Guest Post: A letter to the Music Committee of the LDS Church

Posted on October 23, 2007. Filed under: music, race | Tags: , , |

A month or so ago, we put up a guest post on Church music, and shortly after we received from David Stoker an email containing a letter he had recently sent to the Church Music Committee. After extensive traveling, he was concerned about the ways Church music sometimes failed to uplift and inspire various members around the world, depending on the culture. This thoughtful letter brings up a number of salient points about exporting our Western European musical tradition to the rest of the world.

Below is a shortened version of the letter: …One element of culture shock [among Southeast Asian refugee converts] that I didn’t anticipate was the difficulty and strangeness of the music of the Church. I presupposed that singing could be a moment to relax from the relentless concentration required to listen to translation and simply be a still, pure moment of worship. But my Asian friends seemed to struggle with the hymns, the melodies and intervals were so foreign to them, to the point that most did not participate. I knew it was not that they didn’t enjoy singing (as one example, despite their relative poverty, every home was indelibly equipped with a karaoke machine), the music itself was the challenge.

I have subsequently traveled to Cambodia and worshiped with the saints there. While the singing of hymns enjoys more participation there, I think primarily because the entire congregation sings in the native language, I could still feel their struggle with the harmonies, intervals, and melodies which are unnatural to their ears. The traditional music of Cambodia, and all of Asia for that matter, employs a completely different musical scale. The intervals between notes and what is considered “beautiful” to their ears is so different than the traditional European folk melodies and Western musical tradition…

Last year in Ghana I was working in rural villages with women microcredit groups and would often hear them sing to end their meetings. I could not understand the words of the songs but I would assume the songs had religious themes, considering the general religiosity of the country and the Christian prayer that always followed the singing. The sound itself was full and rich, there was a special energy and life in their voices, and an uplifting spirit of unity and hope came across through their singing. I was moved to tears on multiple occasions. Having experienced this great expression through music I was surprised when I would attend LDS worship services on the weekends and I saw relatively low participation in singing and singing that was, frankly, painful to listen to. I couldn’t help but notice that the members seemed to especially struggle with the four-part harmonies and the upper range required to sing the appropriate notes as written in the hymnbook. Looking back at the native songs, rarely did they use harmony and they were sung in a lower register. The native songs were sung in unison without accompaniment, and were repetitive and circular in nature. Variety was achieved through variations on top of the circular sound and slight variations in different verses. But in general they liked the repetition, it had a certain ebb and flow that is relaxing. I think it lends itself to contemplation particularly on the words as they are often few and repeated over and over again. Whatever the specific musical characteristics that made their native songs appealing and beautiful to their ears is inconsequential, but the fact that it is beautiful and inspiring to them is.

As an interesting contrast to the last two examples, I have been in LDS services in the Ukraine, and throughout Western Europe, and have heard absolutely beautiful singing in LDS congregations. I think this is part due to the fact that these countries share the same musical traditions to which the composers in our hymnal belonged…

As another positive example, I have also traveled in the South Pacific and heard the Maori, Tahitian, and Hawaiian Saints sing both their native songs and LDS hymns. They seem to have found a happy balance: taking their traditional music/dance/culture and appropriately incorporating these elements into their faith and manner of expressing their love of the gospel (although the balance has not been incorporated as strongly in Sabbath day worship as it has in other church activities). I think this has been a critical element of the Church’s success in the Pacific Islands. The Polynesian peoples have embraced the gospel and subsequently made it their own. Their native music and dancing has been redefined in the context of the Gospel and they now use those elements of their culture as a way of expressing their faith.

I think the history of the early pioneers in this country is also insightful on this subject. Most of the hymns in the first hymn book were gathered from the hymns of the pioneers’ former churches. There was also a sudden burst of creative efforts which resulted in the composition of many new hymns that displayed the convert’s great enthusiasm for their new-found faith and the aspects of the gospel peculiar to the Restoration. To me, it is interesting how often those new hymns were composed to the melodies and tunes of their native cultures and countries in Europe. A quick perusing of the current hymnbook will show Scottish folk melodies, Swedish folk melodies and the like. Why did they choose to use those tunes? I think it was because those tunes were beautiful to their ears, it inspired them, the music created certain emotional feelings they wanted to capture. They took what was emotional moving to them and composed lyrics that reflected their joy for the Restoration.

