A Critique of Click-tracks In Modern Worship
I’m not a stranger to the use of click-tracks, loops and full electronically generated arrangements in worship. In fact, I’ve possibly used these things more than most.
As a worship leader for twenty-four years, I’ve had times when my volunteer pool of people has been plentiful…and then there have been times of drought. It was through one of those times of scarcity that Ableton Live became my intimate friend and co-partner in keeping the fires of worship burning in the music ministry that I was leading.
Since my professional recording studio drummer, my highly-skilled college trained bass player, my classically trained wind players, a hot jazz-licks trumpet player, and a natural-born talented guitar player all seemed to have various reasons to leave within the course of a few months, I embarked upon my journey of replicating all of these elements electronically. This wasn’t for a few weeks, but rather for about a year and a half. Much of the material I used for worship at that time was generated from MIDI arrangements (along with click-tracks sent to my newly developing players via headphones).
It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough people, they just weren’t yet as skillful as those who had left. To fill in the gap, and give the new players a chance to grow, click-track arangements worked nicely to get us through.
I’m amazed, however, to see modern church worship embrace the mind-set of using click-tracks and corresponding MIDI arrangements as a replacement for people. Even churches that have ample resources of skilled musicians opt to have tracks rather than what otherwise could have been given by live players or extra vocalists.
I used click-tracks gladly, filling in where there was lack, but now many worship scenarios are choosing tracks over people simply because it’s logistically less challenging.
I was in a church recently that wanted to show off their technical prowess by lowering the rigging of their moving lights and LED panels to center stage, all spinning to the beat of a Dubstep electronica track (with no one on the stage but the light-show). The technology was the ‘performer’ sans any people at all. The technical director was quick to admit that they don’t do this for their services, but it was quite evident that they would if they could, since that was how they chose to display their most forefront creativity.
Stepping back, trying to gain some objectivity, I asked myself the question: what is the Scriptural precedent for leading worship? I know that God is certainly involved in the creative process. New developments of technology are inspired by His creative spark. And even though we are not living in ancient times with their corresponding instruments and tools, an attitude of inclusiveness in worship and worship leading is displayed throughout the Bible.
“They have seen Your procession, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary. The singers went on, the musicians after them, in the midst of the maidens beating tambourines.” (Ps. 68:24-25)
“Then I had the leaders of Judah come up on top of the wall, and I appointed two great choirs, the first proceeding to the right on top of the wall…The second choir proceeded to the left, while I followed them with half of the people on the wall…and the singers sang…and on that day they offered great sacrifices and rejoiced because God had given them great joy, even the women and children rejoiced, so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar.” (Neh. 12:31-43)
“And when the priests came forth…and all the Levitical singers…clothed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, standing east of the altar, and with them one hundred and twenty priests blowing trumpets in unison when the trumpeters and the singers were to make themselves heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praised the Lord saying, “He indeed is good for His lovingkindness is everlasting,” then the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” (2 Chron. 5:11-14)
And even a heavenly example, in the book of Revelation, “And when He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, having each one a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song…And I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands.” (Rev. 5:7-11)
Music History's Direction
The history of music shows the past need for large ensembles to create enough volume to reach masses of people, yet in the last one-hundred years, we have seen technology gradually replace this need. From the European Symphony Orchestras and Choirs, to the Big Band Jazz ensemble with a few singers on microphones, to the Rock ensembles with a lead and a shadow vocal, finally to electronica with one guy (who can almost sing) and a computer, our need for large quantities of people to reach the masses has been systematically replaced by technology.
I find the passage in Ezekiel regarding the king of Tyre to be interesting. Most theologians believe this to be symbolic of satan, who in pride exalted himself against God. In all of the beauty he once had, one of the characteristics mentioned in this passage was that musical instruments emanated from within his very being, “And the gold, the workmanship of your tambourines and flutes, was in you.” (Ez. 28:13)
Is it possible, that as the Modern Church continues to follow the world’s artistic paradigms, we are approaching a time in history in which music will emanate solely from within an individual instead of a community? Is it possible that we are heading toward the Luciferian example? Modern day electronica has not yet become mainstream in the contemporary church, but it is heading that direction.
What I am saying is this: Perhaps we should evaluate why we are moving toward a minimalistic approach to leading worship, rather than an inclusive one.
