On Music: Musical Literacy and Faith Formation
Amy Cerniglia serves as the director of music and outreach at Peace Presbyterian Church
and as communications coordinator for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.
An integral part of our faith formation, musical discipleship takes many forms. Just as general literacy empowers Christians to navigate the Word, musical literacy strengthens our worship. Without notation, worship can only include improvised or memorized music. While that offers great accessibility and flexibility in some settings, notation increases our independence, collaborative skills, and understanding of church music history. As daunting as this task may sound to worship arts directors and leaders pressed for time, our labor bears fruit for our church’s next generation.
Before the advent of notation, music existed in every civilization, but the absence of a standardized system hindered its preservation and dissemination. In the Middle Ages, notation revolutionized the teaching and learning of music. John Calvin emphasized the importance of understanding music sung in worship to the triune God. As he wrote in the preface to the Genevan Psalter, 1543, “. . . it is necessary to remember that which St. Paul hath said, the spiritual songs cannot be well sung save from the heart. But the heart requires intelligence.” Calvin’s desire for a greater understanding of music in worship led him to replace singing in Latin with hymns in the vernacular language.
Just as a person can learn new language skills at any age, Christians of all ages can grow in worship skills and musical arts. As Paul Hill wrote, “With surprisingly little effort, it is possible for the present-day church musicians to begin reclaiming the church’s role as ‘patron of the arts’ simply by reasserting ourselves as church music educators, providing more comprehensive music education to our choir members.”1 For people without access to music lessons or schools with funding for musical education programs, the church can step in the gap.
Reading skills help us to “play better” with one another as we glorify God together. Notation offers a common ground, a universal language connecting us with our siblings in Christ across nations and generations. Although some global music lends itself well to aural learning, such as a call-and-response pattern, much global hymnody is too complex for rote learning. And just as ensembles rely on sheet music to simplify the rehearsal process, music literacy provides pastors with more tools for collaborative and sensitive worship planning. While seminaries often help teaching elders discern appropriate hymn texts, seminaries generally don’t address notation beyond the text. The ability to identify a range of notes can help pastors identify hymns that fit more easily into most vocal ranges. Time signatures and basic rhythmic values don’t require a mastery of musical notation, but they can certainly guide pastors in the selection of accessible hymns that congregations can more easily sing.
Of course, no two people enter a church with the same background knowledge, experiences, or learning styles. A flexible approach can adjust to diverse backgrounds. The Royal School of Church Music in America offers musical education to children and adults with high-quality choral music, a structured vocal curriculum, and summer music courses. Other music directors may prefer the Kodály method, which begins to name musical elements as soon as musicians can internalize pitch and rhythmic pulse. All Hands In: Drumming the Biblical Narrative by Brian Hehn incorporates biblical stories with easy introductions to rhythmic patterns. Such a resource can serve as a valuable stepping stone by requiring only an understanding of rhythmic values, not reading pitches. Those who self-describe as lacking in natural rhythm, unable to “feel” the beat, may benefit from seeing the beat with the visual aid of note values.
While the majority in our congregations would not self-identify as musicians, all of us have an important voice in the body of Christ. In 1 Chronicles 25:5–7, Scripture reminds us of the church’s role in training musicians for worship. Christians possess a valuable resource for such formation: our hymnals. In hymnals, robust theological texts are often paired with American folk tunes, allowing the ear to assist the eye in following notation. In many cases, the Glory to God hymnal also prints chord names above the staves. These chords provide a middle ground for musicians adjusting to the use of a hymnal or musical notation in general. For example, an instrumentalist relying on chord names to accompany a hymn can advance to reading the bass notes, knowing that the chords are still available as guard rails.
Most directors are already struggling with time limitations in rehearsal settings. Other opportunities for instruction, such as the Sunday hour after worship, might relieve directors of midweek stress and widen the welcome to newcomers that can’t rehearse midweek. Regardless of timing, a class can build musical confidence without the pressure of a rehearsal. After all, most of our church’s music groups are rehearsing for regular music leadership in worship. The quietest worshipers with no ambitions of leading the congregation stand to gain the most by engaging in worship with new tools and growing trust in their own voices.
When we worship, we proclaim our faith in greater depth by more fully understanding the services we offer to God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “The more we sing, the more joy will we derive from it, but, above all, the more devotion and discipline and joy we put into our singing, the richer will be the blessing that will come to the whole life of the fellowship from singing together.”2 More education in musical literacy can encourage congregations to learn independently, collaborate more fluidly, and worship the triune God with even greater joy.
1. Paul G. Hill, “Music Literacy Among Adults in Church Choirs,” The Choral Journal 50, no. 5 (December 2009): 10.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1988).