Musical Sensitivity

What is musical sensitivity and how can we increase it?

As a young musician I sat listening to a well-known music group and wondered what made them so appealing. I realized later that it was not only because they were skilled musicians, but, more than this, they had “musical sensitivity.” They knew how to musically interpret each song to accurately portray the intent and emotions of the song.

As worship leaders we must fully understand that our songs are to be more than just a succession of musical notes tied to lyrics. It is essential that we begin to build a musical sensitivity and thereby to draw people into worship of God.

Many local church music teams seem to have a way of making various styles of music all sound alike. I have heard it described as putting the music through “the church blander.” Whether it is a traditional hymn, an upbeat Jewish-style song, a rhythmic African song or a slow, meditative-type song, they all end up sounding very similar. This is not because of an intentional decision to make them sound the same. It is usually because of a lack of musical sensitivity as well as a need to update musical skills and talents.

The first practical step to improve is to realize that not all of the instruments available need to be played during every section of every song. If God has blessed you with numerous musicians, do not feel obligated to have them all play continuously. Be sensitive to the style and flow of the music, and choose instruments appropriate to the rhythm and style of the music.

Consider this: Do symphony orchestra musicians play continuously on every piece? Of course not. Is it just because they are tired and need a break? No. Rather, the composer wrote the music in such a way that various emotions and concepts would be portrayed in different places by, at least in part, the use of different instruments.

We, too, need to catch hold of this concept. God’s power and might can be more accurately portrayed musically by a thundering bass guitar or a massive pipe organ than by a flute. Yet the flute would be a much better choice for a quiet, meditative moment before the Lord.

Beyond instrumentation, we must also consider musical dynamics. Playing an entire song (not to mention several songs in a row) at the same tempo and decibel level can easily lead to boredom.

A carefully-planned crescendo can add life to an otherwise bland song. A properly-placed instrumental interlude may offer a time of contemplative individual worship. Singing the last line of a song a few times (reprise, vamp, tag, etc.) can help drive home these final important words. Starting or ending a song with slower-than-normal tempo dramatically increases the impact of the words and music. Modulating to another key will musically lift and build a song. Dropping out all of the instruments while repeating a favorite chorus can have a dramatic impact on the singing.

One other practical suggestion is to continue to expose yourself to a variety of new music. There are so many new worship recordings today with highly talented and innovative musicians on them. Listening to other players and singers will consistently help you improve your overall musical understanding. This will especially help yield ideas for growth in the area of musical sensitivity. There are no shortcuts in continuing to upgrade your ability, style and sensitivity. You need to keep listening to a variety of music.

All of these are simple musical tools that we can use. Some musical tools are very subtle but still quite effective. Others are more obvious, and, if overused, can lose their impact.

If you are not already utilizing these ideas, I encourage you to pray for an increased musical sensitivity. Then try some of these tools and trust God to show you how to best use them. Beyond the “natural” musical sensitivity of worldly musicians, we Christian musicians can tap into the real source of musical sensitivity. Ask the God of all creativity to show you new ways to musically express your worship.