Take Note: The Spirituality of Musical Notation

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MInistry: Musical Skill

Take a Note—The Spirituality of Notation

I am not kidding.

I know you are thinking—“You’ve got to be kidding, right?”

But I am not kidding. Like an old friend who has come under undeserved fire from hostile forces, I feel that musical notation has fallen on hard times among worship leaders. Undeservedly, reading and using musical notation is seen as less than spiritual at worst and unnecessary at best. Let me be clear. My purpose is not to put anyone down. I know that the Lord routinely uses and blesses worship leaders and musicians who do not read notes. God’s blessing is the most important thing and always will be the most important thing.

So, if you are a non-reading leader, singer or player, please stay with me. I am not putting you down. I will never “touch the Lord’s anointed or do His worship leaders harm.” You have my love, respect, and admiration.

  • You stand in there week by week, season by season and get the job done.
  • You seek the Lord’s face in your personal walk with him and you seek his will in every service.
  • You lead his anointed ones—from the worshipers in the congregation to the singers and players on the platform to the technicians in the booth—with care and compassion.
  • If you also teach all your music by rote, (let me borrow words from Paul) “…yet show I unto you a more excellent way.” 1 Cor 12:31 KJV

History Lesson: The Oral Tradition made room for “Neumes.”

For centuries music was transferred from one person to the next and from one generation to the next just as you are doing it—orally—without the use of any system of writing it down. The problem came when there were so many chants and so many versions of the chants; some sort of system was needed to standardize them. (Does this sound familiar? So many songs and so many versions of the same songs?) A system was employed with symbols over each syllable of the text. These symbols were called “neumes” and they appeared over and under a single line to indicate how high or low the melody should sound.

  • The term “neume” came from the same Greek word for breath, pneuma, used for the “breath of God,” the Holy Spirit.
  • The use of neumes eventually expanded to the use of the modern staff—five lines and four spaces.
  • Rhythmic symbolism was added to indicate how long each sound should be held. For hundreds of years it has remained as simple as this: high notes look high while low notes look low; long notes look long and short ones look short.
  • Rocket science it ain’t.

My contention is this—musical notation was born in the heart of God. It was developed in the church and is intended for worship leaders, singers and players to aid us in leading worship and in worshiping God. To willfully ignore God’s enabling tool is unwise.

Lead Sheet vs. Chord Sheet
In many settings, the chord sheet (lyrics and chords only) has replaced printed music. Without doubt this is blessed by the Lord and functional. The melodies and rhythms to be sung and played are left to the singers and players to find. Those who can improvise are accustomed to the laborious processes of working out tunes, instrumental treatments and vocal harmonies in rehearsal and, as they listen to recordings in their cars on the way to rehearsal. This works, of course, but there are problems.

The two principle challenges of the “by ear” system are these:

  • It limits the number and variety of singers and players who lead worship, and
  • It creates a tedious atmosphere in rehearsal that uses an immense amount of time, valuable time that could be spent in more constructive ways—prayer, discipleship, and getting to more songs.

Limited Musicianship is a primary result of using only “by ear” music making.

This happens because not every good singer or player is capable of improvising. Those who need notation to create music are not less spiritual than those who can make it up as they go. If leaders create ministry space only for those who play by ear, they are shutting out those who cannot improvise but who are still capable of making wonderful, anointed music for King Jesus. Why should leaders adopt such a limiting procedure? Many times it is because they are simply doing what they know how to do. In other more baffling cases, they can read music but have chosen not to.

More than a Cultural Choice

Not only does the “by ear” system exclude reading singers, it also shuts our reading instrumentalists. According to the Book of Psalms and the biblical record of music making in the times of Kings David and Solomon, choirs and orchestras were needed to fully “give unto the Lord the glory due His name.” Making music only “by ear” can only involve a small group of band/orchestra instruments. Even with a minimum of three instruments, the players will need charts—notated arrangements.

In some places today the use of band/orchestra instruments in worship is seen as a cultural choice that can be used or not used with equal blessing from the Lord. I believe this falls short of the biblical mandate expressed in the Psalms. Of course, those who do not have instruments available to them cannot be expected to use them. But those who have them and choose not to use them or exclude them by not using notated music need to take this decision to the prayer closet with their Bibles open.

It simply doesn’t matter if the use of band/orchestra instruments is in cultural vogue or not—they are in the Word—and therefore, I believe they are in God’s heart. Holding each trumpet, flute, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, violin and you-name-it from the local school music program is a young person learning a skill that is useful to the Kingdom of God. In the closets and garages of the homes in your church are instruments waiting in their cases for someone to return to them, get them out, put them together and start getting back in shape with scales and lip slurs so they can lead worship with the guitarists, bass-players, drummers and keyboard players of the church. God loves them and wants to use their skills, too.

Further, the Holy Spirit wants to expand your worship leading beyond the wonderful intimacy you reflect in your band-driven worship to the complimentary awe, majesty, and joy the orchestra was designed to express. Notation makes this possible. Worship leader, if you have chosen not to learn to use this wonderful gift from God, do you realize the limiting factor you have placed on your ministry? May those who have chosen not to open the doors to other singers and players by using only improvising musicians prayerfully reconsider their choice.

Rehearsal processes are so much easier and tension-free when singers and players are learning music that is already worked out and notated for them. To me, learning music by rote is practically a form of torture that would be useful to a totalitarian regime. On the other hand, discovering “how this one goes,” is fun! “Getting it right” is a challenge. The resulting sense of ensemble is priceless. Here is a real-life example.

On my first mission trip to Romania, I was hosted by a large church with a famous orchestra. I brought 20 of my orchestrations with me as a gift, a seed to plant in their worship ministry. I could not speak the language and needed an interpreter to conduct the rehearsal. But once the talking stopped and we started playing the music, the universal language of musical notation spoke for all of us. In a matter of an hour and a half, we played through many of those charts and got two ready for the service the next day. Fifty or so musicians made all this music with precision and expression in such a short time because of the blessing of notation. This common language brought us together across all the barriers between us. Through musical notation we became “one” in the name of the Lord Jesus.

A Neglected Gift

Paul encouraged Timothy not only to “stir up” the gifts he had been given, but also to be careful that none of them falls into neglect. What is an oft-neglected gift?—music education. In the local middle school, high school, and community college are young musicians. They are looking for a reason to make the music they are learning how to make. Worship leader, you can supply them with the greatest reason they will ever need, one that will propel their music making all through their lives and into their eternities. Notation is the secret, the doorway you can open for them.

If you are a notation reader and have followed the garage-band culture of the moment, consider building your ministry on scriptural examples and expand your heart to include reading singers and players.

If you have never learned to read notation—learn!

Rocket science, it ain’t.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Take Note: The Spirituality of Musical Notation


  1. “My contention is this—musical notation was born in the heart of God.”

    You didn’t really support that claim, and didn’t use biblical passages to support your argument that God requires orchestra instruments in church music. The rest of your article hinges on those points.

    • Will:
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. “My contention” is not a biblical one but is drawn from music history. It is a fact that music notation was born in the church as an aid to worship. As for the biblical support for the use of band/orchestra instruments when available, this is treated in another post, “The Instrumental Imperative” found at: https://stevephifer.com/the-instrumental-imperative/. Based on Psalm 150, the use of all types of instruments is something that delights the Lord and is useful in expressing a fuller accompaniment to “the glory due His name.”

      Again, thanks for reading and commenting. We may see this issue differently but I am confident there are others posts at my website you may find useful so I hope you will check in from time to time. I pray a blessing and heavy anointing on your ministry.

      Semper Reformanda!

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