Guest Post: On Music and the Church

(I’m happy to introduce a post by one of the most brilliant, young musicians in the church, if not the world! And while I may be a little biased, I know no better individual than mr. mraynes to lead a discussion about the state of music in the Mormon church. Over the next couple of weeks, mr. mraynes will be writing a series of posts for us about the church and its relationship to music and musicians. I hope you enjoy!)

by mr.mraynes

Many months ago, EmilyCC kindly extended an invitation to write a guest post on church music (which my wife has now turned into a guest series). I have procrastinated composing this piece for varied reasons (finishing my doctorate, subsequently accepting a faculty position and moving my family across the country, laziness) but I decided to act now and claim the honor of writing the 1,000th post on The Exponent (according to WordPress). Congratulations to all those who work so hard on this blog!

First let me stipulate that, as a musician, I take music and its influence on us very seriously. It is possible I overestimate the extent of music’s power. I hope the following discussions will give those with differing views the opportunity to voice their perspectives.

Music’s place in Mormon doctrine is most clearly delineated in the 25th section of Doctrine and Covenants, a revelation offered to Emma Smith. She was commanded to compile a book of hymns with the explanation that song (I believe we can interpret this to mean all music) offered with righteous intention is synonymous with prayer. This doctrine is oft-repeated and, frankly, trite to most Mormons. We take this remarkable analogy for granted.Prayer, as defined in the most basic way, is communication with God. Normally one “speaks” to another (including the Divine) through the medium of words. As I gain greater life experience, I have found that prayer has more to do with feelings than words. Prayer allows God’s children to share their true selves (or their spirit) with Divinity and in turn to receive God’s true Self, which is Love (or Charity). When prayer is conceived in this manner, words have very little to do with the process.

All of us, as the offspring of Godly Parents, come equipped with spiritual hardware that allows us to connect with the Divine in this manner. Normally in Mormonism we refer to this connection as the Spirit. The Spirit, or this direct link with God, arouses within us the most poignant, tender, and profound feelings that signify that our spirit (true self) has been contacted.

All of us have felt such sensations in spiritual and personal situations. In my own experience, there is one other class of experience that causes these same feelings. When I listen to music (or share a musical performance) I find that my spirit stirs in much the same way as it does when I “feel the Spirit” (to use our Mormon parlance).

No doubt my experiences and views arise from my natural inclinations towards music. Certainly some do not feel anything at all when they hear music (after all, science has demonstrated the existence of “tone deafness”). Nevertheless, the vast majority of humanity not only likes music (in at least one form or another) but I would propose that we need music.

Like the Holy Ghost, music penetrates our souls to reach the deepest part of who we are. Who among us has not been moved to tears by music? Who has not spontaneously started dancing around when hearing a good tune, even when the situation would make dancing ridiculous? And yes, music can also inspire confidence to the point of aggression (why else it ubiquity in sports arenas?) as well as anger. I often visualize music as a mechanic that can mess around with us under our “spiritual hoods.”

Church leaders understand music’s power very well. For this reason Emma was instructed to collect hymns for worship. On the other hand, young members are instructed  to avoid music that arouses unworthy thoughts and feelings in For the Strength of Youth. We sing at least three hymns in each sacrament meeting to “invite the Spirit.” Special musical numbers (my personal favorite is 792 🙂 ) are similarly encouraged, but official Church guidelines regulate what kinds of instruments are appropriate and which are not (most notoriously, brass instruments are taboo) and what kinds of music should be presented (it takes a hardy individual to sing Ave Maria!). It should be noted that bishops are given a great deal of latitude with respect to what is permissible and what is not–I’ve even heard a trumpet played in the chapel!

Different wards, stakes, and even the Church as a whole will see cyclical periods of musical regulation. Sometimes leaders will stringently follow President Packer’s dogmatic stance that the hymnal contains all that the Church needs musically; other times musical offerings will come from much more diverse sources (I was very pleased last Easter when our bishop allowed the choir to sing an entire Easter oratorio composed by a venerable and serious LDS composer).

Another interesting issue arises with respect to musical talent. The Church as an institution has a remarkable relationship to musicians: on the one hand, the church requires musicians to provide the needed musical accompaniment considered standard in worship. On the other, church members as a group are extremely leery of the glorification of the individual and therefore “soloistic” musical presentations are seen as prideful and indulgent. Thereby some of the best music is shunned from church meetings and most capable musicians are pressured to actually hide their talents (in direct opposition to Christ’s own teaching). Yes, some performances are inappropriate for sacrament meetings, but can we not recognize the grandeur of God in the masterful performance, even if the music is not overtly religious?

