Appropriate Church Music
Questions sometimes come up when selecting special musical numbers for LDS church meetings, and the short answer is always this: if the person presiding over the meeting approves a musical selection, then it is appropriate. But that is a very short answer, and the musicians make the bishopric’s job easier when we consider our musical suggestions carefully. I’ll quote you some official guidelines and add my own unofficial opinions, hoping that this will help you follow the direction of the Spirit in the music you select.
Music is used in the Church to “invite the Spirit of the Lord, create a feeling of reverence, unify us as members, and [to] provide a way for us to offer praises to the Lord” (Hymns, ix) and we need to keep this purpose in mind when we’re selecting the music.
The official music guidelines from the Church Handbook of Instructions describe appropriate music for Church meetings:
The hymns are the basic music for worship services and are standard for all congregational singing. In addition, other appropriate selections may be used for prelude and postlude music, choir music, and special musical presentations. If musical selections other than the hymns are used, they should be in keeping with the spirit of the hymns. Texts should be doctrinally correct. (See “Hymns for Congregations,” Hymns, 380–81.)
Secular music should not replace sacred music in Sunday meetings. Some religiously oriented music presented in a popular style is not appropriate for sacrament meetings. Also, much sacred music that is suitable for concerts and recitals is not appropriate for a Latter-day Saint worship service.
Music in Church meetings should not draw attention to itself or be for demonstration. This music is for worship, not performance.
Thus, special musical numbers should be one of two things: hymns or other selections “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns”. So before we can pick good ‘non-hymns’ we must be personally familiar with the spirit of hymns, and the way that spirit is reflected in their texts and in their music.
Notice also that sacrament meeting is mentioned specifically. Since it is one of the most sacred meetings we hold in the Church, we hold each of its elements, including music, to a higher standard of reverence.
A special musical number has many of the same purposes that the entire meeting has: to bear testimony, to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to invite the Holy Ghost. When we are successful, those in attendance will know that the principles taught are true and will be inspired to bring their lives closer to the example of Jesus Christ, but unless we choose a song that actually contains such a message, the Holy Ghost will have nothing to bear witness to.
This is why the texts used in Church must be doctrinally impeccable and, except in rare circumstances, sung in the language of the congregation. The second movement of a Beethoven piano sonata may have a reverent mood but it teaches us nothing about the Saviour, so it would be a poor choice for a worship service.
Much of the spirit of the hymns comes from that fact that they teach precious gospel truths in some of the finest language we have, with a near-scriptural beauty and power. They have regular meters and rhyme schemes, make use of effective literary techniques, and always refer to the Father and the Son with the pronouns used in the scriptures and in prayer: thou, thee, thy, and thine. This is not because those words magically bring the Lord closer to us but because they help bring our thoughts closer to Him and remind us of the reverence that is required to invite revelation. Here’s an example based on Psalm 23.
God, you are my loving shepherd,
Worthy, worthy of my praise.
You take my fears away, oh yeah,
Glory, glory, to your name.
Glory to your name.
(I made that up myself!)
My Shepherd will supply my need;
Jehovah is His Name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wand’ring spirit back,
When I forsake His ways,
And leads me for His mercy’s sake,
In paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death,
Thy presence is my stay;
One word of thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode
And all my work be praise!
There would I find a settled rest
While others go and come,
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.
It is possible to write music pleasing to God in almost any genre, but hymns are particularly well-suited for worship. The best way to learn and appreciate their musical spirit is to sing and play them until you come to know them and love them and they become your own, but I can’t do that for you. What I can do is compare some loose categories of music to help you along. These categories were used by Pearl Awards that were given to promote LDS music (1998–2009):
Sacred music is worshipful and appropriate for a sacrament meeting. It includes the hymns, many of the songs in the Children's Songbook, and other vocal and choral compositions. Examples include “Beautiful Saviour”, “Consider the Lilies of the Field”, “This is the Christ”, or “Behold the Wounds in Jesus’ Hands”.
Inspirational music has a more ‘pop’ or soft rock sound than sacred music. It would be appropriate for most firesides, but not a sacrament meeting. You have probably heard some fine songs of this sort in compilations for seminary videos or Especially For Youth (EFY).
Contemporary music sounds like today’s hit singles (Top 40 radio), and is certainly appropriate for your home or your car, but not for a Church meeting.
Granted, these categories have very fuzzy edges. I mention them not as boxes that all songs can be placed in, but as a way of approaching music problems. A song can take on a different character each time it is performed, and something that’s perfect for one fireside could be totally wrong for another. It takes real sensitivity to make sure that the desired message is clothed in music appropriate for the occasion.
And thus we see...
A personal familiarity with the spirit of the hymns helps us determine whether a song’s lyrics and music are in keeping with that spirit, but more importantly, as we study it out we prepare ourselves to feel whether a song is in keeping with the Lord’s Spirit. He is the reason for our worship and the object of our teaching, and souls can only by brought closer to him by his power and under his inspiration. May we seek to know and follow the will of the Lord, and humbly use our talents with an eye single to His glory.
Official guidelines and Church teachings: