Sunday, January 9, 2011


I suppose there are times when a recorded accompaniment for church singing is justifiable. Small congregations without resources for musicians or instruments, or to provide easy rehearsal, may resort to canned music in church.

Karaoke for church is big business these days, if what is available on-line is any indication. This kind of musical augmentation for soloists, choirs or congregation is a product of the digital age. Just because we have the technical wherewithal, however, doesn’t mean we have to use it, especially when it comes to music in church.

My recent church-going subjected me to different experiences of canned musical accompaniment, twice for real people singing, and once for a quiet period of meditation. Now I’m sure people had their reasons for using recordings, and the reasons might have been thoughtful, at least to them. Yet in all three of these situations competent musicians were on the scene, sitting idly by as the music played over one or more speakers.

The teenager who sang a solo asked to use the recording. It allowed her to practice at home and she was comfortable singing with the recording. Yet I would have thought that her very capable choir director could have provided more than adequate accompaniment and helped her sound even better.

I suspect that for the choir that sang to a recording, having a wider range of instruments had some appeal. Yet the dozen or more people singing could have done just as well or better with the versatile organ played by their much-better-than-average organist.

In terms of the “prayer-piano” recorded background, someone probably thought it was an easy way to cover a rather lengthy quiet time. Yet the church pianist, a whiz of a musician, was sitting in the front row, and could have stepped to the piano at the side of the room and played with feeling and grace.

Recordings used to back up human singing flatten the voices. Emphasis, tonal quality, phrasing are all locked by the recording. Interpretation is dictated by the recording rather than the singers. Those who sing to a recording are ill-served by such accompaniment. By definition, accompaniment is “something added to a principal thing to increase its impact or effectiveness,” and while in the short run karaoke may seem to do that, recorded instrumental back-up is limiting.

Also, using recordings rather than live music in church would appear to be a shortcut. God deserves more from us than that. We ought to be willing not only to put ourselves out a bit in worship, but to give God our very best. When it comes to the worship of God, there are no short-cuts.

Furthermore, recorded music is borrowed from another time and place and from other people. Worship is the “work of the people,” the people in the congregation here and now, not folks from somewhere else a while back. The best we have to give God in music may not be as polished as something we can buy on a recording, but it is our gift, which is what God wants. Otherwise we’d cancel the choir and play recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

So I’d rather hear a full-fledged praise of God done the best that the singer(s) and other musicians can muster up, than hear digital substitutes for accompaniment. Live music, all the way around, is best of all.

Do you have karaoke in church? Have you ever sung in church with a recorded accompaniment?


  1. Amen to this. You did a good job explaining why this bothers me so much. As a singer I always feel that singing to recorded music makes the music 'drive' me, rather than me 'driving' or steering the music. A good accompanist will follow rather than lead the voices, and provide a lovely framework or embellishment for the performance. With the recorded music it always seems like the voices are just 'added in'.
    Just think, if we'd had recorded music in the 19th century, there would be no "Silent Night".
    On the other hand, I attended a service recently that relied solely on a single guitar. This wasn't out of need - there was plenty of talent and instruments available. But the service seemed an afterthought, and the music chosen was not appropriate for guitar, but rather the same music that was played on organ and piano for the other service of the day. The result was anemic and dissatisfying.
    Music should be chosen with and eye to what is appropriate for the talents and instruments available, to allow all the participants to enjoy the result of the collaboration.

  2. As organist and choir director rolled into one, I've used "canned " music for rehearsal... I even give CDs to choir members to practice at home. I've only used recordings three times in church that I recall and two of those were when the choir needed a director in front of them, not to the side at the console. The third time was recorded by me on and played by computer through the organ's speaker system. This was because a very complicated harp (we don't have one) part for accompaniment.
    That said, I've been at services with a 20-voice choir and accomplished pianist, yet the choir sang to a boom-box. Yuck!
    I don't know if it's lack of time, money, laziness, whatever.
    I suppose I could be accused of using "simple" music for the choir now and then, but I also know the choir's makeup and limitations and can't bring myself to use canned music to make up for these limitations or lack of rehearsal time.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!