Given my assertions regarding music’s power to reach our spirit, I believe restricting music in church is a regrettable limitation on the range of spiritual experiences we can encounter in worship services. Please do not misunderstand; I am not advocating a musical free-for-all at sacrament meeting. I do contend, nevertheless, that a more varied musical offering in church meetings will result in greater spirituality for those in attendance.

What are your thoughts? How does (or doesn’t) music move you? How would you regulate music in the Church if given the chance? My first change: more congregational singing in General Conference (one verse of a hymn in a two-hour meeting is simply not enough–even if the Tabernacle Choir sounds amazing).


Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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18 Responses

  1. Rolf says:

    One huge step forward would be a decentralization of music policy, especially internationally. From my time living abroad in various parts of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, our hymnbook’s Anglo-American roots became very clear–just as the author says, music is powerful in part because it is personal, I believe we’re detracting from the spiritual experiences of many saints by not allowing them to express their spiritual feelings through the religious music that is already sacred to them. When Emma collected the first hymnbook, it was full of music from other faith traditions that the saints would be nostalgic or personally important to converts from other faiths. It would be impractical for church headquarters to try to direct local musical use in different countries, but area authorities could pretty easily administrate the selection and use of hymns and religious musical genres from their own areas into Sunday worship.

    One example that seemed most tragic–while I was working in Mozambique, the employees of the NGO I was working for would often sing beautiful Christian songs in multi-layered harmony in various local languages. These songs were gorgeous, and incredibly spiritually powerful, even before I learned what the lyrics were. Imagine my shock when I heard several of those co-workers, who were also LDS, singing timidly during sacrament meeting on Sunday. When I spoke to them about why they sang differently, they said the hymns seemed to have differently rules, and they didn’t want to sing them “wrong.” A sad and avoidable waste of musical heritage on the part of many saints, that–I know that in areas where the church is new, leaders are occupied enough by typical duties, but the incorporation of traditional religious music at the local level throughout the church could help so many saints to not feel like they have to divorce themselves from their beautiful religious musical heritages.

  2. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this overview. What I found particularly interesting was the unwritten rule against too many solo performances. I had never thought about it, but it’s true that our musical numbers in sacrament meeting tend to be either choir songs or congregational hymns. I guess I had attributed it to laziness, so it’s interesting to hear another reason for it.

    As for the music, I firmly believe we need to widen our repertoire. Different music touches different people, so i think we should be respectful of that and do our best to make our meetings appeal to various tastes.

    One of my biggest peeves is when I see our ward choir get up and sing a hymn straight from the hymn book. What on earth is the point? Why not just make it a congregational hymn if they’re not going to try to do anything special? At least present a new arrangement, vary it up, have the people sing different parts, etc. Even more ideally for me would be to introduce non-hymn book sacred music to the congregation. That’s what I really want, but I almost never encounter it in our Sacrament Meetings.

    By the way, Rolf, what a sad anecdote about the LDS in Mozambique. A completely wasted opportunity on the part of the church to tap into these people’s rich musical heritage.

  3. Two of Three says:

    Caroline, I liked your comment addresses that fact that different people respond to different kinds of music. My family attended a “progressive” Catholic service with some relatives last year. The music was upbeat and deeply spiritual. I was more moved by that performance than I have been with anything in the LDS church. My husband, whose first love is classical music, thought it inappropriate for a worship service. But who is to say what is inappropriate? I felt inspired and uplifted.

  4. Seraphine says:

    I think the variety of music one sees in church depends to a large extent on the local leadership. While there are standardized hymnbooks and general guidelines, the interpretation of those guidelines (especially when it comes to special musical numbers) varies a lot by ward. I’ve been in wards where the only music anyone was allowed perform was hymns and primary songs, but I’ve also been in wards where gifted, professional trained musicians were regularly invited to share their talents in sacrament meeting (including one who played classical guitar, an instrument that is usually a “no” in church). I, too, wish that we saw a greater variety of music in church.

  5. Sterling Fluharty says:

    I wish we could break down denominational boundaries by finding more music in common with our Christian brothers and sisters. And I would be in heaven if we could put some soul in the hymn book.

