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What is “showing off”? – PART I

Blogger Shannan Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in music and digital humanities at Baylor University, where she recently finished her Ph.D. in Church Music (2022). 

 

 

 

What is “showing off”?: The Musical Layers of Congregational Singing – PART I

I recently came back from a mission trip with a group of Baylor students to Malaysia and Indonesia.  The trip was an encouraging reminder of the vastness of the body of Christ.  I heard stories of God’s faithfulness and had opportunities to equip and encourage them in their ministry. Because of the timing, I was only able to attend one church service on a Sunday. I realized later that what occurred at this one service was not exclusive to this church.  In a conversation with some students later that day, one of them asked me if I knew why they didn’t sing harmonies. It took me a moment to realize that, though the students attended a different church that morning, the service that I attended also only sang the melody.

As a researcher and a generally curious person, I found one of our hosts and asked him.  Two things occurred in his response.  1) He was surprised by the question.  It was as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him that there would be another way.  This signaled to me that only singing melody is the common practice whether in a hymn singing or contemporary worship singing church.  2) He did provide me with an answer.  He stated that singing harmonies would be considered “showy,” meaning it would draw attention to those who were singing instead of God.

While I knew that what is considered “showing off” is subjective, his response really got me thinking about how subjective it really is.  Culturally, singing harmonies is “showy” in Indonesia, but expected practice in the United States (at least for the churches I’ve attended).  Again, as a researcher and overall curious person, I began to wonder how many layers of what we do in American congregational singing is considered “additional.”  If we understand singing the melody as the essential act in worship, what else have we added?

Now, those who have studied music have taken the history courses that trace how music has developed over time.  People have explained the process from Gregorian chant to the common era to atonal music to the plurality of styles we have now.  What I hope to do in this short prose is to unpack all the layers to our congregational singing practices, many of which apply to both traditional and contemporary contexts (even if actually performed differently).

Culturally, singing harmonies is “showy” in Indonesia, but expected practice in the United States

 

The Layers of Singing in Worship

  1. The Melody

The melody is the most memorable and, some would argue, most important element when it comes to congregational singing.  This is the tune that everyone should, theoretically, be able to sing.  However, that phrase “should be able to sing” has led to conversations about range.  One of the roles of a worship pastor is to determine what key to use for each song.  For contemporary worship songs, this can be challenging since many of the songs have a wide range, spanning an octave or more.  While this decision is predetermined for the hymn singing church, in some cases, the key selected by the hymnal committee puts the melody in a higher placement.  As an alto, I am singing high D’s, E’s or on occasion F’s.  The solution I have found during the first verse (when the accepted practice is for everyone to sing the melody the first time through) is to sing an octave below when it gets too high, or to sing the entire melody in the lower octave.  In contemporary worship contexts, one of the solutions (often reflected in the original recordings) is to have the person singing switch from the male vocalist to the female vocalist for different sections such as the bridge.

Now, if melody is the primary element for singing in worship, could this ever be “showy”?  What comes to mind initially are impressive moments in secular songs. In spaces where the attention is intended to be drawn to the talent of the performer, I think of songs that have high notes and are placed in keys that place the melody higher.  Some incredible vocalists that come to mind include Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and of course, Whitney Houston.  These female vocalists are renowned for their ability to hit really high notes.  If church songs were put in ranges where only a handful of the congregation could sing the top notes, that would probably also be considered “showy” (even though everyone may be singing the melody).

So, does “showy” indicate any time when the congregation is not able to sing the melody?  Or rather, when the congregation is not able to join in the singing at all?

What most people would consider a solution to the problem would be to put the melody within a range for every voice part to sing.  For a melody to be in a comfortable range for basses, tenors, altos, and sopranos it would need to be in a very small area of the staff.  According to the New Harvard Dictionary of Music, these are the ranges for each voice part:

Immediately, the range for everyone to sing in the same octave is taken away because it’s too high for the basses or too low for the sopranos.  If the tenors/basses and altos/sopranos sing in octaves, the range widens a bit from C4-C5.  However, the closer it gets to C5, the higher it feels for the altos and the basses.  The complexity of different voice ranges explains why some people have concluded to have a male vocalist and female vocalist sing the melody for different sections in a song.

In summary, finding a song that fits the range of every vocal part is difficult.  This leads to one possible solution (and our next musical layer): harmonies.

While singing harmonies is considered “showy” in some cultures because it draws attention to those vocalists, it can serve a practical function in helping people join in singing.

  1. Harmonies

If you enter a church on Sunday in the United States, you will likely hear people singing in harmonies.  In hymnal churches, those harmonies are provided for the congregation.  Each voice part will find their note on the staff and sing that.  If we define “showy” as something that people cannot join in singing, then in this context, harmonies provide a way by which people can continue to sing even if the melody extends beyond their comfortable range.

In contemporary worship spaces, the words are displayed on the screen and people learn the melody by repetition and singing along. Often, these harmonies are created spontaneously, and the congregation learns by following someone who is singing that part on stage or in a recording.  If “showy” is defined as the congregation not being able to sing, then contemporary worship spaces might initially be considered “showy.”  However, after enough repetitions many people in the congregation can hear these parts and sing them instead of the melody.

While harmonies are offered as a solution to the melodic range problem, when they become more complex, they move back into the category of showing off.  Many contemporary worship songs and hymns do not often include non-diatonic chords.  They typically stick to the typical I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi.  In some instances, there might be a major II or III chord or a bVII chord that sneaks in; though, these chords are not that common.  In other styles of music, other chords and additional notes in the harmonies are more complex.  These complex chords lead to complex harmonies, since the harmony parts are drawn from the chords that accompany the melody.  These complex chords are often considered more performative because they are difficult for untrained singers or choir members to figure out.

While singing harmonies is considered “showy” in some cultures because it draws attention to those vocalists, it can serve a practical function in helping people join in singing.  Whether read in music or learned by ear, harmonies offer a way for people to continue singing when the melody may not be comfortable as long as the harmonies are not too complex.

 

PART II with topics “Ad-libs” and “Free/Spontaneous Worship” will drop next week! Stay Tuned…

 

Blogger Shannan Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in music and digital humanities at Baylor University, where she recently finished her Ph.D. in Church Music (2022). 

 

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