Friday, September 22, 2006

characteristics of music that congregations sing well

This is kind of a thinking-out-loud copied from a comment on the below “Soapbox” thread.

What technical qualities of music make it well-suited for congregational singing? ISTM:

1) melody
It’s nice to have patterns that repeat and remain safely diatonic, staying roughly within an octave range. Conjunct motion is good. Good examples: LOBE DEN HERREN, Haugen Ps. 25. Bad examples: “On Eagle’s Wings”, “I Am the Bread of Life”. (And EASTER HYMN, though it pains me to say it, appears iffy here.) Some chant hymns don’t do so well here, like “Veni creator” or “Crux fidelis”.

2) rhythm
Again, we need something straightforward if 400 people will sing it together. Long, held notes make it less likely those 400 people will stay together. Good examples: Just about any standard hymn, or Guimont psalm responses. Bad examples: Moore “Taste and See” verses, “Be Not Afraid”. Chant also works well here, though the absence of pulse can take some getting used to.

3) harmony
Here we have the most freedom. Everything from DIX to Proulx’s concert-worthy “Mass for the City” can stand in here; of course, the restrictions on melody affect harmony as well. Here the goal is pretty much to achieve the maximum harmonic complexity while keeping all other things constant. Good examples: Chant, or just about anything in hymnals. Bad example: Messiaen “O sacrum”. (Way too much harmonic interest for a congregation!) Haugen Ps. 66, Proulx “Mass for the City”, and Haas Ps. 1 are good examples of harmonic interest while holding all other things congregation-friendly.

4) texture
Homophonic or monophonic, pretty much by definition. Good examples: Again, chant or just about anything in hymnals (people like melodies). Bad examples: Just about any polyphony.

5) dynamics
Generally, one consistent dynamic seems, at least today, what works best. A loudly singing congregation is seen as a good thing.

6) form
Gotta be simple - the editors of Spirit & Song would do well to re-examine their work in this light. Good example: strophic hymns with no 1st/2nd/3rd endings, or sung-through chants like “Salve regina”. Bad examples: “How Beautiful” in Spirit & Song, “He Has Anointed Me” in original Gather (with that piano interlude out of nowhere!).


At Saturday, September 23, 2006 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Todd said...

And yet people sing many of the "bad" examples. I suspect there are good reasons why they do.

At Saturday, September 23, 2006 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

I don’t mean to say that people can’t sing the bad examples. But ISTM that it requires more work to get them to sing these than it does to have them sing, say, ENGELBERG.

At Saturday, September 23, 2006 10:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Odd that you would throw Messian's 'O Sacrum' into a list of congregational 'don'ts'! This is a choral, not a congreational piece. In addition to the fact that it's harmonically complex, it's rhythmically beyond a congregation. Matter of fact, it's very likely harmonically and rhythmically beyond most average church choirs.

At Sunday, September 24, 2006 9:23:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...

Right - my point is that everything in the “bad example” category is best done by ministers of music, not by congregations, because of certain characteristics.

The Messiaen is beyond just about any choir below an advanced college, or professional, level. It is stunning when done well, and a wreck when it is not.

At Wednesday, September 27, 2006 4:02:00 PM, Blogger Ephrem said...

I'm all for the organist leading dynamic changes, especially but not exclusively from one verse to another. LOBE doesn't ever need to be quieted, but LAUDA ANIMA lends itself to all sorts of lyrical and volume shifts.


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