  6. CatherineWO says:

    I will add my voice to this post and the comments in support of more diversity in our church music. It does vary by location though. In our last ward and stake in western Washington (the state), we had several trained musicians who directed choirs (youth and adult) in some pretty ambitious stuff. It was amazing the richness of sound and spirit that these choirs of quite ordinary voices were able to put out.
    We currently live in a stake (in another state) where the stake president has no musical background and won’t allow anything to be sung with which he is not familiar, so basically musical offerings are restricted to the hymnal, and then only to hymns he knows. When I especially miss different musical traditions is at Christmas time. For the past couple of years my husband and I have attended Christmas programs at other (non-LDS) churches in the area. These have been quite intense spiritual experiences for us and have helped to fill in where the LDS meetings are lacking.

  7. mr.mraynes says:

    Many thanks for the thoughtful responses!

    Rolf, that is such an illustrative story. I like your ideas about more local control of music practice. In my opinion, the Church’s current emphasis on correlation will prevent such an approach. I would like to explore the effects of correlation on music in a future post.

    Caroline, it’s not so much that solos are against the unwritten roles, rather performances that draw “undue” attention to the performer (or performers). When I use the term “soloistic” I suppose I mean “virtuosic.” Also, I’m in complete agreement regarding choir performances out of the hymnal. I have heard several conductors note with pride that the simple hymns are most effective for conveying the Spirit. I do not share that view.

    Two of Three, I agree that variety is critical to spiritually reaching the widest audience possible. I am a great classical music lover (and I’d appreciate more of it in our services), but I think a multitude of styles is needed to reach more people.

    Seraphine, I agree musical practice in the Church is largely determined by local leadership. Nevertheless, when general authorities make statements like those by Pres. Packer, local leaders often take note and fall in line.

    Sterling, you are right that our hymnal need not be a closed canon! Let’s add some, or create an alternative hymnal for greater variety.

    Catherine, you echo the point that local leadership is most powerful in terms of how music is presented in church meetings. I’m astounded by our collective distrust of the unfamiliar (another topic I’d like to explore later). We’ve all known leaders like your stake president who see anything unfamiliar as inappropriate.

  8. Jenne says:

    In the ward I currently live in, we have an amazing organist. Very talented and capable of stylized ornamentation on the hymns which make the everyday hymns sound wonderful. The Spirit of God played all out on the church organ is inspiring. I love it when our organist plays in this way. I wish we could hear more of it. Oh, thanks for leading me to this idea. I would love to incorporate this man’s talents into a musical fireside. I’ll be suggesting that at a correlation meeting tomorrow!

  9. Erin says:

    Jenne, in our ward we finally have an actual organist, not just a pianist-turned-organist-for-church. My husband turned to me last week and said that it’s sad he’s spent his whole life hearing the organ each week and only now realized how awesome it can be. I guess we could start revamping church music by training more organists.

    As a musician this is a topic that I feel strongly about and about which I am frequently frustrated. I don’t generally feel the Spirit in Sacrament Meeting, but I’ve felt it on numerous occasions during a musical performance. All of my bishops in the past 7 years have known next to nothing about music and so resort to the stick to the hymnal rule. In one ward the choir was not even allowed to sing “If The Savior Stood Beside Me” in ward conference because it was not in the hymnal. And this in an attempt to bring our ward “closer to Christ”.

    I’m a clarinetist and I feel greater frustration when limitations are placed on what I can play. Clarinet is not a highly favored instrument to arrange hymns for (at least not above a beginner level), and while I can transpose violin or flute arrangements these are not always terribly idiomatic for the clarinet. I feel that we stint the growth, both musically and spiritually, of our congregations when we so limit the music they are cultured to consider conducive to the Spirit. In my opinion I could get up and sing “I Believe in Christ” and make it all about me and my performance. Or I can get up and play a movement from a Brahms clarinet sonata and make it about helping the congregation feel the Spirit. And if you’ve ever had church at 8:30 in the morning you can definitely understand the need for some rousing gospel singing to wake everyone up!

    I think we should change meetings to have more music, less talking – at least we should do this more frequently than Easter and Christmas. And, as others have said, we should allow for a greater diversity of musical styles.

  10. James says:

    Thanks for the post, I look forward reading more from you on this topic. While there is so much I could say (and probably will in further discussion), I have two loosely-related comments:

    1) Church music fails to live up to its potential primarily as a result of the general lack of musicianship among us. This can be exacerbated at times when trained musicians stay on the sidelines. That problem isn’t widespread, but I have zero patience for it.
    2) The hymns from the hymnbook are a musically rich resource, but our failure to tap their potential comes as a result of our lack of musicianship.