B.H Roberts wrote in the History of the Church “since it is natural for man to express his highest emotion, perhaps, in music, it would be expected that the highly religious emotions attendant upon the religious events of the church of the New Dispensation, would be to give birth to an hymnology and to music of a somewhat special kind.” With that quote in mind I find it leads to a series of questions: If the early Saints had migrated from Asia, and not from Europe, what would our hymns sound like? Why hasn’t there been this same burst of creativity among Saints in other lands? Has something in the system gotten in the way of that “natural” and “expected”, as B.H. Roberts calls it, phenomenon? What conditions would lead to that creative burst?

Another interesting thought to ponder comes from the ancient church: When Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn immediately preceding that act around which all life revolves, what would the hymn have sounded like? It might seem trivial, but I would suspect that it was not trivial to the members of the early church. I would suspect that that hymn, that music, those sounds, would be revered with the highest reverence among early church members. Then, if we were to know what that hymn sounded like today would modern latter-day saints embrace it? It definitely would not sound anything like the hymns in our current hymnal. I would even suppose that that hymn, if we heard it today, would sound strange to most members who don’t have a natural taste for the music of the Near East.

Now, in rehearsing these examples, I am not recommending a complete dismissal of the LDS hymns as established by the early saints of this dispensation. Having common hymns throughout the church, especially those hymns composed specific for the restored gospel, brings a special unity across the entire church, particularly at times such as general conference or when members travel between countries. However, I think there are solutions that would allow the appropriate ‘likening’ of the hymns in local contexts. Perhaps local musicians can be encouraged to take the lyrics of the great LDS hymns and apply them to local melodies or to use the basic melodies of LDS hymns and use them as a basic theme in a locally appropriate composition. Perhaps we need to rethink what a printing of a hymn book means, perhaps it can simply be lyrics without the western music notation system, there are many parts of the world that teach music simply by ear. Perhaps the responsibility of organizing, selecting, and printing hymns could be better done at a national or regional level. I provide such ideas as food for thought, not attempting to usurp upon the stewardship of the music committee, but fundamentally to spark ponderous thought.

I also acknowledge that the Church does not want a complete free-for-all regarding the approval of hymns. There would be the need to keep doctrine pure within approved hymns and some consensus about Sabbath-day appropriateness of styles but I would think, in the thinking of Joseph Smith, that, with certain principles laid down, local members could govern themselves. My personal feeling is that as members in local contexts do more to ‘govern themselves’ and are given more ‘ownership’ of their new found faith, their faith and leadership will grow much more quickly and even more important–deeply. We must show the same level of confidence that the early leaders of the church showed in newly baptized members arriving from Europe to compose hymns, build temples, and cross the plains. I believe people will rise to the occasion especially when it is for the cause of Zion. Could saints in foreign lands be called as Emma Smith was to make a “selection” of sacred hymns from those at their disposal and from encouraging the saints to compose new hymns? Considering the words directed to Emma, would a song locally composed, to a locally beautiful tune lend itself to be more of a “song of the heart” and, therefore, a more heartfelt prayer until the Lord? or even be considered more acceptable unto the Lord?

In the end I suppose I am writing to ask the simple question: What does the Church leadership think about this issue? Do they encourage local musicians to use their local musical traditions and compose “restoration” lyrics or otherwise apply them to their new found faith? If so, how do they encourage it? Are there mechanisms in place to encourage, approve, and publish locally composed or arranged music?

I appreciate you taking the time to read my thoughts. I again express my great love for this church and its great musical tradition and the personal inspiration I gain from the music of the Church. My hope is simply that all my brothers and sisters can enjoy this same privilege to sing praises unto the Lord in a way that is meaningful and inspiring to their souls.

David Stoker

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 9 so far )

Guest Post: Church Music – What Does "In Keeping With the Spirit of the Hymns" Really Mean?

