Does Anyone Actually Play Music? Does it Matter to the Church?

Does Anyone Actually Play Music? Does it Matter to the Church?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
December 2, 2005

Charles Rosen, an influential music critic, reviews Robert Philip’s new book, Performing Music in the Age of Recording in The New York Review of Books. The article raises a number of important questions and issues. [Read Rosen’s article, “Playing Music: The Lost Freedom.”]

Before 1900 in Europe and America, it was at home that music was
most often experienced, by family members who played some instrument or
sang, and by, willingly or unwillingly, the rest of the family and
friends. (In Western society among the lower middle class and upward,
most music was made by women, who were generally expected to learn to
cook, sew, and play the piano. The majority of professional musicians
may have been male, like the majority of professional cooks, but most
of the cooking and piano play-ing was the lot of women. Music, like
breakfast and dinner, was part of life at home.) More exceptionally,
music could be heard in some public places–concert hall, opera house,
or church. The public realm was essentially a complement to the
private. It set standards and added glamour.

By the twenty-first century, all this has changed. Both private
and public music are being displaced by recordings. Few people make
music themselves at home anymore. Because of more cramped living space,
it is now inconvenient to house a piano, a once indispensable piece of
furniture for any household with even modest pretensions to culture and
the instrument that for more than a century was the mainstay of
classical music. Outside the big cities, live public music is
disappearing as well. Most of the smaller towns that used to have a
classical concert series have lost that, and if they are too
insignificant to sponsor a popular rock group event, their public music
must be confined to clubs. Even live symphony and opera broadcasts have
been largely eliminated. At home today we play records. Classical and
pop radio stations play records. And often ballet companies and
theatrical productions play records in place of hiring musicians

It’s not just ballet companies using canned music. Many churches
routinely use soundtracks and recorded music. I know of one church that
has a “hymn machine” that provides an instrumental accompaniment at the
touch of a button. How long will it be before the machine does the
singing as well?

The culture of recorded music has had at least two effects on many
churches. First, organized church music programs are in decline in many
congregations, since actual instruments and musical skills are
considered unnecessary. Just order a recording and put it in the
machine. Second, the acoustical experience of recorded music has
altered the expectations held by many in the congregation. This
generation expects musical perfection, acoustical quality, and
overwhelming volume in every musical experience. After all, they are
accustomed to being an audience of one — with the iPod piped into the
ears or the car stereo pumping out the music of choice. They expect the
same experience of music wherever they are, the church included.

An even greater problem is the effect of all this on congregational
singing. Church members, especially the young (and especially young
males), have so little experience singing or participating in the
production of music in any form that they know only how to listen, not
to sing. In one sense, churches that buy into the culture of canned
music are setting themselves up for silence in the future. Who will be
left to sing?

SHAMELESS INSTITUTIONAL PROMOTION: Come study with Christians who actually play instruments, write music, and sing — at the School of Church Music and Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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