Acceptable Sounds for Worship; Quality

January 17th, 2011

What are you capable of?  How much more time do you have to spend in practice?  Is someone available that has more time and would do a better job?  What is your motivation for being in front of your church playing an instrument or singing?  Are these fair questions?

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Hebrews 10:19-25 (NIV)

My siblings in Christ, this is what we are doing on Sunday mornings during services.  This is what we are doing anytime we come together in prayer, fellowship, study, or song.  This is worship.  When we join together in song on Sunday morning or any other time, we are entering the throne room of God through the blood of our Lord Jesus to spend time pouring our hearts out to the King of the universe.  If we are going to insist on using music at our meetings, I would expect that the people or person leading the music take it more seriously than anything else they do during their week (unless the same person is speaking).

I have an unsettling number of memories of worship services that were clearly not taken seriously.  Sometimes this has been demonstrated through an effort issue in which a better sound was possible but not attempted because it was “good enough for church” (being out of tune due to laziness during performance for example).  Sometimes it has been a preparation issue that should have been avoided through more individual study and practice. Sometimes it has been because a person incapable of the task leads music because they were “led by the spirit” to do so.  If the music during services is being taken as seriously as it should be taken, should we not see people’s most valiant efforts to sound as good as possible?  Unfortunately, the issue of taking the music seriously is a surface issue, the possible causes of which are much more diabolical.

Being a highly trained musician, I know all too well the extreme temptation of thinking too much of myself after a performance that brings people to their feet in appreciation for what I just accomplished.  While it’s fine to be pleased that I have pleased others, it is not fine to be pleased with myself for all the hard work I did to get that reaction (that is pride, the sin that made Satan who he is). I should be pleased only to the end that I brought pleasure to my audience.  Leading worship with music requires humility in performance to be taken to a whole new level. When I do a recital, it’s half about me being really good at music and half about teaching people about God through music.  Pleasing my audience for the sake of pleasing my audience is on my agenda.  However, when someone leads worship with music their agenda should not be to please others, but to lead both their self and their congregation into passionate worship of our Creator.  If someone is pleased with the leader, I hope it is because the leader played or sang so effortlessly, skillfully, and passionately that the layman saw Christ right through the leader and worshipped Christ without a second thought towards what the leader was doing.  Therefore, every musical leader in a church should search themselves deeply and honestly in order to find their motivation behind leading worship.  Regardless of what they find within themselves, humility has to be the top priority before leading music.  If this one thing were handled more honestly, many issues related to taking musical worship seriously would be solved.

Take ability for an example. As a music teacher, I can confidently say that consistent practice for a notable length of time will always yield an increase in proficiency.  If someone is not showing steady progress in their technique, then they’re clearly not taking the role of leading a congregation into the throne room of the Almighty through the blood of Christ seriously enough. If not practicing would not be acceptable in a recital hall, how much less in this context?  If people are getting on the stage in church and not giving the sacrifice of praise they are capable of, what is this saying about their motivation for leading worship? As I hope you are beginning to see, the attitude required in order to lead musical worship takes care of these other problems.

Humility causes the right motivation. The right motivation causes leading music to be taken very seriously. Taking worship seriously causes refined technique. Therefore, just as good works are the natural result of faith (James 2:14-25), good technique is the natural result of humility.

So how good should the music be in church to be acceptable?  Depending on the cultural context, the size of the church, the availability of skilled people, and the quality of the local teachers, the music should be the best in town.  However, it should also be very different because of the reason behind the sound…

The Definition of Intention

May 18th, 2009

We have established that the decision of what we listen to should not only be based on what we enjoy listening to, but also how intentional the music is.  While we may agree on this, what is still unclear is what exactly intention is and how to find it.  As always, when we are looking for a clear definition of a word it is always a good idea to start with a good dictionary definition whether you think you know what the word means or not.  (Taken from Intention – “An act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result.”  Let us first focus on the words “determining mentally”.

Music is clearly a sort of presentation that is meant to be perceived by an audience.  Therefore, determining an action mentally is only part of the process since a musician must also accurately execute his intention in his selected medium.  The composer must correctly transcribe the sound in mind, the performer must place his events in exactly the place desired, etc.  So it seems then that proficiency and intention are separate.  However, since music is a presentation, intention and accurate execution are perceived as a unit.  When an unintended result comes out of good intention the result is perceived all the same; all that results is less intention.  So when mental determination is used in the context of music, we cannot say that the resulting action was intentional unless the action matches the intention.  Thus, we may as well include the resulting action in our definition of intention:

Musical intention – an act or instance of determining mentally a musical event which is supported by a result that reflects the predetermination.

Now we are left with a more difficult and more controversial question.  I will be as unbiased as possible, however some categories of music are going to be subject to harsh criticism when these ideas are applied.  The question is “How do we find intention?”  A more blunt way of putting this is “How do we determine the quality of our music?” 

An intention has to have reason behind it, because without reason intention itself has no intention.  The stronger reason the intention has, the better the intention will be.  If an entire work is written purely without reason, the intention will be considerably low.  Conversely, a work of high intention will have a wealth of reasoning for each musical event that is placed.  A trained composer will give extensive reasoning that proves intention in orchestration based on physics, melodies and harmonies based on theory, rhythm based on human nature, and aesthetic based on science, philosophy, and/or theology.  Trained performers, sound engineers, synthesizer programers, and many other types of musicians also will give the reasoning behind their desicions.  Unless there is a possibility of giving reasoning for every decision made, the musical work lacks intention.

