Church Music is Horrid (Andrew Law, 1803)

 | 1378 words

(I admit that I am using John Ahern’s idea for this post format).

While I was researching at Old Sturbridge Village for its internship program, I came across Andrew Law’s The Art of Singing, 4th ed. (Cambridge: W. Hillard, 1803). Law developed a system of shape notes without staff-lines, figuring that the lines were superfluous when shape-notes were used (Personally, I think it might have just been cheaper to print–in letterpress music printing, each little bit of line between the notes is a separate piece of type!). In this book, Law sought to improve upon the rather dreadful state of church music in this country. His dedication follows, which is worth a close reading (strange spellings his, though I have substituted s for ſ; emphasis is mine):

To the Ministers of the Gospel, and the Singing Masters, Clerks and Choristers throughout the United States


The following work is addressed to you. It claims your candid and thorough perusal. It exhibits an Introductory Treatise and an Elementary Scale, possessing, it is believed, improvements of real and permanent worth; and it also presents specimens of that chaste and sober, that sublime and solemn Psalmody, which the friends of religion and virtue, as well as the friends of sacred song, would rejoice to see more generally improved in worshipping assemblies.

It will not, perhaps, have escaped the observation of any one of you, that very much of the music in vogue is miserable indeed. Hence the man of piety and principle, of taste and discernment in music, and hence, indeed, all, who entertain a sense of decency and decorum in devotion, are oftentimes offended with that lifeless and insipid, or that frivolous and frolicksome succession and combination of sounds, so frequently introduced into churches, where all sound should be serious, animated and devout; and hence the dignity and the ever varying vigor of Handel, of Madan, and of others, alike meritorious, are, in a great measure, supplanted by the pitiful productions of numerous composuists, whom it would be doing too much honor to name. Let any one acquainted with the sublime and beautiful compositions of the great Masters of Music, but look round within the circle of his own acquaintance, and he will find abundant reason for these remarks.

The evil is obvious. Much of the predominating Psalmody of this country is more like song singing, than like solemn praise. It rests with you, Gentlemen, to apply the remedy. The work of reformation is arduous, but not impracticable, and the more difficult the task, the more praise worthy the accomplishment.

I will further add, that there are no description of citizens in the community, who have it in their power to do half as much, as you, towards correcting and perfecting the taste in music, and towards giving to devotional praise its due effect upon our lives and conversation.

The cause of religion and virtue has therefore a claim upon your exertions. What remains then, but that every one who is convinced of the want, begin the work? Individual exertions, rendered unexceptionable, become universal, and the business is ended.

That you may criticise with the keenness and candor of real masters of music, and correct with the courage and conduct of irresistable reformers, is all that the fondest friends of sacred music would ask or wish; and if the following Book be found but an individual’s mite, towards promoting so noble an undertaking as that, of improving the religious praise of a rising Empire, it will never become a subject of regret to one, who has devoted up the greater part of his life to the cultivation of Psalmody, and who is,

With all proper Respects,


For those of us who are concerned with proper music theory, and are pained by rough singing, his chapter 3: “Of Tonguing and Tuning the Voice” (12-13) is interesting, reproduced below in its entirety (strange spellings his, emphasis mine):

GOOD tones, in proper tune are indispensibly requisite in order to good music. One of the first and most important objects of the instructor should therefore be, to modulate the tones, or sounds of each voice, so as to render them agreeable; and where different voices join together, with a design of producing harmony, they should all take the same pitch and move in perfect tune. The tones of the human voice, in order to be agreeable, must be open smooth and flexible; and, to be in tune each voice must accord with the others. Tones are the ground work of music, and if these are rough, or otherwise faulty, good music is at an end.–To lead performers to sing in a smooth and flowing voice, is a principal duty of instructors. In this, I know, I have but repeated a proposition, the substance of which, I had long before expressed; but I wish it to be more than repeated, to be remembered, and carried into practice; for of a truth, it contains a duty that is neglected by most American teachers. The tones of our singers are in general, I had almost said universally rough, hard and dissonant. In a word, our singing in general is extremely harsh; and this harshness produces its natural effects. It renders our psalmody less pleasing and less efficacious; but it does more: it vitiates our taste and gives currency to bad music. A considerable part of American music is extremely faulty. European compositions aim at variety and energy by guarding against the reiterated use of the perfect chords. Great numbers of the American composers, on the contrary, as it were, on purpose to accommodate their music for harsh singing, have introduced the smooth and perfect chords, till their tunes are all sweet, languid and lifeless; and yet these very tunes, because they will better bear the discord of grating voices, are actually preferred, and have taken a generel run, to the great prejudice of much better music, produced even in this country, and almost to the utter exclusion of genuinae European compositions. But it was the roughness, of our singing that ought to have been smoothed and polished, and not the compositions of Madan and Handel. If there is ought of roughness or discord required in music, it should arise from the composition itself, and not from the voices of the singers. These should all be sweet, graceful and flowing. But sing the sweet-chorded tunes of this country’s make, in sweet toned voices, and they will immediately cloy, sicken, and disgust.

To correct our taste, and give to our music the energy and variety it requires, we must begin at the root of the evil. The cause that gives currency to bad composition, and operates to destroy the efficacy of our psalmody must be removed. The harshness of our singing must be corrected. Our voices must be filed. Every tone must be rendered smooth, persuasive and melting; and when a number of voices are joined together, they must all have the same pitch, or in other words, must be in the most perfect tune. Then, nor till then, shall we sing well, and be able to distinguish between the compositions of genuine merit, and those that are merely indifferent.

The accomplishment of these purposes must depend in a great measure upon teachers. To mould the voice of their pupils into the most smooth and graceful sounds, ought to be one of their first and principle objects; and every master who will give suitable attention to this subject, will find himself amply rewarded. The music of his school will be rendered more delightful and more powerful; and he will have the double satisfaction of pleasing and improving himself, while he gratifies and profits the public.