Musing on the Quality of Music in UU Services

Music–especially hymn singing, closing songs, and instrumental interludes–in UU churches is often intended to provide a more “emotional” content to balance the intellectual content of lecture-type sermons, announcements, and the general Low Church atmosphere of such gatherings.  There are congregations that provide fantastic music, and often there is a particularly gifted musical director behind this happy phenomenon.

But probably more often, UU music is limp and off-tune, even forced.  This is particularly so for hymn singing.  What are the reasons for this?  Some speculate that is because the dominant upper middle class white demographic of UUism doesn’t have natural rhythm or soul.  Certainly many a minister has tried in vain to get UUs in the pews to clap along, sway, or even smile or show any emotion at all while standing like uncomfortable statues waiting to see when they get to sit back down again.  Another possibility is that UUs are unused to many of the hymns they are asked to perform: they are mostly converts who grew up with hymns other than the ones popular in UU congregations (or, no hymns at all), and even if the tune may be familiar in some cases, the words have often changed from what they knew.  This is compounded by the large number of hymns in the current hymnals, many of which are unfamiliar outside the denomination and come up infrequently even within UU circles.  It’s possible too that some hymns are simply unsingable, at least by non-professionals.

Perhaps another possibility, one that hasn’t been often mentioned, originates in that alleged opposition between music/emotion and sermon/intellect.  After basting silently in an intellectual atmosphere for most of a UU service, it may be hard for people to suddenly shift gears into a few minutes of emotive singing.  If that is the case, then greater attention to emotional balance throughout the service would likely yield greater singing.  The point here is not just to make UU singing sound aesthetically pleasing, but to make it more effective (for instance, as an emotional expression) by making it more natural and comfortable.  The emotion many get out of current UU singing seems to be embarrassment, which is certainly not the intention.

What factors do you think go into poor UU singing?  Are there hymns that simply shouldn’t be chosen, no matter how appealing their lyrics are?  And if your congregation or one you know of has managed to display an unusually good level of musical aptitude in services, what do you think is being done right in such circumstances?  Here’s a chance to compare notes and perhaps raise the level of UU services over a broad area.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Musing on the Quality of Music in UU Services

  1. I have split emotions over this issue. We have a great choir, I’m talking professional quality, and a huge, rare organ that has been featured in stories about musical instruments… I’d feel guilty about complaining about the music. But 99.7% of the hymns in the hymnal don’t reach me at all. Half of them are new to me, not being raised in that tradition, and most of the ones I do know have been bowdlerized, which never fails to evoke a quick flash of resentment. What’s left- the ones that are actually singable by normal people- are snoozers. I sometimes think they make you stand to sing to keep you from sleeping.

    This is not a uniquely UU problem, but we seem to have it worse than many… what is there about religion that seems to make people believe that anything that sounds as if it were written after 1795 is frivolous and unworthy? We’ve finally stopped building churches to look faux-gothic, but we still insist on singing hymns that Henry II would have felt comfortable singing.

  2. Okay, I’m thick here. What does 1795 or Henry II (1133 – 1189) signify in the current discussion? Mere hyperbole or something more?

    A few comments and observations:

    My small emerging congregation doesn’t have any musicians among its 23 members, no choir, and multiple members really dislike hymns. When I lead services, I usually include hymns anyway in order to give something other than responsive readings that the congregation is actively involved in rather than sitting in full static consumer mode. The quality is nothing to brag about, but that is not the main consideration.

    My congregation has no life-long UUs, so another reason for including hymns in our services is to begin to function more as a congregation within our denomination, with the denomination’s worship history and with the denomination’s own hymnals as part of that history. Again, quality is a secondary concern here.

    I assume Joel’s concerns about bowdlerization have to do with the lyrics that have been modified to allow the use of the hymn without sticking with its previous orthodox Christian lyrics. It is true that this is not always done with the greatest taste. But others are handled quite well. E.g., “Once in Royal David’s City.”

    I have no problem with bowdlerization of hymns, only with poorly done bowdlerizations.

    Most of the time we are not talking about the original lyrics being masterpieces of literature anyway. Rather, the originals expressed a certain religious and theological view. Artistically or inartistically.

    Furthermore, Protestant worship has long been comfortable using whatever lyrics with whatever tunes that are a metrical fit. We’re securely within the mainstream to make new lyrics or alter lyrics to suit our values.

    Old hymns get preserved because enough people like them, regardless of whether they are great art or not.

    People hung onto faux-gothic for a long time because that was the architectural vocabulary of worship that they understood. When they came to understand a new vocabulary, new architectural worship styles became something more than an abomination to the people.

    Same with music. People stick with what speaks to them, whether art or nostalgia or kitsch. We can move into a new idiom by following the people or by leading the people. But success of the new approach depends on the people being in on it.

