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The Right Kind of Music: Should Church Services Include Classical Music?

The Right Kind of Music: Should Church Services Include Classical Music?

This is the last post in my series about puzzling things in my doctoral research on fundamentalist Christianity. Read the others here: Can Hymns Be Prayers?, Why May Women Sing If They May Not Preach?, and Musical Form in Piano Hymn Arrangements.

When fundamentalist authors and musicians describe the elements of good music, they list attributes of classical music. When authors suggest building a personal music library, classical music makes up most of their recommendations. And when musicians name the music they love, most of it is classical. 

But at fundamental churches, choirs and vocal soloists almost always sing arrangements of hymns and songs (both pre-existing and newly-composed ones).

So why is it rare to hear sacred, English-language classical music at a fundamental church?*

*By “sacred, English-language classical music,” I mean vocal works like “If Ye Love Me” by Thomas Tallis and “The Deer’s Cry” by Arvo Pärt.

Music Should Minister to as Many People as Possible

This question has puzzled me for years, so when I started interviewing people for my research, I made a point of asking them about it (over 30 of the ~50 people I interviewed). Why did they think there was practically no classical music in their churches? Since I was asking the people who direct fundamental church music programs and select service music, I figured they might have interesting reasons why.

Collectively, the response I got was basically this: 

Music used in church should minister to as many people as possible within the bounds of morally good music. 

Most of the people I interviewed said that they chose arrangements of hymns or similar song-based pieces rather than than classical ones because the former is much more approachable than the latter.

In fact, many people felt that classical music wasn’t just less listenable, but that it was an actual barrier to their musical ministry. They said that many people in their congregations thought classical music styles were “artificial,” “too formal," and even “elitist.”

Most interviewees themselves didn’t have a problem with classical music in church per se (and many wished their churches would use it more often or ever), but they were willing to give up their personal preferences for the greater good of reaching more people through their music.

Couldn’t Some Fundamental Churches Use Classical Music?

But here’s the thing—here’s what sticks for me and makes me think there’s more to it:

In my experience as an organist and choir director in mainline Protestant churches—churches with a range of educational and cultural backgrounds among their congregants—I have often played and directed sacred classical music.

Of course, not everyone enjoys that kind of music. But if someone wanted to hear a different style, they could easily go to a different church of the same denomination (or maybe a different service at the same church), assuming they live in a relatively populated area.

You could argue that there’s not always enough fundamental churches in a given area to support that kind of differentiation. But there are over forty fundamental churches in Greenville, SC (where most of my research is based).

You might also argue that it isn’t appropriate for a fundamental church to distinguish itself on musical style. But the churches in Greenville already do this: some churches emphasize recently-written music, some churches favor gospel songs, some use only piano to accompany hymns, some tend toward lush orchestral accompaniments, some have a choral piece in every service, and at least one has made their choir only an occasional gathering. 

Why couldn’t even one of the many churches use classical music on a regular basis, especially since so many musicians wished their churches were more receptive to it? Why don't music directors push for this music in their churches? (For the record, none said they did.) 

Congregational Participation in Non-Congregational Music

Here’s another factor that I think influences the choice to avoid classical music: their goal is congregational participation in all music at a church service, not just in congregational singing. 

An arrangement of a hymn or a similarly styled piece puts forward a melody that congregants can learn and internalize. When listening to a piece they already know, they can sing along silently. They can continue their participation into the future by singing the piece aloud away from church or, having learned a new melody, can sing it at a different service as a congregational hymn.

But with classical music, that kind of participation isn’t the point—listeners aren’t expected to to sing the piece themselves, either silently or aloud.

So it's a moot point that some people love the styles of classical music and would enjoy hearing that kind of music in church. For musical leaders in fundamental churches, classical music just doesn't inspire congregational participation like they think non-congregational music should.

What do you think?

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