When Church Music Sounds Like Radio 1

As I was driving home the other night I happened to catch the Piano Sessions on Radio 1. When I got in the car Huw Stephens was interviewing the singer before he sang. But when he started singing, he sounded like a completely different person. When he spoke, his words were so clear. But singing they weren’t. And, of course, that’s the way it was supposed to be. That’s fine on Radio 1. That’s what makes listening to the song all the more interesting.

But as I was hearing that contrast on the wireless, it got me thinking about church music. Perhaps I should say ‘worship’ music, for I think, all too often we make some mental distinction between ‘church music’ (=organs and choirs) and ‘worship music’ (=drums and guitars). But I’m just going to keep calling it church music on principle (as ‘worship’ is not a musical genre). You see, stripped back, late night piano sessions on Radio 1 stylistically aren’t all that far away from certain popular styles of church music. Okay, in bigger churches there might be some drums and guitars thrown in there as well, but this is stripped back to live music without all the post-production of what you usually hear on the radio. And when you strip back a few pop songs like that, it becomes incredibly clear how closely matched much of contemporary church music is to the sort of music that gets played on Radio 1.

Yet, even this stripped back, late night music is still a performance. If he had simply sung with the clarity of his speaking voice with the simple four-part harmony accompaniment on the piano, it wouldn’t have been a fantastically interesting performance. But it would have been great for a sing-along. And that’s where the difference between church music and Radio 1 music comes in.

Church music has become an industry. (That’s not a hyperbolic assertion on my part – have a look at studies like Pete Ward’s book Selling Worship: How What We Sing Has Changed the Church, or, for the stuff of nightmares, listen to this interview with Warren Cole Smith on Issues Etc. or read the article it was based on – From Christian Radio to a Church Near You.) To fuel the industry, records (or downloads) need to be sold. But if you’re going to get people to fork out a decent amount of money regularly for the latest albums, you need to make them interesting performances – not simple sing-along tracks. And so we’re introduced to new songs with all the post-production values you’d find on the type of songs they play on Radio 1. We’re introduced to songs sung in an ‘interesting’ way, rather than a plain, clear way. We’re introduced to songs with instrumentation that doesn’t highlight the melody to help people to pick it up and sing it. We’re introduced to songs in keys that suit an artist, but are unsingable by a congregation. And we’re introduced to songs that have such dramatic ranges that they sound fantastic on a record, but go much higher and much lower than most people in the congregation can sing. In other words, we’re introduced to songs as performance pieces rather than as songs for singing by an ordinary group of people with an average amount of singing ability (or lack thereof). What we need is a sing-along, but what we get is a concert piece.

Now, maybe you think a sing-along sounds a bit naff. It might not fit in with all the branding and image projection that’s so ubiquitous these days. But, biblically, a sing-along is what church music is to be. As we sing to the Lord we’re also to be singing to one another, ‘teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ (Col. 3:16). So hearing and being able to make out the words of what we’re singing to God and to one another is an important part of our singing. We’re not singing for the nice vocal effects we can produce; we’re singing so that the words are heard clearly. When Paul and Silas sang hymns in the Philippian jail, the other prisoners ‘were listening to them’ (Acts 16:25). I somehow suspect the other prisoners weren’t listening and thinking, oh don’t they sound like Sam Smith and Tom Odell! And their ears weren’t focused on the instrumentation either, for there wasn’t any. All they could hear were two badly beaten-up men singing to God. All there was to hear were the words.

The more our church music sounds like a Radio 1 performance, the less people can hear the words clearly. The more our church music sounds like a performance, the less people sing along. So the more our church music sounds like a performance, the less some very biblical reasons for having music in church are taking place.