All God’s people have sung throughout recorded history. The Israelites sang after their deliverance from Egypt. David sang in time of trouble and rejoicing. Mary and Simeon sang songs of thanksgiving. John, on the island of Patmos, heard the glorious songs of the angels in his vision. As Paul Westermeyer has said, "The story is a song to be sung" (Westermeyer, p. 34).
Music serves both a mnemonic and communal purpose. Music helps people who sing together remember their story, and the repeated memory of that common story binds together members of the group. Music helps people become one in identity and purpose. Because of music's ability to form the community, it has been a vital part of the Christian church over the centuries.
Music is God's creation. It is a gift to God's people to use in praise and adoration and in prayer. In Luther's words, music "comes from the sphere of miraculous audible things, just like the Word of God. The Spirit sees nothing but God's benefits in the world and therefore begins to sing" (Schalk, p. 35). Music communicates and expresses faith in ways beyond mere words. For Luther, music was a practical art closely tied to theology, to be used in the praise of God and in the proclamation of the Gospel. When music is cultivated at the highest levels of artistic excellence, the perfect goodness and wisdom of God are displayed through the gift. That our Lord accepts even the humblest of our musical gifts does not excuse musicians from always aspiring to grow in ability. Seeing music as a gift from God provides the foundation for our understanding of the role of music in worship.
Within the context of the historical liturgy, music functions not as an ornament or entertainment, but rather as an integral part of the liturgy, carrying prayer and praise and illuminating the proclamation of the Word. The music of the liturgy invites all — congregation, choir, instrumentalists and pastors — to participate. Because each group is a part of the whole, each has its own role as it takes a turn leading prayer and praise with the entire assembly. Music's most important function is to illuminate the text that allows us to see Christ and the action of God in our lives. Music that overshadows the text and draws attention to itself violates its purpose. The music that we sing should help us make common things holy, link our faith to the communal life of the assembly, and move us to embrace the church at all times and in all places. For that reason, our music is both old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, and of many styles and ethnic roots. Effective music in worship is varied but the best that each genre has to offer.
The entire congregation is called upon to participate actively in the liturgical action. Worshipers’ primary musical role in worship is to sing the hymnody, portions of the liturgy, acclamations, and music accompanying processions. Hymnody is the main vehicle for congregational song; it should be viewed as an important part of the liturgy, not some loose attachment. Hymns should be chosen for their relevance to the meaning of the day or season, and for their ability to illuminate the assigned readings. The hymn of the day is the most important of these hymns and relates directly to the gospel reading of the day. Its importance should be reflected in the musical treatment it is given. Thoughtful introductions, addition of other instruments, descants, and varied voicings on hymn stanzas contribute to interpretations that can enhance the meaning of the hymn text.
The assembly is called upon to sing the "ordinary" (those portions of the liturgy that are the same each Sunday throughout a season, such as the Kyrie, hymn of praise ["Glory to God" or "This is the feast"], Sanctus ["Holy, holy, holy"], and Agnus Dei ["Lamb of God"].) The musical setting of the liturgy should remain constant throughout a season. Changing music at the beginning of a new season is appropriate, helping to draw attention to the rhythm of the liturgical year by which we order our lives, as well as conveying a sense of the spirit of the time, whether it be the somberness of Lent or the joy of the Easter season. It is also the role of the assembly to sing acclamations around the reading of the gospel and at the great thanksgiving, and to sing hymns or canticles for processions as the congregation gathers for worship, as the gifts are brought forward, and as the congregation moves to the table for the meal. All of these moments are significant to the action of the liturgy and demand the participation of all those assembled.
In order for the congregation to fulfill its call to active participation, the music we choose and the manner in which we present it must provide a place for the voice of the congregation. Care must be taken that music appropriate for singing by the assembly is chosen. Music that was once for choir or solo and has been arranged for congregational song may not work. Congregations can typically sing well the following kinds of music: refrains, strophic songs, psalm tones and tonal or modal melodies in the style of folk music. Music with complex rhythmic structures, disjunct melodies, or without a clear tonal center is difficult and should be used sparingly.
The choir has it own set of musical responsibilities. Its primary function is to support and enhance the congregation’s song. In that role, the choir helps the assembly to sing with confidence and acts as a teacher by helping the congregation to enlarge its repertoire of hymns and liturgical settings. Participation with the congregation in festive settings of the hymn of the day is of major importance.
The choir is responsible for singing the "proper" portions of the liturgy (those parts that change each Sunday) often in partnership with the congregation. These include the psalm, alleluia and verse (Gospel Acclamation), offertory, and music during communion. For example, effective singing of the psalm may include the congregation singing an antiphon and or refrain with the choir singing the verses, or the choir or cantor may sing the psalm in alternation with the congregation. The alleluia may be sung by the congregation, with the choir singing the proper verse for the day, followed by a repetition of the alleluia by the assembly. On some Sundays, it is appropriate for the choir to sing a choral setting of the appointed psalm or alleluia and verse. The same is true for the offertory; a choral setting of the proper offertory for the day may sometimes replace a congregational offertory found within the liturgy setting. Motets and anthems are especially appropriate as an offering, during distribution, and may be combined with hymns for congregational singing.
Other attendant music (such as anthems, motets, passions or cantatas) are secondary to the responsibilities mentioned above and should not be prepared at the expense of primary tasks. The amount of the choir’s participation in the Sunday liturgy will depend on the context of the gathered assembly and the ability of the choir.
When planning any liturgy, a sense of balance of musical choice must prevail — balance between the roles of the assembly, choir and instrumental musicians; balance between styles of music; balance between that which is known and what is unfamiliar. It is to be hoped that within that balance, we can provide a vehicle for all who worship to "sing the new song."
- Halter, Carl, and Carl Schalk, ed. A Handbook of Church Music. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978.
- Bosch, Paul, Marianne Sawicki, and Paul Westermeyer. What is "contemporary" worship? Open Questions in Worship, vol. 2, ed. Gordon Lathrop. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
- Schalk, Carl. Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1988.
- Westermeyer, Paul. The Church Musician. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997.