The building dictates the music

A lot of music is dictated by the building it is played in, particularly church music. The resonance of the building creates a sound that is played there. You only have to hear the resonance of softly sung voices in a large cathedral, choral evensong in York Minster being a case in point, to realise that the building is as much a part of the sound as is the choir. Marvellous stuff.

The organ in Ripon Cathedral, shared via Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral model of music was also practised in large parish churches. Most smaller churches did not have an organ but there was a gallery at the west end of the church, behind the congregation, where the gallery band would play. The type and quality of that music varied depending on the skills of the congregation. It would vary from place to place from folk style music to classical based tunes. There is a church in the west country which still has its west gallery in place, and there is a circular hole in the gallery front, at about knee height where the double bass player’s bow would pass.

The size and style of the building dictated the style of music that was played. It was in the Victorian period, the 19th Century, that organs became more and more common in smaller churches. The cathedral modal was rolled out to smaller churches. I am not convinced that it was always a good move, not all churches had the put on choral worship.

But that is history. Today’s contemporary worship has the same problems. Not all churches have the resources to put on worship like that posted on YouTube. Typically there are at least two acoustic guitars, two electric guitars, two keyboard players, bass and drums, plus bass, drums and backing singers, all playing to a packed arena. Mega churches of that size are not everywhere, How do we translate that to smaller places of worship? The answer looks little different to that of the west gallery bands of the 18th century, people bring what instruments and what level of proficiency they have and play music contemporaneous to the age they live in. The only change seems to be they are now in front of, rather than behind the congregation.

Buildings have always been a factor in changes in music. Larger concert halls led to larger orchestras which in turn led to new music for those orchestras. Rock and pop music also changed when it moved out of theatres and concert halls into stadia and festivals in the open air. Music has always adapted to fit the venue it is played in.

How this relates to Christian corporate worship is interesting. When I see people’s discussions on what worship means it is often about the relationship of the individual and God, which is part of it and important, but we do not worship alone; or it could be of the relationship of the Congregation to God. These are Good because God is the object of our worship. But there is another dimension that is often overlooked, we worship together and our relationship with each other is important: That dynamic is affected by the surroundings and the size of the gathering. The role of the leading musicians and singers is to welcome God to the gathering and make the introduction, “God these are your people,” and to the people, mainly collectively but also individually, “People, this is your God.” The people can be in different places when they come to worship, one may have had a prayerful and reflective walk to church, whilst another may have driven and encountered the crazies that are also on the road at the same time and arrive in need of calming from road rage. We need to focus together on God. How we do this will depend on whether we are in a small rural church, a large church building or cathedral or a converted warehouse with a stage at the end. The style, traditional or contemporary, is largely irrelevant, what is important is that we are brought together to focus on God who is worthy of our praise. And we do that in our surroundings, this is all part of worship.

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