Volume 13, Issue 6: Muscia
Praise Music 101
Every Christian has the responsibility to be musically educated just as they should be educated in reading and understanding God's Word. Ideally this would include knowing how to read music well enough to sing a hymn at sight, knowing a large body of psalms and hymns from all periods of history, and knowing thebroad outline of the history of worship music. "What is the scriptural warrant for this?" you ask. It resides in our responsibility as priests. Peter tells Christians that "as living stones," they "are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5). All Christians are members of the "royal priesthood" (1 Pet. 2:9) and, as such, every Christian not only has the privileges of the priestly order, but also the responsibilities that go along with that office.
Some of these priestly duties include prayer (Ex. 27:20_21; 30:7_8), offering sacrifices (Lev.
1:1_17; 1 Peter 2:5), blessing the people (Num. 6:23_27), teaching the law (Lev. 10:11), and guarding the sanctuary and its worship (Num. 3:38). It is this last duty that speaks mostly to our responsibility to be musicians. If we are to guard the sanctuary and the worship which takes place there, we must be able to properly perform the functions in worship. Our first duty here is knowing the Word of God. This is why Christians have historically been leaders in education. They teach language skills because they need to read and understand the Scriptures. Jesus is the Word and it is by the Word that the world is conquered. Our second duty is to bring glory to the Word, and this is best done by music. Music surrounds our words with glory, and the Bible is filled with injunctions to make music to the Lord.
We are also commanded to "play skillfully" (Ps. 33:3). God does not allow us to be content with our present situation. Christians should be in a perpetual state of sanctification, or as the Reformers put it, "semper reformans." I have often heard people make the following excuse for the immaturity of the music in worship, "This is where the people are," and "God doesn't expect us to be better than we are." This translates to "I'm not going to change. The music is not going to change. So God is going to have to put up with my immaturity." So much for sanctification. Playing skillfully assumes that we have already mastered the fundamentals of music and have moved on to greater proficiency in our music making. Music alone is not enough. The music must be beautiful, and God's people must be constantly trying to make it more beautiful. We are not allowed to be content in our present musical condition.
At the heart of music making is the skill of reading music. By reading music, I don't mean just knowing the names of the notes. A child, who can name the letters but cannot tell what words those letters spell, is not able to read. By the same token, a singer, who can name the notes of the music but cannot hear what the music sounds like in his head, is not able to read music. We don't need to be able to hear a full symphony in our head when we look at a symphonic score, but we should be able to hear a simple hymn-tune melody when we see one. Of course, once this skill is learned, greater skill could be obtained later.
Learning to read music even at this elementary level requires a commitment from God's people. It is best begun at an early age, but should be attempted at any age if not learned early on. However, just like learning a foreign language, it is more difficult the older you get. Music reading is a very abstract skill when compared to reading words. For this reason it may take years of work to accomplish the goal. I find it interesting that we are willing to teach our children language skills practically every day of their educational years (and rightfully so), yet we think we are doing a good job of teaching music when our children have two half-hour music lessons per week even though language skills are much more concrete than musical skills. Until we make the commitment of teaching our children music daily, we will see very little change in music-reading progress in the Church. Unfortunately, music has been seen as extracurriculara nice frillrather than a necessity in our children's education. If "man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever," there is a crying need for not only quality music education, but quantity as well.
One advantage of reading music is the ability to learn a large corpus of psalms and hymns. God's hymnal, the Psalms, should be the core of the music that we know. We cannot rightfully praise God in our own understanding but must be first taught by Him as to what pleases Him. As we mature in the Psalms, we are more able to choose good hymns and sing them with a right understanding. Through hymns, we are able to participate in the praise of God with the saints of all ages. This is where a broad understanding of church history and church-music history comes into play. The history of the saints is our family history. It is the working out of covenantal thought. We ripen more quickly with the wisdom of our Christian fathers rather than attempting maturation on our own. The Reformers of the sixteenth century understood the potency of music in learning and sharing the gospel. It is time for us to recapture their vision and go forth from there.