Are Backing Tracks Good or Bad Church Music Accompaniment?

Backing tracks often are solutions when no musicians are available to play music for an event. A DJ plays tunes for school dances and wedding receptions when a live band is not present. Dance teachers play CDs of piano accompaniments for advanced ballet classes. School musicals often use recordings of instrumental accompaniments when they can’t find a pit orchestra.

But the taped tracks are the subject of debate in parishes and denominations: do they make good church music accompaniment?

Taped music for church use comes in many different forms, including CDs, MP3s, and MIDI-operated devices. Obviously, the former 2 can be played if the pianist or organist is absent. Just pop a disc in or plug the player in and lead the congregation in song.

Another one is the MIDI-operated device. The user attaches the device to a MIDI-supported musical instrument (be it a keyboard or digital organ), select the hymns, and play them. It’s pretty undetectable, and nobody virtually sees an organ or keyboard playing when the player is unseen.

There are good reasons to use pre-recorded music for services. Suppose a musician got the flu and couldn’t play at Mass. The youth ministry’s musicians are too busy to play for the parishioners. Acappella can sometimes be testy because not everyone sings in tune, and you want the singing to be coherent. So you order a MIDI accompaniment box, plug it to your electric organ, select the hymns, and proceed with the liturgy. It’s highly appropriate with services focusing on youth when a band (folk or praise) is not available or if there’s no room for them, such as outdoor retreats.

Also, it’s easier on the churches’ budgets. They just have to pay just one down payment on each track, set of tracks, or device and proceed with operating either one.

But a lot of congregants, musicians, and music lovers are not too impressed about or hate the concept of taped hymn accompaniment. Firstly, it’s all automated, especially with the MIDI boxes. A Yale University article and sermon text on liturgical music included information and banality about such a device called Synthia and how it cheapens worship.

“Synthia is the quick fix that makes the problem worse. She is the result of the values of a commercial culture, our churches’ easy acceptance of them,” it reads, “and – it must be said – of musicians’ indolence in accepting our vocation to empower God’s people to develop their abilities, and of our churches’ long-term failure to pay her musicians adequately.”

Emily R Brink, of Reformed Worship, agrees, “Those looking for a quick fix to their shortage of musicians should not hope that buying tapes or a synthesizer will make worship better. There is just no shortcut to integrity.”

Speaking of the shortage of musicians, the electronic equivalents of making electronic keyboard instruments modern player pianos (or organs) contributes to it. It’s costly to hire a musician and keep him in the sanctuary, especially with organists, so they turn to those devices. But over time, they can fail and break down into disrepair, just like electric pianos or organs. So the music ministry has to shell out more money to replace them. Compare that with maintaining an non-electronic piano or, ultimately, a pipe organ – the repairs and tuning costs about the same as replacing a device year after year and makes them last almost forever.

I asked people on the Web about their stance on accompaniment devices and a lot of them frown upon them. One of them said, “Artificial music lacks the proper spiritual feel, it is not made by the worshippers and does not convey the relationship with God that live music does.”

I bet that those who agree that automated MIDI players cheapen worship can also say the same with CD or MP3 hymn accompaniments. If that trend keeps up, churches would replace paper hymnals with videos of the hymns’ lyrics that change color. I would call that fear, “karaoke worship.”

So, if there’s a lot of youth attending a service in a very casual atmosphere when no live band, guitar, or piano is available, taped music is fairly OK. But I strongly urge youth should go to a service where music is live and fits the traditional liturgy. Sure, they may rebel that their moms and dads have to take them to some church that’s a Romanesque Revival edifice with a working pipe organ with pipe facade visible, but I guarantee that they would thank you for that.

Speaking of the real, down-to-earth, types of organ, it’s time that people advocate to schools and colleges about the interest in playing them. It all starts with donating and giving back to music education, which is in peril thanks to budget cuts and standardized testing. The organ connects worshippers voices to music, and they feel as if they are closer to God. Recorded tracks do about half the effort.

For me, I prefer a service with an organ with both visible and working pipes than one with a CD accompaniment of popular hymns.

Emily R. Brink, “Coping With the Organist Shortage: How about accompaniment tracks?” Reformed Worship
“Where do you stand on backing tracks in church?” Yahoo Answers.
William Porter, “Lights on the Road to Heaven.” Yale University.