    So, to bring it to some kind of conclusion, I see four main issues here. First, not every use of artistic media can or should properly prioritize quality. Second, being “unfaithful” to originals is, in sich, neither good nor bad and is, itself, part of our larger tradition. Third, hanging onto old forms long after their sell-by date is, in sich, neither good nor bad. Fourth, moving into new artistic forms requires the participation of the people.

  3. Here I go again,,,

    Regarding the observation that “Certainly many a minister has tried in vain to get UUs in the pews to clap along, sway, or even smile or show any emotion at all while standing like uncomfortable statues waiting to see when they get to sit back down again,” I must say that I would not like to be prodded to emote by a minister: “Emote, I say! And again I say, emote!”

    I think it can be good for a minister to encourage people to be who they are. If that is clapping to lively music, fine. But if the minister is trying to get people in the pew to be someone they are not and it is not toward some specific ethical goal, then the minister would better drop it and concentrate on something that matters. There is no ethical content in my “refusal” to sway, so leave it be.

    As for the emotive nature of music standing in opposition to or in balance with the cerebral nature of the sermon and other non-musical aspects of the service, I don’t see that distinction at all. In my congregation, I am far more likely to see tears in response to emotive portions of good sermons than in response to music, no matter how beautiful. The music used in services may sometimes have a joy-emotive factor, but joy is only one emotion. Some of the more “complicated” emotions respond more to narrative or, occasionally, moral exhortation than they do to music.

  4. I recently attended a leadership school where the music was simply unbelievable in its liveliness. (no music director was there) Perhaps it was the energy of participating in worship that was new or how emotional the experience was for everyone. However, we were taught that songs that are simple to sing and don’t require reading create more energy. I do agree with that complex songs make for less emotion. I suppose on the congregation’s view of music, or that particular service. Our congregation has a ‘traditional’ service were the music is very removed from emotions and is more appreciated as art, and one that is supposed to be more ‘eclectic’ with modern songs and the congregation as a participant in the song. I’ve yet to implement the leadership school’s suggestions for worship at my home congregation; thank you for this insight.

  5. Myra

    I think having one person.. A minimum of one who can really sing. Singing one song until you learn it is helpful. The Teal hymnal is a bit harder to learn but the song are more upbeat and modern.. We have had practices before services. We have the choir to help and we are now for the most part a singing congregation.

    Some of the hymns in the gray hymnal are unsingable by our congregation and many others. It’s important to have someone who knows music and hymnal help pick hymns. There’s no law that you cannot use songs from Rise up Singing or other locations if the hymnal doesn’t work for the singers you’ve got.

    I love singing, but I think for some congregations, listening to recorded music might be more reverent than attempting to sing when you can’t. You can use the songs that are to hard to sing as readings in the service.

  6. amylynn1022

    It’s been my theory for a while that the grey hymnal was designed in part to allow a small church to do choir on the cheap by including a number of songs that you really need a choir (or a least some people who have practiced before hand) to perform successfully.

    It’s easy to ask why we UUs don’t sing well but I really don’t think it is just us. I visited the local megachurch a few years ago, out of curiosity. I didn’t have great expectations about the sermon but one thing I was looking forward to was hearing 3000+ people singing. I was rather shocked, however, at the abysmal quality of the singing. I was trying more than most of the people around me–all while grimacing at the lyrics. The church intentionally rotated musical styles and that week this service was doing modern worship music, which I suspect was unfamiliar to most of the people there. There was also a complete with band and state of the art sound system–I wonder if that didn’t intimidate people or make them feel like they were listening to a performance rather than participating in musical worship.

    I suspect that part of the issue is with the broader culture. We have made music ubiquitous through recording, but we have also made creating music primarily a professional activity. People compare themselves to the professional recordings that surround us and come up short. I discussed this idea with our former music director, and she pointed out that it was even worse. Professional recording are edited compilations of multiple recordings, which are then electronically modified. Even professional musicians performing live can’t sound as “professional” as their recordings! Without realizing it, I think a lot of us hold our singing up to an unattainable ideal, and when we can’t meet it, respond by shutting up. I think the problem is not mainly in our hymnals, whatever their flaws, but in ourselves. I think if we had ways to empower the folks in our pews, we would be able to work with all but worst hymnals.

    • charles goodell

      In the Red Hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit with Services,
      the words of James Russell Lowell, Whittier, Emerson,
      and other anti-slavery opponents of the Mexican War were
      not bowdlerized. When “Once to Every Man and Nation”
      was written it was men and not “Souls” and certainly not women that were the “deciders”. These songs have a
      history. We must struggle against amnesia and
      saccharinity.

  7. Dr. Morrie Reece

    Both the Unitarian and the Universalist congregations have a 230 year history in America of changing the words in their hymnals. I know, because I researched the hymnals used over the past 230 years and gave a workshop on this very topic last January. We have no sacred creed, but we’ve always had a hymnal, and we sing what we are.

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