Sunday, April 3, 2011

Musical Bookends

Anyone who goes to church surely understands the importance of music in a service of worship.

For example, let’s talk about those un-sung parts of the service, the Prelude and the Postlude. (Sorry for the pun.) They tend to be overlooked since everyone, except the organist or instrumental musicians, is doing something else while the music is playing.

During the Prelude people are coming in and greeting friends and sharing news and finding their favorite pew and glancing through the order of service and announcements and thinking about a thousand things other than the music they are barely listening to.

During the Postlude folks are slipping hymnals back into the racks and picking up belongings and talking to friends and greeting strangers and looking for a place to get rid of their bulletins and checking their watches and heading for the door and hardly hearing the music being played.

Sure, there are a few people that come early and would like to be left alone so they can listen to the Prelude, and some will stay in their places at the end of the service to hear the Postlude. Often these are the ones who will complain that it’s not fair that musicians put so much practice and preparation into the music fore and aft of a service and it all gets ignored. They’d like the rest of us to hush up and at least let them listen.

Preludes and Postludes have long caused a minor civil war in the ranks of the church. Either they’re considered mere accompaniment to coming and going, and therefore not of much more value than music played over the speakers at Macy’s, or they’re miniature concerts to which we ought give our undivided attention. Most people tend to lean in one direction or the other.

On one hand, both positions are wrong. Prelude and Postlude are not what my kids call “elevator music,” music without any function other than to cover noise. This presumes that pointless music is better than pointless noise, if one can distinguish between the two.

Furthermore, Prelude and Postlude are not simply small concerts to be listened to and appreciated only for the skill of the performer and aesthetics of the sound. They do not, or should not invite passiveness, but encourage participation.

Prelude and Postlude have a larger function, each one performing vital tasks at the beginning and end of each service. Like musical bookends, they bracket everything that happens in between, and are theologically related to the central meaning of worship. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Prelude and Postlude are worth a library.

On the other hand, both positions relative to the significance of Preludes and Postludes are right. The Prelude, for example, might be understood to be, as someone once put it, “the music accompanying the entrance dance of the people of God.” We come into worship and the Prelude establishes a mood, an attitude, a context, a feeling that suits the occasion. We are ushered in with sounds that speak more than words ever can, and help us approach our encounter with our Living Lord with open hearts and receptive thoughts.

The Prelude, in fact, is to be meditation music while we are actively doing all those things we do as we enter the worship space. It is “both-and”—both music to listen to reverently, and music to accompany our actions.

The Postlude has a similar function, except that it is not establishing but extending a mood, and perhaps shifting it somewhat. Now the music at the end of the service pulls together feelings and attitudes already expressed in word and song. Whereas the Prelude was to accompany the “entrance dance” of God’s people, the Postlude lifts us on our feet to march forward into the world as Christ’s disciples.

Prelude and Postlude are important, more so than most of us recognize sometimes. Musicians who understand the theological role of music in Lord’s Day worship will provide Preludes and Postludes that appropriately assemble the community at the beginning and propel us on our way at the end. Whether we are conscious of their impact or not, the effect on all who come to worship is great.

How do folks at your church consider the Prelude and Postlude? Are they conscious of their effect on the whole service? On the worshippers?


  1. Don, You have hit on a topic that's of utmost importance to me, as I'm an organist who has more than fifty years dealing with prelude and postlude music . Here are my thoughts. First, this music has to be considered a part of the worship experience by all. In recognizing this, the organist, choir, pastor, congregation all have the right to anticipate a worthy musical contribution from the person or persons providing the music (not mediocre stuff that's passed off as music of quality). The prelude, in particular, should relate theologically to the theme of the day, if at all possible. Or, a composition on one of the hymn tunes sung could be played. The music should always give the best of the player and challenge the listener in the most positive way to consider its meaning for what is about to happen in the continuation of worship. The congregation has to be involved in the listening of the music, meaning there must be silence to be able to hear what is being performed. This seems to be difficult to accomplish in most congregations, and I think this practice of listening to the prelude has to be taught by the clergy. A spoken call to worship by the minister preceding the prelude seems to be more successful to remind the congregation that the start of the music is the start of worship. (This won't work too successfully if the minister leaves the chancel after making the statement, as one of my former ministers did.) Our Episcopalian friends do this the best. They are educated to recognize worship begins with the organ prelude. The postlude should be a sending out that embraces and confirms the spirit of the worship event. I would hope the music performed would cause worshippers to want to sit and hear it played to conclusion while those who are anxious to depart would do so quietly. Finally, years ago I replaced the designation of prelude and postlude with opening and closing voluntary to suggest the music is part of the worship experience rather than coming before or after. I think this works better.

  2. Two humorous thoughts first: 1) it’s called the postLOUD to be heard above the din of people leaving and 2) the organist has a key to the building to get out after the postlude (everyone else is long gone).
    In our church, I (the organist) have given up on a traditional prelude while people are being seated. We have a short time of meditation/reflection at the beginning of the service during which I play an appropriate piece. The postlude is another matter and falls into the category of the two thoughts above: we just call it the “Recessional” in the bulletin and is good for practice.
    There is one church that I know of where everyone stays in their pews until the postlude – appropriately – ends the service (the other bookend) and then the organist plays the recessional – the elevator music -- while the congregation leaves.
    Maybe this is a bit of a cultural change. When I was growing up some 60 years ago, one came into the church on Sunday and sat quietly and listened to the music. Maybe this was a behavioral thing as a kid. Back then, too, there were many social activities and clubs to occupy one’s time and “meet and greet.” Now it seems that all of this has changed and the church, not the firehouse or the Elks club, becomes a place to gather and share. I think we have to adapt rather than fight a losing battle, but it doesn’t hurt to occasionally reinforce the concept that the prelude and postlude are part of the service; that the musician does more than accompany hymns and provide the “elevator music” that we’re so used to.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!