One of the most important things (for me) about church music is that everyone (or as near as possible) should join in. I’m saying ‘one of’, because I have to admit to unhappy memories of times when the music was too bad, or too difficult, or too whimsical or something similar, and I have resolutely chosen not to keep trying. I feel bad about it when I do this, and I try not to, but it does happen.
I remember coming across a great piece of American polemic once called something like ‘Why don’t Catholics sing?’, and part of the answer was that they had been uniquely traumatised by the awful music inflicted upon them. Unfortunately this is self-perpetuating, because I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that we can have ‘only’ the hymns the children know at a service. When I suggest that we might teach them something new to them, I’m told that it’s too difficult. But this is nonsense. It’s like saying Shakespeare is difficult. His plays were written for everyone to enjoy; good hymns are written for everyone to sing. And a good hymn is as much better than a bad hymn as a good novel is more enjoyable than a bad short story.
Hymns and psalms
I’m going on about hymns because I’m not just talking about psalm settings here, but the psalms are our oldest hymns, it’s just they are in translation and we don’t have the original tunes to them. (Also I didn’t want it to look too much like special pleading for my own psalm-settings.)
To return to psalm settings, though, what are the practical implications, and why do we emphasize the word ‘singable’? Because I want people to join in, I need to make it easy for them to do so, and I need to make them want to do so (that second bit is much more difficult, and takes time). First of all, it helps a lot if the priest is also trying to get people to join in. Because it really matters. This is why I put ‘Let the people praise you, O Lord, let all the people praise you’ as the strapline at the top of the website, because this is the point. We are there to praise God, we’re not singing for us, and we’re not there as the audience to watch or listen to someone else.
It’s like when you gather your children together; if one is missing, the hole is disproportionately large, like a missing tooth. If we don’t sing, God misses our voices; like a good choir leader, he can hear who is singing, and he wants to hear everyone. As they say, ‘If God gave you a good voice, sing to praise him; if he didn’t, sing to get your own back.’. But sing!