Music’s Place in Modern Worship
SINGING is a gift from God. Raising our voices in song can bring pleasure to us and to our Creator. By means of it, we can express our emotions, both sorrows and joys. Even more, we can voice our love, adoration, and praise for the Originator of song, Jehovah.
Most of some three hundred Bible references to music relate to the worship of Jehovah. Singing is also associated with joy—not only the joy of those singing but joy on the part of Jehovah as well. The psalmist wrote: “Let them make melody to him. For Jehovah is taking pleasure in his people.”—Psalm 149:3, 4.
But how important is singing in modern worship? How can Jehovah’s people today please him by raising their voices in song? What place should music have in true worship? Exploring the history of music in worship will help answer these questions.
Music’s Historical Place in Worship
The first Biblical reference to music is not specifically noted in connection with the worship of Jehovah. At Genesis 4:21, Jubal is credited with what may be the invention of the first musical instruments or perhaps the establishment of some kind of music profession. However, music was a part of Jehovah’s worship even before the creation of humans. A number of Bible translations describe angels as singing. Job 38:7 tells of the angels crying out joyfully and “shouting in applause.” Thus, there is Scriptural reason to believe that singing in worship to Jehovah was a practice long before man came on the scene.
Some historians have argued that ancient Hebrew music was all melody, without supportive harmony. However, more than one note could be played at a time on the harp, an instrument prominently mentioned in the Bible. The harpists must have noticed the harmony that could be produced by combinations of tones on the instrument. Rather than being primitive, their music was undoubtedly quite advanced. And judging by the poetry and prose of the Hebrew Scriptures, we can conclude that Israelite music was of high quality. Certainly, the inspiration for musical compositions was far loftier than that of the neighboring nations.
The ancient temple organization provided for complex arrangements of instrumentation and voices in temple worship. (2 Chronicles 29:27, 28) There were “directors,” “experts,” “learners,” and “heads of the singers.” (1 Chronicles 15:21; 25:7, 8; Nehemiah 12:46) Commenting on their advanced musical skills, historian Curt Sachs wrote: “The choruses and orchestras connected with the Temple in Jerusalem suggest a high standard of musical education, skill, and knowledge. . . . Though we do not know how that ancient music sounded, we have sufficient evidence of its power, dignity, and mastership.” (The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West, 1943, pages 48, 101-2) The Song of Solomon is an example of the creativity and quality of Hebrew compositions. It is a story in song, similar to the libretto, or text, of an opera. The song is called in the Hebrew text “Song of the Songs,” that is, the most excellent song. For the ancient Hebrews, singing was an integral part of worship. And it allowed for positive emotional expression in their praise of Jehovah.
Singing by the First-Century Christians
Music continued to be a regular part of worship among the early Christians. In addition to having the inspired Psalms, seemingly they composed original music and lyrics for worship, setting the precedent for modern-day composition of Christian songs. (Ephesians 5:19) The book The History of Music, by Waldo Selden Pratt, explains: “Singing in public and private worship was a matter of course for the early Christians. For Jewish converts this was a continuance of synagogue customs . . . In addition to the Hebrew Psalms . . . , the new faith tended constantly to produce new hymns, at first apparently in the form of rhapsodies.”*
Highlighting the value of singing, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Evening Meal, he and the apostles probably sang the Hallels. (Matthew 26:26-30) These were songs of praise to Jehovah recorded in the Psalms and sung in connection with the Passover celebration.—Psalms 113-118.
The Influence of False Worship
By the so-called Dark Ages, religious music was reduced to mournful chanting. About 200 C.E., Clement of Alexandria said: “We need one instrument: the peaceful word of adoration, not harps or drums or pipes or trumpets.” Restrictions were imposed, limiting church music to vocals. This style became known as a chant or plainsong. “Less than forty years after the erection of Constantinople, the Council of Laodicea (A.D. 367) prohibited the participation both of instruments and of congregations in the liturgy. Orthodox music has been purely vocal,” says the book Our Musical Heritage. (Italics ours.) These restrictions had no basis in early Christianity.
During the Dark Ages, the Bible was a closed book to the common people. Christians who dared to own or to read a Bible were persecuted and even killed. It is no wonder, then, that the practice of singing praises to God largely disappeared during that dark period. After all, if the common people did not have access to the Scriptures, how would they know that one tenth of the entire Bible is song? Who would inform them that God commanded his worshipers to “sing to Jehovah a new song, his praise in the congregation of loyal ones”?—Psalm 149:1.
Restoring Music to Its Proper Place in Worship
Jehovah’s organization has done much to restore music and singing to their rightful place in worship. For example, the February 1, 1896, issue of Zion’s Watch Tower consisted of only songs. It was entitled “Zion’s Glad Songs of the Morning.”
In 1938 singing at congregation meetings was largely dispensed with. However, the wisdom of following apostolic example and direction soon prevailed. At the 1944 district convention, F. W. Franz delivered the discourse “Song of Kingdom Service.” He showed that songs of praise to Jehovah were offered by God’s heavenly creatures long before the creation of man and said: “It is proper and pleasing to God for His earthly servants to lift their voices in literal song.” After developing the argument for singing in worship, he announced the release of the Kingdom Service Song Book for use at the weekly service meetings.* Then the December 1944 Informant (now called Our Kingdom Ministry) announced that other meetings would also include opening and closing songs. Singing once again became a part of Jehovah’s worship.