When I asked a prominent member of a forefront mega-church, that uses click-tracks for every song of every service, why they don’t utilize the rich talent pool of string, wind and brass players in their services and only use choirs a couple times a year, his response was, “It’s just not our DNA.” They add some of those elements, however simplistically, through recorded synchronization with the click, as the vocal and instrumental recordings replace live people. I also wondered if scoring and arranging was a lacking skill in their situation, not knowing how to include more people than a simple rock-band for their new materials. (It’s easy enough to create a song with four chords and a poem on a lead-sheet, but it requires an entirely different skill set to arrange and orchestrate it.)
Rhythm in music is part of our human expression. Perhaps the best example of rhythm is our heart-beat. It never stays the same, when we are excited it beats faster, when we are sedate, more slowly. It is organic to our momentary experience of life, never static.
Music for centuries has been rhythmically free from the constraints of metronomic structure. Even though general tempos were set, and accurate passages performed by skilled musicians, there was an understood ‘ebb and flow’ to the material.
It was only recently, in the recording studio, that tempos became rigidly set for the purpose of layering tracks. Isolating the various instruments to avoid bleed-over became the most important aspect of obtaining a clean mix. The idea of ‘divide and conquer’ became useful in the studio.
With the advent of in-ear monitors, live performers began to find it helpful to use their studio mixes of added instrumentation to augment their performances via click-track. The ‘extra’ elements of players they didn’t want to hire for their gigs meant more money to pocket for the smaller ensemble. The only problem, as technology continues to move forward (and greed is ever-present), is that the definition of ‘extra’ keeps growing bigger while the definition of ‘necessary’ keeps shrinking. The number of 'virtual' players grows larger (with recorded tracks) and the number of live performers gets smaller.
One respected recording engineer asked a class the rhetorical question, “Do you know what the most important elements are in a live recording, ones you simply can’t do without?” The answer to his own question, “The audience and the drummer…everything else you can layer in during post-production.”
So now the modern church, emulating the rock bands of yesterday, is using click-tracks for everything. While being in perfect tempo and able to synchronize lights, it yet remains static, unbending and in-organic to human expression. It has now also become an excuse to exclude any number of skilled and sincere musicians who desire to be involved in the process of leading worship. They have been replaced by a machine.
David writes of the experience of worshippers who become rigid, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of man’s hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but they cannot hear; they have noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they cannot make a sound with their throat. Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them.” (Ps. 115:1-8)
Everything created by man to be worshiped is idolatry. When man begins to worship his own creation instead of God, it ends in rigidity, stagnation and death (either figuratively or literally).
As long as there is a metronomic click in our ears, it's still "man follows machine". I'm looking for the day when "machine follows man." Our human 'imperfection' of timing is what brings life to music and worship. Static tempo is, in my opinion, death to authentic worship and artful musical expression. Why should we rigidly subject ourselves to an unyielding beat when freedom is in our hearts?
Ultimately, technology cannot lead worship, only people lead worship. Admittedly, technology can be a powerful tool in the hands of a worshiper with the right motivation. However, when technology becomes an end in itself, a way to ‘keep up’ with society, an exclusion of elements in worship organic to human expression, it is at this point most assuredly idolatry.
I hope technology will improve someday to the point that loops and click-tracks will bend to human expression, rather than the other way around. Even with the latest advances of live performance software (i.e. triggering sections and tempos) we are still not there yet. Maybe when technology can become more organically sensitive we will see a truly successful use of tracks for worship and artful expression.
I find it curious that our culture seems to need the ‘sameness’ of a static, unbending tempo. Since the recording studios emerged, it has become so widely accepted that most people don’t seem to know the difference. Perhaps the perverted freedoms of our society (like the free sex of the 60’s and 70’s which ended up in later generations of broken families) create a hunger in our culture for structure, sameness, boundaries, and secure boxes.
‘Boxed-in’ is probably the best way to describe worshiping to a metronome.
Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy making complete arrangements for a change of pace, or dropping in loops to create a different texture or contrasting moment to what's happening with the live players. If I needed to use loops and tracks when skilled people were scarce, I would be glad for the technology to get me through the day. However, my mindset is always to include people, never replace them. While I'm still waiting for the day that the computer will 'ebb and flow' (millisecond by millisecond) to the live performer, I'm glad we can at least get pretty close by tapping in the tempo.
Ultimately, worship must be about human expression, not a machine's accuracy.
I’m not against technological advances, I just think we should evaluate our motivation.