Posted on September 13, 2007. Filed under: Mormon Life, music | Tags: , |

Thanks to Debbie Mayhew Zufall for this post.

Appropriate music for church meetings: What does “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church”really mean?

I am sure I am not the only one who has puzzled over this. The music section in the Church Handbook of Instructions (and posted on suggests hymns as the basis for all music in our meetings, or music “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church.”

I have a master’s degree in church music, and have held music callings or assignments in wards/stakes in five different states. I love hymns as well as anyone, but as a classical musician I have always been partial to the classics, or what some people call “the music of genius.”A couple years ago, while living in Atlanta Georgia, I was asked to play for a stake conference. My instructions were to “play something besides hymns. We are tired of just hymns.” Another time, as stake organist in Greenville Stake South Carolina, I was asked to play a solo for a Saturday evening stake conference session, something “based on a hymn.” I suggested something from the classical repertoire.They said that was fine, so I played “Prelude” from the “Prelude, Fugue, and Variation” by Cesar Franck.

The classical repertoire is the music of genius.“Music of genius” implies that the composer was inspired by a higher power. Also, classics are classics because they have lasted for generations or even centuries. It seems to me that we should be thinking about using this music more in our meetings. Does not the Lord deserve the best we have to offer?

I have long suspected that our church’s emphasis on hymns and music “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church” is a way of keeping pop music out of our meetings. The ban on percussion instruments in sacrament meetings supports this idea. One of the differences between classical and pop music is that classical music has an intrinsic beat, and in pop music the beat is extrinsic. In other words, in pop music the beat is added to the music, rather than being implied. Of course, the piano is technically a percussion instrument, and so can carry the rhythm section on its own, along with melody and harmony. In this way, sometimes EFY music shows up now and then in sacrament meetings. In the music instructions in the Church Handbook of Instructions it reads, “some religiously oriented music in a popular style is not appropriate for sacrament meetings.” In my experience, this opens the door for something soft and gentle like EFY, but precludes gospel music and Christian rock.

As a life-long member of the church, I have noticed that there seems to be a canon of classical music appropriate for sacrament meeting, and that this is primarily based on familiarity. Handel’s Messiah is a good example of a work that is widely accepted, but is not “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church.” Although the words are rooted in scripture, the music is secular in style. It is similar to the style of Handel’s Italian operas, written to display the virtuosity of the singers. The music is wonderful,and we have heard it so many times, that we have become conditioned to accept the better-known choruses and solos as the ultimate worship music for Christmas and Easter. We have come to love the music, not because anything about it is intrinsically sacred or hymn-like, but because it is a beloved tradition, with all the happy memories that implies.

I worry about the future of LDS church music. Of the centuries of church music available, very little of it is used in our church meetings. In The Choir bookpublished by the church in 1980, W.A. Mozart’s Ave Verum rubs shoulders with contemporary LDS composers. Of the twenty-four anthems only five are classic anthems. There is nothing wrong with using quality anthems and hymn arrangements by contemporary composers. They are quite appealing, and easier to learn and sing than many of the classics. But I think that we owe it to ourselves as church musicians, and to our wards and stakes, to not forget about the hundreds of years of church music that is at our disposal, much of it free and in the public domain. If we are co-eternal with Heavenly Father, as we believe, then shouldn’t we be thinking about using more significant music in our church?

What does “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the church” mean to you? I would love to hear from you. Also, I would love for you to visit or join mychurch music blog.

About Debbie:
I live in Michigan, in the Detroit metro area, and amthe stake organist for Bloomfield Hills stake. I am alife-long member of the LDS church. After earning a MMdegree in Church Music from Westminster Choir Collge,I embarked on a twenty-year career as a churchorganist, choir director (vocal and handbell), andorgan recitalist. Since 2001 I have primarily focusedon writing and composition, and have been deeplyinvolved in LDS music in various music callings.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 25 so far )

The Best Hymns to Sing on Mothers’ Day

Posted on May 17, 2007. Filed under: Mormon women, motherhood, music | Tags: , , |

This last Sunday for Mothers’ Day, my ward sang one fantastic hymn (“O My Father”) and one hymn I didn’t particularly care for (“Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth”).