‘Singing in Our Hearts to Jehovah’
The value of heartfelt singing is illustrated by our brothers in Eastern Europe and in Africa who have experienced years of adversity and persecution. Lothar Wagner spent seven years in solitary confinement. How did he bear up? “For several weeks I concentrated on completing my storehouse of Kingdom songs. When I did not know the text exactly I simply made up one or two stanzas. . . . What an abundance of encouraging and upbuilding thoughts our Kingdom songs contain!”—1974 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pages 226-8.
During five years of solitary confinement because of his faithful stand, Harold King found comfort in composing and singing songs of praise to Jehovah. Several of his compositions are now used by Jehovah’s Witnesses in their worship. The joy connected with singing is a sustaining one. But it should not take persecution to convince us of the value of singing praises to God.
All of Jehovah’s people can find joy in song. Even though we may have some inhibitions in expressing ourself verbally, our feelings toward Jehovah can be free when we voice them in song. The apostle Paul indicated how we can find joy in singing praises when he admonished Christians to keep “speaking to yourselves with psalms and praises to God and spiritual songs, singing and accompanying yourselves with music in your hearts to Jehovah.” (Ephesians 5:19) When our hearts are filled with spiritual things, we find powerful expression in song. So the key to improved singing is the right heart attitude.
Having a good relationship with Jehovah contributes to a joyful spirit, moving us to speak, sing, and shout Jehovah’s praises. (Psalm 146:2, 5) We sing heartily about the things we enjoy. And if we like the song or the sentiments of the song, we will most likely sing it with real feeling.
One does not have to sing loudly to sing with feeling. Loud singing is not necessarily synonymous with good singing; neither is singing that cannot be heard. Some voices with natural resonance may stand out even though the singing may be soft. Part of the challenge of singing well in a group is learning to blend in. Whether you are singing in harmony or in unison, your matching volume with those near you makes for a pleasing and unified song. Christian modesty and a listening ear help one acquire the balance of singing out with spirit and yet not being overbearing with one’s voice. However, those who sing with skill or who have exceptionally fine voices should never be discouraged from singing out. A beautiful voice can provide strong support to a congregation singing praises to Jehovah.
Singing at our meetings also provides an appropriate setting for singing harmony parts to the melodies. Those who have an ear for harmony or who can read the harmony lines in the songbook and voice them are encouraged to blend in with the singing and add to the beauty of the music.*
Some may claim, ‘I cannot carry a tune’ or ‘I have a terrible voice; it cracks on the high notes.’ Thus, they are timid when singing, even at the Kingdom Hall. The truth is that no voice lifted up in praise to Jehovah is “terrible” from his viewpoint. Just as one’s speaking voice can be improved with practice and by following helpful suggestions given in the Theocratic Ministry School, so one’s singing can be improved. Some have improved their voices by simply humming while doing chores. Humming helps smooth out the tone of the voice. And at appropriate times while we are alone or working where we would not disturb others, singing Kingdom melodies is an excellent exercise for the voice and a means of putting one in a joyful, relaxed frame of mind.
We can also encourage singing a few of the Kingdom songs at gatherings. Such singing, accompanied by an instrument such as a guitar or a piano or by the Society’s piano recordings, gives a spiritual tone to our gatherings. It also provides an aid for learning the songs and singing them well at congregation meetings.
To help congregations get into the spirit of singing at meetings, the Society has provided recorded musical accompaniments. When they are played, the one handling the sound system should be aware of the volume. If the music is not loud enough, the congregation may be timid about singing out. As the brother controlling the sound system sings along with the congregation, he will be able to determine whether the music is giving a supportive lead or not.
Make Melody to Jehovah
Singing gives us the opportunity to express our feelings for our Creator. (Psalm 149:1, 3) It is, not just an emotional outburst, but a controlled, reasonable, and joyful expression of our praise. Pouring our heart into congregation singing can put us in the proper frame of mind and heart for the program that follows and can spur us on to a greater share in Jehovah’s worship. Although singing has emotional impact, the words can also serve to instruct us. By thus expressing ourselves in unison and in harmony, we are meekly and humbly preparing our hearts so that we may learn together as a congregated people.—Compare Psalm 10:17.
Singing will always be a part of Jehovah’s worship. We therefore have the prospect of sharing forever the sentiments of the psalmist: “I will praise Jehovah during my lifetime. I will make melody to my God as long as I am.”—Psalm 146:2.
A rhapsody is a musical piece distinguished in various sections by a spirit of freedom. Often rhapsodies extolled heroic events or characters.
First Corinthians 14:15 appears to indicate that singing was a regular feature of first-century Christian worship.
Some of the songs in our current songbook, Sing Praises to Jehovah, retain the four-part harmony style for the benefit of those who enjoy singing the harmony parts. However, many of the songs have been arranged for piano accompaniment and were given a musical style that seeks to preserve the international origins of the tunes. Improvising harmonic notes for the songs written without the strict four-part harmonies may provide a pleasing enhancement to our singing at meetings.
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Some Suggestions for Better Singing
1. Hold the songbook up when singing. This helps one to breathe more naturally.
2. Take a good breath at the beginning of each phrase.
3. Opening the mouth a little more than feels comfortable at first will naturally increase the volume and resonance of the voice.
4. Above all, keep in focus the sentiment of the song being sung.