Should Worship Musicians Study Music?

Music is a language in which worship musicians should become more fluent.

Too often the study of music is overlooked, or even frowned upon within the contemporary worship culture. There has emerged a stark dichotomy between the musician who knows versus the musician who feels. Dichotomies by their very nature evolve, even devolve, into ideological camps. When it comes to music, though, it is possible to know and to feel music and it is not necessary for one to exist without the other. Over the past 15 to 20 years, worship music has seen a steady move towards “the simpler the better” for congregational worship songs. I do not claim that this perspective is wrong—in fact, I would argue that this stylistic approach is beneficial for the engagement of worshippers. “The simpler the better” perspective, however, has led to a decline in the general knowledge of music needed to be a “competent” worship musician. It has led to a “bare minimum” approach to musical competency—the idea that someone needs to know just enough to successfully execute the performance of a song. While this is a great starting place to get involved in worship ministry, it should by no means be the end of the journey. Here, I want to develop a few ideas that urge worship musicians to study music more seriously.

Like the language we speak every day to communicate with one another, music is a language. Tonal music—the music used in nearly all styles of corporate worship—is a highly refined language. Fluency in spoken language is practically expected in culture. So why is musical fluency not expected? Now, before I proceed, I would like to put forth a disclaimer. I am in no way trying to condemn musicians who have not formally studied music. In fact, there are some prolific musicians in the context of worship ministry that have learned completely by hearing and feeling and may not have a great understanding of the underlying music concepts they are able to perform. I commend these musicians—this type of musical ability is a gift from the Lord. At the same time, I would urge this type of musician to also consider the perspectives given below. So, what are the benefits of learning the language of music? For me, there are four basic reasons to study music for the purposes of being a worship musician.

  1. Having a deeper understanding of music will make you a better conduit for the work of the Holy Spirit.
  2. An understanding of music will make you a better leader and communicator on the platform.
  3. An understanding of music will make you better equipped to successfully walk into diverse musical and worship environments.
  4. The study of music will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation for the beauty and complexity of music – which is profoundly linked to human expression of worship to God.

A better conduit for the work of the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Samuel 16:14-23 tells the story of how David came to be Saul’s personal musician and armor-bearer. Verse 16 says, “Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit of God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well.” There is a lot that could be said about this verse, but I want to focus on two points. First, the prerequisite of the Lord’s command was to find someone who was skillful. Second, the skillfulness of David’s musicianship was solely enough to make Saul well in the presence of a tormenting spirit. When we hone our musical craft, we become a conduit for the work of the Holy Spirit. Music is a resource powerful enough to overcome spirits. What does this mean on a more practical level? When you are asked to participate in worship ministry, you are charged with stewarding your musical craft, you are charged with the task of leading your congregation in worship. Yes, as a pianist, drummer, or guitarist, you are a worship leader. The Holy Spirit is working through your musicianship at all times. The more you steward your craft, the more comfortable you will be on the platform. The more comfortable you are on the platform, the easier it is to partner with the Holy Spirit. Rather than being bogged down by only thinking about what you are playing, having a deeper understanding of music and continual practice habits allow you to set your mind on the work of the Spirit.

A better leader and communicator on the platform.

Whether you are the vocalist leading the congregation, or a musician serving in the band, communication is the key to success. Executing a meaningful musical expression of worship takes communication from each member of the team. Successful communication in this setting implies that everyone is speaking the same language—the language of music. I want to pause again to restate the disclaimer from earlier. Yes, it is absolutely possible to participate in worship ministry having only the bare minimum necessary to execute a song; and yes, the Holy Spirit is capable and will use this offering of musical talent. How much better, and how much easier would it be to put together a coherent musical expression of worship if the communication boundaries were torn down by being musically educated? Imagined being positioned to engage in a musical setting by thoughtfully thinking through and communicating all aspects of the musical expression you are trying to accomplish. 

Better equipped to successfully walk into diverse musical and worship environments.

I think we have gotten comfortable with the “simpler the better” culture. But, if we look across the vast history of the Christian church, it becomes clear that expressions of worship change. This is especially true when looking at musical expressions of worship. In the grand scheme of church history, the “simpler the better” perspective occupies a tiny sliver of the landscape. As musicians, we need to be prepared for where the body of Christ is moving. As time moves forward, history would indicate that there is going to be a change. I am not going to try and predict what all or even some of these changes will look like, but we should not put a limit on what God wants to do in the church by our narrow-minded perspectives on musical expression. 

A deeper understanding and appreciation for the beauty and complexity of music.

Music is a gift from God. It is a unique artistic expression that is designed by the Creator meant to be given back to the Creator as an act of worship. The more I grow in my understanding of the beauty and complexity of music, the more I grow in awe and wonder of its Designer. I want to urge all musicians to take a moment to think about this. Music is an element of God’s creation and God’s creation is revelation of who God is. So, the act of studying music is an act of worship. This is inspiring! Don’t just see serving on the platform as worship—music itself is worship if you invite the person of the Holy Spirit to guide your studies.

I will conclude by saying this: I am not putting forward an argument for perfectionism. Perfection in music is impossible. I am not putting forward an argument for being the best musician. I am, though, putting forward the suggestion that studying music will lead to excellence. Perfectionism is trying to be the best—excellence is offering your best. As 1 Peter 4:10 says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” And Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.” 

Dr. Andrew Nicolette
Dr. Andrew Nicolette
Dr. Andrew Nicolette is the Assistant Professor of Music and Worship Studies at The King's University.