So, in my mind, I’m envisioning my ideal Mothers’ Day sacrament meeting. And the hymns I would choose – hymns that empower women, mention women, speak to mothers’ concerns, etc. – are the following. My personal preference is to avoid hymns that promote ideals of female domesticity.

My favorite Mothers’ Day hymns:
1. O My Father because not only does it mention Heavenly Mother, but also it actually addresses both Her and the Father. This is personally very meaningful and touching to me. IMO, this is far and away the best hymn to sing on Mothers’ Day.

2. All Creatures of our God and King. Because the last verse is directed towards “Mother Earth.” I love, love, love that, as well as all the other verses that express such a joy in and appreciation for nature.

3. Where Can I Turn for Peace? Because of its context. Emma Lou Thayne wrote this hymn as she was watching her daughter struggle with anorexia. It’s very much a mothers’ outpouring of concern for a strugggling child.

In your ideal Mothers’ Day sacrament meeting, what hymns would you like to hear?

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 12 so far )

Musings on Music

Posted on November 8, 2006. Filed under: music, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

When I was twelve years old, my grandmother gave me a very special gift for Christmas. It is still one of my prized possessions— a copy of Latter-Day Saint Hymns, the first LDS hymnbook in which the lyrics and music were combined. It replaced LDS Psalmody and the Songs of Zion. Printed in 1927 under the direction of Heber J. Grant, my copy contains an inscription in beautiful calligraphy: “Mayor Edward M. Dighton, Compliments Heber J. Grant, Sept. 25/28.” It was in the library of my great grandmother, and then passed to me by my grandmother. A google search on Mayor Dighton brings up a brief mention of a mayor in California whose mayoral race appeared to have been backed by the KKK.It may forever be a mystery if that is the same man inscribed in my book, and will certainly be a mystery how it came to be in my great grandmother’s library. (My grandmother doesn’t know).A perusal of the book reveals some things about the times in which it was printed. Some of the hymns, such as “Stop, and Tell Me Red Man,” would be terribly offensive by today’s standards. The number of hymns meant to be sung at funerals, including a few specifically for children tell us something about the higher mortality rates and the harsh experience of crossing the planes that may still have been fresher in the consciousness of the membership and hymn writers.

I love music, which is in part why I became a Music Therapist. A while ago I was asked to speak about music, specifically hymn singing in Relief Society. Here are a few of the thoughts that I shared with my sisters:

It is my belief that Spirit is ever-present. In Mormon-speak, we often talk about “inviting the Spirit” or someone might say that “the Spirit left the room when . . . .” I tend to think that the Spirit is all around us at all times, and we have only to bring ourselves into the present moment, to be “in tune” with it. Mindful singing is a powerful way to come into the present moment. Congregational singing also provides us the opportunity to be one with each other. All of our different voices can combine into one song. Each voice is unique and may take a different part, but they all blend together in harmony to provide a direct experience of unity. There is great power and beauty to be found in congregational hymn singing.

I’m struck by how instrumental women have been in creating the hymns. It was Emma Smith who compiled the first collection of hymns for the church. The First Presidency preface in the current hymnbook states, “Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns.” The women of the hymnbook have given us many stirring sermons. We have “Oh My Father” from Eliza Snow, the sole codified reminder of our Heavenly Mother as far as I know. We have a gorgeous sermon on making it through our darkest hours in Emma Lou Thayne’s “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” We can thank a woman named Annie Hawkes for the frequently sung “I Need Thee Every Hour.” The beloved hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” is written by Sarah Adams. For an interesting exercise (perhaps during the next high council talk when you need something to keep you awake!) you might try flipping through the hymnbook and noting how many of the hymn texts are penned by women. On balance, there are still more men, but proportionately women have more of a voice in the hymnbook than in any other official church publication that I’ve seen.

Thank you, Grandma Elaine for seeing and encouraging my love of music. And thank you for entrusting me with this treasure from our history in which women’s voices ring out strong and clear.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 17 so far )

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...