Music has changed drastically in the last hundred years from a communal experience to an intensely private one. How did this happen? Why did this happen? What does it have to do with our music in the church?
It all began in 1877 with Edison’s invention of the phonograph. This machine was the push that started the coaster car down the steep hill. Before mankind had the ability to record sound, music was by necessity a communal event. Music was shared, at least by one listener and a musician, but more often by a group come together to hear the music performed. Before the phonograph, the closest thing to recorded music was sheet music. However, sheet music always required a live musician to bring the songs to life.
With the invention of the phonograph, a wedge was slowly driven between listeners and musicians. Music was played into a tin can or the horn of a recording device, not directly into the ears of listeners. Records became the intermediary between listeners and musicians. Still, consumption and celebration of music was primarily social and communal as many listeners would gather around the phonograph, record changer, or turn table.
However, with the invention and widespread use of headphones and personal hand-held music players, the wedge between listener and listener was firmly affixed. Not only had musician become separated from listener, but listener now consumed music apart from anyone else. Headphones allowed for the development of idiosyncratic taste and quite distinct personal preference that was impossible when music was enjoyed in a group setting.
During this process, musicians slowly became known as recording artists, because the pinnacle of their performance occurred in the recording studio. All subsequent live performances sought to attain to the perfection of the original “recorded art piece”. Songs no longer stood on the basis of their own merits, but on the basis of the artist who recorded them. We see this progression from the 1930s and 1940s where several artists would sing the same collection of songs, to today when every song is “so-and-so‘s new hit single”. Whereas before a person singing a well-loved song was simply entering into a tradition of music, today someone performing someone else‘s song is doing a “cover”.
This affects the church in many ways. First, the separation of listener from listener has made the communal nature of church corporate singing extremely foreign. Additionally, the naval gazing that takes place while each of us hones our “musical taste” has stolen our patience for music in the church that doesn’t measure up to our standards (whether those standards are Biblical or not). We demand that the church conform to our taste, and we lose any charity that might be left in us. What is more, musicians in the church feel the need to measure up to modern prerecorded music, because that is what we all consume during the week.
On top of this is the drive of contemporaneity: what is new is always better. I have yet to find this principle in Scripture. Is music in the church meant to conform to the standards of the “now”? I am convinced that the refrain of the Old and New Testaments, “Return!”, is one of going back to what is old and foundational, not a continual grasping at what is currently here and gone tomorrow.
I listen to Spotify all the time, so don’t read this article as a complete critique of recorded music. We all need to spend time evaluating how our culture shapes us, and we must seek to prevent those cultural “givens” from confusing us about the way God would have us worship him together.
Note: Several of these concepts have arisen from wrestling with a book by a former professor of mine, Dr. T. David Gordon. If you would like further, and much more intelligible, discussion on media ecology and the effects of music on our culture, check out his book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns.