“The Dangers of Sophistication” in Barbershop Music and Worship Music

I live in two “worlds” – my church world and my barbershop world. Through preaching and teaching I have made many friends in churches around the world, and through the hobby of barbershop quartet singing I have made another set of friends around the world. Both of these circles of friendship are special to me and have given me great joy. Some of my closest friends are those who share the same overlapping circles.

But there is another sense in which these worlds intersect – music is vital to both. And in my own particular church background, the overlap is even greater, since our singing is done as four-part a cappella harmony, very similar to barbershop music. In this post I want to raise some concerns I have about music in worship that parallel concerns about music in barbershop.

The title of this article is inspired by an article written many years ago (“The Dangers of Sophistication”) by a barbershop music arranger named Val Hicks. In the article, Hicks lamented certain trends he saw in the barbershop style of music. As I reflect on music used in worship (at least in my church circles), I see some of the same dangers.

For you non-barbershoppers normal people, let me explain a little bit about the style of music called “barbershop.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, music in America was very much a participatory art. Many homes had a piano in the parlor, and for entertainment the family would gather around the piano and sing (some of you may have grown up in a home that preserved this tradition). The songs from that era were written with melodies that were easily singable, and the chord structure of the music made harmonies easy to improvise. So everyone could join in. And if you were some place that didn’t have a piano – like the barbershop, for instance – this style of music was so ear-friendly that one person could sing a familiar melody and three other people could create harmonies around that melody. An impromptu jam session!  And so “barbershop” music was born. From the late 1800s through the 1920s barbershop quartets thrived.

This era came to an end with the rise of several changes in technology. The mass production of cars enabled families to get out of the house and find entertainment elsewhere. Motion pictures (with sound!) gave people something to enjoy as spectators rather than participants. And recording technology – especially the microphone – enabled singers and musicians to perform far more sophisticated music than what was previously possible.

All of these trends came to a climax with jazz. The intricate rhythms and virtuoso improvisations of jazz were dazzling. They were also impossible for the average musician to emulate. And so participatory singing declined dramatically as music became a spectator event. This also meant the end of the barbershop quartet (until a group of men decided to revive the art form, but that’s a story for another time!).

So when Val Hicks wrote his article on the dangers of sophistication, he was warning that if the barbershop style becomes too sophisticated it will also become less participatory, i.e. the Barbershop Harmony Society will lose members. It is undeniable that since he wrote this article, the barbershop style has indeed become more sophisticated, and membership in the Society has indeed declined. Whether there is a correlation here is of course a matter of debate. But if Hicks was correct, then you would expect a Society consisting of more and more enjoyment of sophisticated music by fewer and fewer people….

I bring all of this up to share concerns over musical trends in my own church experience (yours may be very different for a number of reasons). Let me put my biases on the table. I am suspicious of any hymn written after 1800 (and I’m only sort of kidding!). In my opinion music from the time of hymnodists like John Newton, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley was much more biblically saturated and theologically rich than more current music. There are to be sure wonderful spiritual songs written by contemporary writers (like my friend Matthew Bassford). But if I had to pick between two hymns, and all I knew was that one was written before 1800 and the other was written after, I’m going with the oldies 10 out of 10 times.

But aside from my concerns over the substance of contemporary music, I am also concerned about the music itself. According to passages like Ephesians 5:19, singing has two dimensions, the vertical one (“making melody to the Lord with your heart”) and the horizontal one (“addressing one another”). Good music enhances these twin objectives by supporting the lyrics and enabling the worshiper to praise God and encourage his fellow worshiper.

Consequently, in addition to the substantive lyrics of older hymns, I also prefer the music that accompanied them. The melodies of those songs were generally very easy for the average singer to enjoy. Quite often they were drawn from familiar folk melodies of the day (older hymnals often just placed the name of a well-known tune above the lyrics so the congregants who did not read music could nevertheless sing the song). The chord structures of older hymns were for the most part very ear-friendly, easy to harmonize with. And the rhythms were usually not intricate but simple to follow.

Many newer songs are much more sophisticated, though. They feature dissonant chord structures – all of which are very beautiful but also very difficult for the average singer to tune correctly. The use of rangy melody lines and syncopated rhythms only exacerbate the difficulty of the harmonies.

The “dangers of sophistication” in church music are the same as in other forms of music. Above all, worship in the New Testament is a participatory spiritual experience. “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). It is not relegated to the function of a handful of “professionals,” nor it is a performance to be observed by admiring spectators. More sophisticated music means greater expertise is required to participate. And in the context of worship, that is not a good thing.

Even in the temple services of the Old Testament, with its elaborate instrumentation and Levitical singers, worship was still a communal experience.

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
    let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
    that those who love your name may exult in you (Psalm 5:11).

Sophisticated music in the worship of the church can turn worship into performance. It can transform worshipers into spectators. And it can make music become an end in and of itself rather than the means to the end of honoring God and encouraging each other. Good spiritual songs should aim to invite and involve God’s people to participate in worship, with musical harmony that enhances and reflects deeper spiritual harmony.

5 Comments

  1. I appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you!

  2. Wendell Glass

    March 9, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    Great words Shane. Keep up the good work brother.

  3. Scott Hutchison

    March 9, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    Excellent observations Shane.

    I live in both of your worlds.
    I’ve struggled with several aspects of how modern barbershoppers are completely dependent on learning tracks and apparently have no capability to interpret a song and simply sing what is “spoon fed” to them via the learning tracks. I call that form of barbershop “karaoke barbershop” because they are in effect simply singing along with a memorized karaoke track in their mind.
    Modern churches with their very talented “semi-pro” music leaders are doing the same thing. In an effort to make the singing easy for the “K-love” radio station listeners (they think their average congregate listens to these station throughout the week – that point could very well be debated) their goal is to mimic the songs and performers as heard on the radio allowing the congregate to participate in a Christian form of Mitch Miller’s sing-a-long. This to my thinking becomes Karaoke Worship. Those that don’t listen to these stations are left fo wonder why the leaders are changing their vocal techniques and style every song throughout the service.
    I was surprised that the A cappella churches would not have had more success avoiding these problems. You can imagine how much those of us in “instrumental” churches have to deal with. From where do the complicated A cappella church arrangements come from? Do they also repeat the same phrase over and over like the so called 7-11 praise songs (same 7 words sung 11 times)?
    Thank you for the insight.

  4. Great thoughts and very timely.

  5. Eddie Callender

    March 11, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    Very good article.

Comments are closed.