It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord,Psalm 92:1–3
and to sing praises unto thy name, O Most High:
To shew forth thy lovingkindness in the morning,
and thy faithfulness every night,
Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery;
upon the harp with a solemn sound.
What is translated “solemn sound” in the KJV is rendered differently elsewhere: “harmonious” in the NKJV; “melody” in the NIV and ESV. As these several translations show, it is somewhat difficult to ascertain the precise meaning of the phrase. The implication may be that of the sound of lyre and psaltery, stringed instruments that “murmur” when compared with the loud trumpet or high-resounding cymbals. The definition of “solemn sound” that the KJV has in mind is clearly not synonymous with similar sounding “sober,” or “somber,” words that convey gloom. Solemnity can be awe-inspiring, describing a sublime experience. The Bible commands a kind of rigorous and upbeat religious solemnity, possibly similar to the way Paul uses the word “order” in his epistles. Paul joys in the Colossian’s “order” in worship (Col. 2:5). He exhorts the Corinthians to worship in a way “decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40).
Whether we define “solemn sound” as soft murmuring strings, harmony, melody, or order, all are distinctly musical. By definition, music is harmonious even if everyone is singing the same part. If it weren’t harmonious, it would sound like noise. Harmony (i.e. orderliness) is the chief difference between music and noise.
So among first principles of singing at Christ Church is selecting music that is highly and obviously harmonious and distancing ourselves from music that veers toward noise. But what does this mean and how do we apply it?
Our church sings traditional songs. “Traditional” implies “old” but not “outdated.” In this sense, traditional music can be completely brand new. I had a friend in college that in one conversation criticized hymns as “old fogey,” wanting to see more “relevant” styles replace them. This kind of criticism assumes that traditional styles were once relevant but no longer are. This is like saying that putting up a Christmas tree could ever get old or that we might tire of fireworks at the Fourth of July. Far from growing old, traditions are timeless and are enjoyed for their own sake. Traditions are not fashions that come and go at whim.
Songs in the hymn tradition have a steady, and stable musical quality. One might say, a “solemn sound.” It is not fluid, or emotionally charged, or beat-driven the way rock n’ roll is. Its staid quality is actually what makes it so useful as worship music. It is even-paced and predictable, for the most part. It is a type of music that is intended to get a large crowd of men, women, children, both young and old singing all at the same time. Start playing fast and loose with the rhythm, or ditch the clearly chiseled out four to eight-line melody, and people are lost.
Some reading this are thinking “I’m already lost. I can’t sing these songs. They’re completely new to me.” Like Bill Clinton, I feel your pain, although not creepily. I am here to help our people worship confidently and successfully.
Music comes forth from a people. It is a manifestation of what they love and value. It displays their communal identity and unity. When done well, singing is an activity that all individuals in the group can all do at the same time without chaos. Give everyone a racket a yellow-green ball, dress them in clean white skirts, and “tennis” is not the word that comes to mind. This is all to say that your difficulties learning the songs may be because you’re new to our people. Our church has built up its repertoire of songs over the course of several decades. As a new person you’re confronted by a seemingly fully-grown mustard tree, not a grain of seed. As it took years for our song repertoire to grow and grow on us, so it will take time for you also get used to it, and even love it the way so many of us do.
So what do you do if you can’t sing the songs? Here are a couple suggestions. First, simply listen. Being quick to listen and slow to speak is borne out by our physiology of having two ears and one mouth. Perhaps God wants us to listen twice as much as we speak. If a song is utterly foreign to you, you will not be harmed by listening carefully to it even several times before trying to join in. Music is a glorious thing even to hear, so tell yourself “I can’t sing this song yet, but for now I get to enjoy it as a spectator. I can join in later.”
Secondly, practice as you are able. This can be done at the piano, accordion, or around the table. But other tools are available. We have gifted men in our midst that have created a couple of apps for the use of learning our music. Here’s one (send Frank an email. He’ll hook you up). And here’s another. View or request to join the “Sing the Cantus Christi” Facebook group. There you will find videos of folks from around the world singing our songs. Check out the music library page on the Christ Church website. We continually add audio and video recordings of our songs to that page. Attend our monthly Psalm Sings, or guys, go to Beer and Psalms Wednesday afternoons. At these events you will get another chance to get acquainted with our songs, but they are also great fellowship opportunities for hanging out with people in our community.