Someone in my church recently sent me an email asking why we play music behind different portions of the Sunday meeting (prayers, baptisms, readings, etc.). It’s a good question. We can be influenced by our musically addicted culture, as well as our traditions and practices, to believe it’s impossible for God’s Spirit to move in people’s hearts apart from music. That kind of thinking makes music a mediator rather than a means. God can use music to do his work. But he doesn’t need music to do his work.
So the direct answer to the question, “Should we play music behind people praying?” is “not necessarily.” It can easily be mistaken for emotional manipulation. And in some cases, it IS emotional manipulation. It can be distracting (which I’ll cover in a moment). But because something is done poorly or for the wrong reasons is no reason do dismiss it entirely. The right response to misuse is not disuse but proper use.
So this was part of my response to my friend:
In Scripture there often seems to be a connection between music being played and the Spirit moving in people’s hearts. See 1 Chron. 25:1, 1 Sam. 10:5-6, 2 Kings 3:14-16, also Eph. 5:18-19. Music that’s played well can help connect different parts of the meeting, emphasize aspects of what’s being spoken, or soften people’s hearts to hear more intently. But it isn’t biblically mandated and doesn’t have to accompany every time someone is speaking. And if it’s done poorly, it can be distracting. But I think it can serve in the ways mentioned above.
I want to take a moment to unpack what I mean by music being “done poorly.” Here are a few examples of supportive music that can become distracting.
1. Music that’s too loud. Obviously this creates problems for those trying to focus on someone speaking. Often, though, the fault is with the front of house mixer, rather than the individual playing.
2. Music that’s too creative or complex. Playing a transition or behind someone speaking isn’t the ideal time to keep myself musically stimulated, explore new harmonic progressions, try out strange melodic jumps, or wander aimlessly up and down the keyboard (or guitar neck).
3. Music that’s overly familiar. I know people mean well when they’re playing a well known song behind someone praying, but I keep having to avoid a train wreck in my mind as the lyrics collide with the words of the speaker.
4. Music that’s out of tune or badly played. I put these together because they’re so similar. It can be immensely distracting to have guitarist picking a simple pattern when the B string is almost a half step flat. Painful might be a better word. The same goes for when a keyboardist regularly hits wrong notes, or is trying to figure out what to play as he/she goes along.
5. Music that’s inappropriate. Happy music behind a prayer of repentance. Lethargic music behind passionate proclamation. Busy music behind anything.
If I’m in a congregation and I find the music distracting (for whatever reason), I’ll ask God to help me focus more intently on what’s being said. Then I might verbalize responses (“amen”) to help me focus on it more directly. If it’s an ongoing problem in my church, I’d talk to one of the leaders or pastors about it and suggest some solutions. Hey, you could even show them this blog post.
If I’m one of the music-makers, a few thoughts help me play in a way that’s not distracting.
1. When playing behind someone speaking, listen more to the speaker than to what you’re playing.
2. Allow spaces in what you’re playing for the speaker to be heard.
3. Use music to support truth rather than supplant it.
4. Play chord progressions that are relatively simple and repetitive. E.g., the last harmonic progression of the previous song, a progression from within that song, a chord pattern from the next song, or an unrelated progression (C-F-C-F)
5. It can sometimes be less distracting to move to the tempo and key of the next song while someone’s speaking rather than when they finish.
6. Play a non-rhythmic progression that reflects and supports the content being shared.
7. And perhaps most importantly, don’t assume you have to play anything at all. We should be comfortable with and even appreciate transitions and spoken words that stand on their own.
If you’re interested, I’ll be covering this topic and much more in the pre-conference piano workshop this year at WorshipGod11: The Gathering. If you’re thinking of coming, remember that rates go up June 1, and seminars are filling up. You can find out more information on the conference here.