    Ok, a few more thoughts: I think some decentralization (especially internationally) could be a good thing. I also think more congregational singing wouldn’t hurt in General Conference. However, it is interesting to observe that we spend more time listening to music than we do the first presidency in General Conference. To me, this serves as an indication of how highly music is held as a spiritual medium among our general leadership. It is too bad that our local leadership does not always seem to place such value on music, and that we don’t always have the resources to have more successful musical/spiritual experiences in our church services.

  11. EmilyCC says:

    Yay, mr. mraynes! I’m thrilled that life slowed down enough for you to write a post for the blog. I’m hoping there’s more!

    I echo others’ sentiments about having a greater variety of music. It feels like the tradition in the Church is to restrict the music we hear to being white Protestant hymns that have similar harmonies and, even, melodies. I would love to hear music from other cultures or on a variety of instruments.

    When I look at other churches’ hymnals (the UU hymnal comes to mind), I see such diverse music. I wish we had more of that.

    And, if I were in a leadership position, I would have an organ class taught during Sunday School. Our ward only has us pianists faking it at the organ, and it’s such a shame.

  12. mr.mraynes says:

    Many have commented (esp. Jenne and EmilyCC) regarding organ playing in wards. Indeed, the organ is NOT just another keyboard instrument that any old pianist can pick up immediately. The entire approach to the organ is singular: the touch, registration of pipes (or electronic versions of the same), not to mention the foot-pedal keyboard. When the organ is played correctly in the meeting, it is incredible how much it adds to the power and beauty of the music. It is a rare thing to hear in sacrament meeting. I love Emily’s idea of having a Sunday School class on this (I’d add conducting to this list). Perhaps this also should be explored in a future post.

    Erin brings up another point worth further discussion: what of the music to talk ratio in our meetings? I’m all for more music. Her point regarding soloistic performance is also dead on: the style or type of music has less to do with the problem than does the attitude and spirit of the performers themselves.

    James, your points about musicianship/musicality are excellent. Perhaps those organ/conducting sunday school lessons could also include more about musicianship. I believe the old “practice hymn” that used to be sung (with a bit of instruction) between sacrament and sunday school meetings was originally intended to fill that role in a limited way, but it has gone the way of the dodo bird…

    Great ideas have been sparked here for future, more specific posts on musical topics. Stay tuned!

  13. D'Arcy says:

    Thanks for this post mr. mraynes! One of the beautiful effects from a mission served in the deep south was a whole new exposure to music and religion. I would seek out gospel performances in other churches and attend, wishing that our church would somehow loosen up. It was always hard to bring investigators to a church where people sang as if they were still asleep. I feel we would have had more interested people if we could have had better music (as it truly serves as a united force).

    I’ve been attending a UCC congregation with a band. It’s been hard for my LDS self to get ok with a band at church, and now, I really enjoy it. They did a version of the Beatles “All You Need Is Love” that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Definitely brought in the spirit!

  14. Eleanor J. says:

    Interesting article. I’m originally from South Africa, and was pleased to return a few years ago to an all black ward, and thoroughly enjoyed how they sang the hymns with a beat. One thing I’ve noticed, now living in Canada, is that only the American anthem is in the hymnals – no other country is represented. In some Canadian Stakes they have pasted in our anthem. All countries should be represented or American anthems removed. It just is a constant reminder that the church is an American Church and not a worldwide church. We get very resentful when the American Anthem is played in church and not the Canadian one. I think we also need to expand our music to fit in with the different cultures. Their music is just as spiritually inspiring.

  15. James says:

    You raise a valid point, Eleanor. I would offer that at the time this version of the hymnal was published, the church was much more heavily concentrated in the US than it is today. I suspect the chances of those hymns making the cut (or being the only representative anthems) for a future hymnal are probably smaller given the degree to which the church has grown internationally.

  16. mr.mraynes says:

    Regarding the US national anthem in the hymnal: In hymnals in other languages it is already excluded (for obvious reasons). I imagine the next english version of the hymnal will omit it as well–at least I hope so, given Eleanor’s great point. I agree with James’s explanation for why it is there now–even just 25 years ago the Church had a very different makeup.

  17. AS says:

    Amen, Mr, mraynes! I agree wholeheartedly. I perhaps wonder if certain leaders are restrictive, not because there isn’t value in the varied musical offerings, but perhaps because they don’t know when would be appropriate to draw the line without hurting too many feelings?? I don’t know for sure, just a speculation.

  18. ReshyPede says:

    you have a wonderful site!

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