Does Musical Literacy Matter?

Early 15th-century choir monks break new ground by singing from an early version of a PowerPoint projection, completely ignoring the choir director in the process. [The Olivetan Master (Girolamo da Milano) (fl. 1429-d.1449) and the Master of the Lodi Choir Books (fl. 1419-1440). Detail of “Monks Singing the Office” – image from]

The best musicians, in any style, know that to become better you have to practice, both alone and together. But understanding how music works helps any kind of musician serve the church more faithfully with their gifts. Someone who can read notes and play by ear has more tools to serve others. (Bob Kauflin, “Are We Responsible for Musical Literacy in the Church?” Worship Matters Blog, November 2, 2007).

Ours will be a difficult task because music literacy in our surrounding culture is at an all-time low, even though we hear more music in our day-to-day existence than in any culture preceding ours. (Leonard Payton, “How Shall We Sing To God?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, ed. John Armstrong, Moody, 1996. pdf).

Back in the Middle Ages (in a distant corner of the early 9th Century), some music-director-monk decided it would be a good idea to put little pictures of musical “notes” (neumes) above the Latin texts of the chants his choir-member-monks were singing, with the ostensible goal of helping them to learn and/or to remember the melody. (For an example of “[probably] the earliest example of Western neume notation that has survived,”  see here). Perhaps some of the choir-monks were veering off the musical path a bit (to the deep consternation of the director-monk), or a tenor-monk was Complaining about staying up late for Compline, complicating the task of following the melismas in the Alleluia. For whatever reason, the practice of using musical notation began, having a huge impact on the development of western music.

Although musical notation served the musical community well for a number of centuries, in our contemporary religious circles it has become a source of confusion, and apparently something to be avoided, at least for congregational use. A few outlier churches still use hymnals, but there is no doubt that the use of PowerPoint projection of lyrics (without any musical notation) has become the standard means for presenting music to the congregation. When it comes to encountering new songs, this situation is both irritating and frustrating to me (and from casual conversations I’ve had, it seems to be for many other people). There is nothing worse than being expected to sing a new song without having any clue about the musical notes and rhythms.

On more than one occasion in more than one setting, I have heard suggestions that the best way for congregants to learn new songs is to look them up and listen to them on Youtube. The worship band will then provide the karaoke background tracks on Sunday morning, and everyone sings along (assuming they can hear themselves above the din and racket of the drums, bass, guitars, and keyboards).  I think we can do better than Sunday Morning Karaoke Hour!

In a slightly confusing series of articles, Tim Challies addresses the problem of abandoning a hymnal altogether (“What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals“), and then seemingly celebrates that fact (“What We Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals.”) I agree with many of the points from both articles, but neither article goes far enough in suggesting any solutions to a real problem. The implication is that there is a binary choice between using hymnals (with musical notation) or using PowerPoint (without musical notation).  However, the choice is not a binary one.

For example, it is possible to project notes along with lyrics on a big screen in front of people; it’s just that few churches seem to do it. It is possible to print notes along with lyrics for newer songs that are not in the hymnal; again, few churches actually do it. Although there are some restrictions, the CCLI license actually allows churches to present songs in a variety of ways to help congregations learn and sing new songs (see the CCLI Copyright License Manual). Although listening to new songs (over and over?) on Youtube can be a great way to learn new songs, it certainly is not the only way, nor is it necessarily the most efficient or realistic way to learn them. Suppose that 25% of a congregation can read music, another 25% can figure out what the melody is from the general direction of the notes, and another 25% is good at following the leadership of the ones who can read. That leaves only 25% totally in the dark about a new song, as compared to 100% if the music is not presented at all.

Musical literacy matters. Even in a simple congregational setting, providing musical notes along with lyrics can facilitate the learning and singing of new songs. Rather than being a distraction, the notation provides the needed musical mapping to help the singer focus on the meaning of the words, rather than wondering what the next note will be.

6 thoughts on “Does Musical Literacy Matter?

  1. But the younger generation doesn’t “connect” with hymnals. They represent the old way of doing things which needs to be discarded because it is old.

    Do you know of any young person today whoever picked up a hymnal and read the text as poetry? Compare that with the lyrics of much of contemporary music.

    1. Exactly! And, no I don’t. But then, I’m so old I wouldn’t recognize a young person even if I saw one (through my bifocals).

  2. It would also provide children with opportunities to learn to read music, which in turn would help break the cycle of illiteracy.

Comments are closed.