Faculty View | Wanted: Harmonic Vigilantes
by Dr. Scott Finch ’96, associate professor of music
It has been exciting in many ways to see ensembles like Straight No Chaser and Petatonix take the stage and remind the world how striking creative sounds and unaccompanied harmonies can be to both the singer and the listener. It has also been a delight to see significant contributions of new, accessible, and memorable songs for the church by folks such as the Getty family that engage many in worship to the honor of Christ. All of these innovative sounds are compelling and very meaningful as we celebrate our God in the midst of His creation.
And yet you may want to listen carefully the next time your congregation sings the traditional “Old Hundredth Doxology.” You will likely hear a good deal of unison singing with very few folks singing in harmony. I think you should find this alarming.
We are descendants of the Reformation, when hymnody developed in the context of the growth of calculated congregational participation. In a short period of time we began hearing the teaching choirs in worship singing with enriched harmony. This continued to be the trend into the Baroque period, even spilling into the hymnody of the congregation into much of the early twentieth century. So why the sudden drop off?
I would suggest that in our efforts to embrace new ways of making music we may have neglected part of our heritage, as if doing new things means throwing out the old. Finding enjoyment in new songs is clearly an obedient response to God’s commands in Psalm 96, and yet we as God’s people are constantly called to remember and cherish the old expressions of God’s people alongside the new ways, as demonstrated in the form of Psalm 136.
The reason for nurturing harmony among the congregation, however, goes beyond historical sensitivity. If you were to have coffee with someone like J.S. Bach, you would find that the myriads of instruments, vocal parts, and harmonic interest were an audible way of embodying the priesthood of all believers. Each musical line offers worship characteristic to the peculiar qualities of the individual instrument and yet is invited into the fabric of a single tapestry. Vocal parts like soprano and bass are often found going different directions, and yet they are marvelously woven together with the tenor and alto lines to create unity through interactive diversity.
This unity amidst diversity reflects how the body of Christ is intended to work. Homogeneity isn’t the point of being in union with Christ. Being mysteriously brought together by one Spirit with all of our differences is the stunning truth of the gospel in Christ.
My hope is that you sing new songs and teach them to your children and in your churches. And that you remember to relish the old expressions of faith with all of their harmonic diversity. Take the time to pick up that hymnal and pursue help from your local musicians to learn a specific part. Add your peculiarities to the praise of God in the midst of His people as harmonic vigilantes.