Some may object to this statement because many outstanding musical decisions are made every day without conscious premeditation.  But this subconscious ability does not develop without an extraordinary amount of study and training.  The ability to make good subconscious decisions is only in musicians who are also able to make guided conscious decisions about everything that they do as well.  The best musicians have the ability to analyze their intuitive decisions and give them analytical reasoning, resulting in even seemingly unexplainable intention being explained.

All that now remains to be addressed is whether or not simplicity is a way to work around intention.  Obviously when something is simple it takes less intention to raise its quality to an acceptable level.  But when you have less intention, you have less reasoning.  Less reasoning means you have less to say and should take as little time to say it as possible.  (But now that I’ve attacked something, let me articulate what I am not attacking:  Simple does not necessarily mean less musical events, but rather less complexity.  For example, performing a string quartet with synthesizers reduces the work’s complexity simply because the string family’s sound is much richer than a synthesizer’s.  The music is now simpler.  So by simple music I mean music that lacks complexity in the elements of rhythm, harmony/melody, orchestration/timbre, or aesthetic.  I will expand on this in future posts.)

Quality comes from intention, intention from reasoning, and reasoning from training and study.  If a work is not capable of being defended by reason, the work is poor.  I mentioned four things that a composer must defend in order to argue a work’s quality:  Orchestration, melody/harmony, rhythm, and aesthetic.  These elements make the foundation of determining the quality of music.

Determining Quality by the Level of Intention

May 5th, 2009

A person’s definition of good is largely based on past experience and knowledge. Therefore our minds tend to prefer art that is familiar to them. If the music is not familiar in any way, then it will not be perceived as music because our minds will not recognize it due to a lack of exposure to that category of sound. So our evaluation of music is determined by the amount of familiarity that we have with the sound. However, there is another device with which we should evaluate the art we perceive. This component is sadly not used by many people, but is the only universal gage that we have to decide what is worthwhile for us to take into our minds.

The amount of intention in art should be our primary method of evaluation. Without intention there is no art, but only the seemingly random pallet of sounds that was originally provided for the artist to create with. Music is a particularly intriguing form of art when taking the amount of intention into consideration, because it is impossible to intend every aspect of the sound that is being planned in the case of the composer, or created in the case of the performer. An element of chance is always going to be present and complete control over a performance is unfeasible. But despite this, in order for music to be of quality an acceptable level of intention must be attained.

In polyphonic music chance is particularly frustrating for a composer because no matter how much intention is used to craft the work, the end result depends upon the performance. It is also frustrating for the performer because the result depends on the tools at his disposal (this includes his skill and intellect). So it is the composer’s duty to make sure that his compositions are well within the realm of possibility and that the potential intention is maximized. It is the performer’s duty to make the plan for the work be brought fourth into reality and then also to polish the details of the sound that cannot be fully planned by the composer (timbre, specific placement of sonic events, etc). Therefore the quality of this music is dependent upon the combined amount of intention from both the composer and the performer.

In the case of electronic music, the performer is for all practical purposes eliminated and replaced by a computer. Since computers are not capable of intention outside of what they were programed to do, every aspect of planning the performance is left up to the composer. So not only does the composer have to make decisions on aesthetic, what pitches happen when, orchestration, volume, etc., but he must also determine the specifics that are usually up to the performer. This is a potential explanation for why so much electronic music is not well done. It takes a highly trained musician to draw the plans for a performance, program synthesizers that create a highly intentional timbre, and place every event with purpose. Massive amounts of thought from primarily one person is needed to bring electronic music to an acceptable level of intention. Creators of electronic music must also take into account that the performance is to be produced with a speaker system, and the sound must be planned well enough to be intentional while being played by a speaker system that is not designed to have much potential.

Recorded music lies somewhere in between a live performance and electronic music. While it was performed in real time by a performer, it has been transcribed for a computer or an analog device to be read and reproduced. What results is an electronic representation of what actually existed. The amount of intention in the recording does not only reflect the amount of intention from the performer and the composer, but also the sound engineer, the quality of the recording equipment, and the quality of the sound system reproducing the performance. Because of all of the people involved in making this music, I find that this method may have the most potential.

Recording introduces a whole new element to sound organization because it is now possible to choose which sounds are used and then replace sounds that have unacceptable levels of intention. This is why recording is completely different from performing: The performer now has the ability to show the audience what is theoretically possible rather than simply showing a random example of what he or she is capable of. Some performers believe that altering a recording is dishonest, but this stance completely defeats the purpose of recording. Our goal is to make a sound with as much intention as possible, and this cannot be done in real time. If a recording is to be made, the result should be as good as possible; to not alter a recording is to withhold from your audience the best sound available. If more intention is possible, it should be applied.

Bear with me as we ponder the exception to our rule intention creating quality. Unintentional events can be artistic, but the amount of randomness must be intentional. For example, a high quality synthesizer will give the programmer the option of randomness. As a programmer, I find this feature to give the timbre an organic nature causing it to be far more pleasing to most ears. Random as that part of the sound may be, it is still intentional. But a degree of randomness adds beauty to a sound, which gives us the ability of say that a sound does not have to be fully intentional to be perfect. On the contrary, a fully intentional sound is bland and unchallenging because it is so predictable. A degree of unpredictability is part of what makes music so beautiful.

We must take these ideas into account as we choose the music we pay for and listen to. If most of the sound we are recognizing as art needs little to no preparation to create, then we have to ask ourselves why it interests us. I think we will find that we listen to some music simply because is does not ask us to interact with it due to the fact that so little is generally being done. Simple music has its place, but to listen to it constantly weakens your mind. Listen to music with massive amounts of intention in the sound. Don’t settle for any less simply because that is what you enjoy listening to. Challenge yourself to understand greater art. When your mind grows weary then listen to simple music, but don’t linger for long.

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