts and the assembly responding, often with hallelujah.”

Although the Old Testament often mentions instruments for worship, it may be that most of the earliest church worship was ‘a capella,’ or with voices alone.

As the church became more hierarchical and centralized, singing was mostly delegated to a professional class of musicians. The ancient Gregorian chants, dated from around the eighth century exemplified this.

“Music participated in this ritualistic movement; it rapidly became liturgical and clerical, the laity ceased to share in the worship of song and resigned this office to a chorus drawn from the minor clergy, and a highly organized body of chants, applied to every moment of the service, became almost the entire substance of worship music, and remained so for a thousand years,” penned Edward Dickinson in his book, Music in the history of the Western Church.

Chants were, and still are, a non-instrumental form of singing, but not one that just anyone could practice, Duncan noted.

“The Roman Church has ever-increasingly complex music with highly trained choir members or choir monks who spend their whole life in musical service to the Church,” he explained. “Music in services becomes increasingly complex with as many as 16 separate parts. To hear some of those works done in some of the great cathedrals for which they were written is awe-inspiring. But, you’d better be a very good musician if you want to take part.”

As technology improved, organs became available for major cathedrals which added instruments back into the mix, but the services were still sung in Latin, by experts with the congregation left in a sort of musical limbo.

The major change in church music through history, then, is generally traced to one man, the monk Martin Luther. It was he who dared to bring congregational singing in the common tongue to Sunday meetings, revolutionizing church music and introducing much of what we know today.

“Luther saw great value in the singing of hymns in the vernacular language,” Duncan said. “Originally called chorales, these were single-line melodies with the hymn pattern we recognize today. Some of the most famous hymns were written during his day. ‘Ein Feste Burg is Unser Gott,’ (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) became the anthem of the Reformers. It is also a tremendously good tune.”

It was out of this that our standard, four-part harmony consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB) was born. It is still the pattern in which most hymnals are scored. Singing in this fashion takes a modicum of musicality, but it doesn’t require a professional musician to master.

“Some things just sound right and everyone learns them,” Duncan said. “The pattern worked in Bach’s time, the Beatles used it and I still hear it on the radio every day.”

A number of church leaders beyond Luther were also composers including Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, Antonio Vivaldi and more. Some also had sidelines creating secular music, Duncan noted.

“Very few musicians could make a good living doing just church music,” he said. “If you weren’t a monk, you were probably doing secular music too, just to make ends meet.”

Lastly, then we come to the PowerPoint display of choruses projected in many local churches each week. Like the early church music, they are notation-free and musically undemanding. The SATB parts are largely reserved for the professionals on stage with the congregation following in unison. These words on the wall also often incorporate a great deal of repetition as did the response choruses of the earliest church.

Perhaps then, we’ve come full circle, in a way, over the 20 centuries since the first Christians sang their Easter praises.

Next week in Our Faith: Easter insights from local pastors.

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