A question that often comes my way in church and at events is ‘Why does worship music have to be so LOUD?’
Yes, I am getting older, but I have served my time as a guitarist and ‘worship leader’ who introduced drums into our band in our church. Our first drummer had the strict remit that his role was to keep us disparate musicians together whilst hardly being noticed by the congregation. My point about volume isn’t specifically about drums, but is about the effect of and reason for the trending increase in volume levels.
Many find high volume not just unpleasant, but even painful and certainly not conducive to their worship. This has been highlighted to me by those with hearing aids, with tinnitus, with hearing acuity issues or with autism, all of whom can find the sensory overload of high volume too much, and some of whom simply walk out.
Whilst considering the volume issue, it became clear that much else has changed alongside. Sung worship used to be just that - congregational singing where you could hear yourself and others making a joyful collective noise. Hymns and songs used to be a series of well constructed verses, sometimes with a repeating ‘refrain’ or chorus. Everything rhymed and scanned (the words had a regular rhythm pattern) and was set to a singable often comfortably predictable tune that could be harmonised if you were so inclined. The instruments were an accompaniment to the all-important communal singing.
Words were paramount - very carefully crafted, robust theology often written as poetry by pastors. The format helped people remember important truths throughout the days ahead. I still recall word-for-word many such worship songs that I haven’t sung for years. If I said “Saviour if of Zion’s City….” where would your mind go to? Would you remember it as well if it were not strict metre rhyming poetry, but more like prose set to a wandering tune? Isaac Watts knew a thing or two about writing poetry. He extolled the benefit of rhyming and scanning to help people remember worthwhile words. [“What is learned in verse is longer retained in memory, and sooner recollected. The like sounds and the like number of syllables exceedingly assist the remembrance”] Have people changed so much? Or is the whole point now more about instant response than remembering some worthwhile poetry.
Over time the ubiquitous organ or piano has of course been replaced, often for very good reason, by the ubiquitous amplified guitar group, but the change of instruments has lead to other changes. The use of guitars has fundamentally influenced the construction and selection of the songs. Many are now in a ‘pop’ format. Rhyming is largely ignored in favour of assonance (vowels that sound the same), and scansion is often far from strict. The repetition element has become dominant with an inevitable chorus and almost invariably a ‘bridge’ too. We also have songs written at a pitch or range that is not realistically achievable by people with a normal vocal range. If the verse of a song is pitched at singable level, then the chorus can be stratospherically beyond reach without tighter singing trousers and a stepladder. Many songs even have full octave vocal jumps. Some songs in contemporary genres come from musicians rather than from theologians, and this can reflect in the content. Yes, I am commenting generally and I know, appreciate and use some wonderful exceptions.
Does any of this matter? When somebody tells me that they had a ‘great time of worship’ I am sometimes tempted to ask if God enjoyed it. Was it the excitement? The beat? Or the dancing? Has it helped their appreciation of God? Surely our worship, musical or otherwise, should be to do something that pleases God, and shifts our focus to Him. The change of song format to the pop genre has meant that dance has come into ‘worship’ like never before, and the role of ‘worship leader’ has emerged. In the same inevitable way that drums became part of the deal, the role of ‘worship leader’ has grown naturally out of the guitar band format, where every such band has a front man or woman. I am not so convinced of the Biblical mandate for this - and yet far more young people aspire to the worship leading role than to being preachers, teachers or evangelists. I was encouraged when one group I went to see and hear, memorably said that “We are not here to lead worship. There is only one worship leader, and that is the Holy Spirit. We are going to praise God with our songs, and we invite you to join us.”.
Adding extreme volume to these various format changes, means that many people have largely given up on congregational singing, despite the fact that singing is much more of a Biblical directive than dance. Faced with the difficulty and the volume, the fact that one voice makes no difference against the overwhelming amplification, and the megawatt worship experience - sometimes including a lighting display - is passively observed while it is presented to the congregation by those at the front who are undoubtedly gifted in what they do. Presentation worship may be an inevitable result of the change in the format of songs, the instruments and the volume. Extreme volume may be necessary to ‘optimise sound quality’, but that is surely only needed if the priority is the presentation, rather than the participation of the congregation. Maybe presentational worship that is truly inspirational at a large event, doesn’t transfer well in form or volume to the ageing congregation back home at Little Puddleton Chapel. It’s a bit like trying to get the feeling of a majestic Albert Hall concert with full orchestra and chorus back to our village hall. Each is uniquely suited to different things.
This isn’t a plea to get back to old hymns and songs, but to restore meaningful congregational singing. There are good old and good new songs and we should be using both. The thing I look for first is good THEOLOGY (even if simply put), It really should be all about the words. Then a song should be MEMORABLE (rhyming and scanning really does help, as does an ear-worm or easily followed tune), SINGABLE within the realistic range of most people, and with VARIETY (there are loads of instruments and music styles out there just waiting to be used. It doesn’t always have to be an amplified guitar band). And if the volume level is capable of going to 11, it doesn’t mean that it has to. Increasing volume is actually excluding an increasing number of people who may otherwise be persuaded to accept other changes, if only it weren’t so unnecessarily LOUD. Like Elvis, some of them have left the building to sing no more. Enthusiastic volume should surely come from the involved voices of inspired worshippers, with music to accompany and even lead, but not to overpower.