Theses on Church Music and Economics
September 22, 2020
- American church music is in a slump. To get out of the slump, we need a 10-year plan, a 50-year plan, and a 100-year plan.
- Many are doing extraordinary work on reforming church music in the near-term, and a few in the mid-term. What is desperately needed is the 100-year plan.
- When attempting to reform a long-standing cultural practice, the church should expect to transform three aspects of that practice: its content, its form, and its conditions of possibility. Roughly speaking, the expected time to reform each of these aspects is probably something like 10 years, 50 years, and 100 years, respectively.
- Modern church music isn’t always in its content (i.e. its lyrics) a Christian cultural practice, but it’s getting better. But in its form (the music) and in its conditions of possibility (its performance, medium, economics, use), it is largely influenced by secular models of music making.
- Contra many traditionalists, the above thesis is true for both “contemporary” and “traditional” forms of worship music, at least in Protestantism. They are both manifestations of modern church music as a cultural practice. In their forms and conditions of possibility, if not in their content, they can’t be assumed to be Christian.
- To clarify, I am not maintaining that music must be “Christianized” or that we must resist the “worldly” influences of “secular” music. This is a separate discussion, endlessly relitigated, and it’s imperative to bracket it when talking about this topic, which is music for Christian worship. Liturgical music will a priori be different from every non-liturgical music in its form, content, and conditions of possibility, because it is designed to serve different ends.
- How are contemporary and traditional church music both species of the same genus, as I claimed in #5? Take contemporary music (say, Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman). In its musical form, it takes as its model 1980s and 1990s rock, pop rock, or alternative.
- Now take traditional hymns. In their musical form, they appropriate the formal and harmonic features of 19th century symphonic and operatic practice. This latter fact is overlooked by traditionalists too often and too conveniently: the models for the hymn are the Classical common practice, which was a kind of music whose specific aim was the secularization of music (e.g., the Florentine camerata, E.T.A. Hoffman, Schopenhauer).
- In its conditions of possibility, modern church music operates according to the economic and commercial strictures of a music industry. The primary goal of this industry is to commodify the listening experience of individual buyers. Formal musical decisions are made based on a predicted return on investment.
- Under the current conditions of music’s possibility, to do music, “to musick,” is to listen to other people do it. Our music is always-already a vicarious experience and a professionalized experience. It cannot be otherwise without changing the conditions of music’s possibility in America, without changing the economics of music.
- The previous two theses may feel to us like they are describing the way music has to be. (This is precisely why they are conditions of possibility. In other words, our ability to fathom what is possible is conditioned on just these assumptions.) Other cultures—in fact, most other cultures—have been primarily participatory in their music making. They have not shared with our culture sound reproduction, nor the desire to exclusively alienate music from ourselves onto professionals.
- In order to change modern church music, the American church must first address the conditions of possibility for church music and then address its form. The reverse order will only leave us in a desert of half-ways. In other words, our 100-year plan must inform our 50-year plan and our 10-year plan.
- The Bible does not express itself strongly on the form that church music should take, although it is not entirely agnostic. But the Bible, together with the pattern of church history, does express opinions on the conditions of possibility for liturgical music that are expressly antithetical to our own. Particularly,
- it is the duty and privilege of all Christians to make music (Eph 5:18, Col. 3:16). It is both a priestly and prophetic activity to make music (1 Chr. 25:1-3, 1 Chr. 25:5; 2 Chr. 29:30). The New Testament calls upon Christians universally and particularly to embrace these functions (Rev 1:6);
- it is the duty and privilege of church musicians to provide music that allows all Christian worshippers to flourish as singers (1 Cor. 14);
- the New Testament, and Revelation 4-5 in particular, seems to consider polyphony—at least metaphorically—inevitable in Christian worship. That is, Christians will not all make the same music, owing to differing functions, idioms, proficiencies, and desires. But they are called upon to offer themselves up musically at the same time, which assumes the notion of harmony (in its ancient sense of simultaneous, reconciled difference).
- The likelihood of different musics harmonizing is low unless the Christian church also provides methods of education and catechesis for all of its members in music.
- If all this sounds implausible to you—either as exegesis or as a practicable reality—you are in the minority, at least across the centuries of church history. All of the aforementioned applications of the Bible’s musical sensibility have been assumed and carried out by previous eras of the western Church.
- (Protestants weren’t the exception to all the stuff in #14-17. We were, in fact, the best at it.)
- In order to carry out #17, the Church has historically funneled significant resources into this education. So should we expect to have to do this if we wish to reform Christian worship music over the next century.
- If we assume the current (faulty) understanding of music and its relation with the real world, the Church must always prioritize beneficence, mercy and poor relief (James’ “true religion”) over “music ministry.” This should be obvious: James mentions visiting widows and orphans, but he doesn’t mention building a $2,000,000 pipe organ.
- This priority will almost always incentivize the financial structure of contemporary Christian music, where the costs of music production are lower. It costs less to educate congregations, equip local singers, and do services using contemporary Christian music than using traditional. All these costs are outsourced to a market-driven industry. Contemporary Christian music will always win a financial argument with traditional music. You can do great CCM at your church and still have money to visit more widows.
- However, liturgy, music, and beauty have historically been agents of mercy to the needy and the needy have been invited to be agents of liturgy, music, and beauty in the church. Some examples (of uneven replicability) are:
- medieval monasteries allowed those with perennial need or besetting sin to devote their lives to the sacrifices of praise and the development of beauty and learning for the rest of the Church,
- churches would at times fund the education of and provide welfare to orphans and poor youth as musicians,
- throughout all ages, beauty in the church has been a source of Sabbath, of what Josef Pieper calls leisure, for those whose lives tend to be enslaved by their labor or alienated from their labor. Beauty is not an escape but a goal of human labor; beauty within the church brings the needy to the end of their labors.
- Our inability to connect the church’s call to musical excellence with her call to serve the poor is owing in large part to our blithe acceptance of modern aesthetics, whose champions in continental philosophy have for centuries told us that art is a means of accessing transcendence and escaping worldly problems.
- Modern aesthetics and art since the seventeenth century has glorified authorship, individual genius, self-expression and autonomy to such a perverse degree that beauty is almost exclusively the provenance of free artisans and opulent patrons. Popular music is the same game in a more democratic guise, dispersing the patronage across a wide demographic but resulting in the same zero-sum opulence coalescing in artists and producers.
- The church should not idolize (though it need not always disdain) individual genius, self-expression, or autonomy. But a beauty that grows organically out of local communities and that is beholden to the needs of local communities is a beauty that invites participation from slaves, laborers, wage earners, domestic workers, and the unemployed.
- Church music is the enemy of “aesthetics” as it is often understood. For, as soon as you think art (and church music particularly) is autonomous self-expression, or a subjective universality, or unmediated access to the noumenal, you implicitly make the end of all worldly life the toil of work, and beauty an escape for those privileged enough to enjoy it. The critics of Arnold and Scruton are entirely correct: high art is classist and elitist, but only because it is first Manichean, despising all things this-worldly as irredeemable.
- The music of the church is the opposite of autonomous (that is, beholden only to its own laws); it is liturgy, or, etymologically, service. The music of the church is our service to God and it is God’s song nourishing our lives, spiritually and materially. Music in the church knocks down the idolatry of work perpetuated often in post-industrial societies, namely its insistence that our lives are made for work, to which the Western aesthetic tradition quietly whispers assent.
John Ahern is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in musicology from Princeton University. He is a substitute organist for the Princeton University chapel on occasion. He loves his wife and son, and they all frequently sing, to greater and lesser degrees of success, Renaissance bicinia over dinner.