Musical Snobbery

As Mormons, we are musical snobs. There is approved music and unapproved music. The borders of the musical promised land and the musical slums are as hard and fast as any railroad tracks that separate the good part of town from the bad, and that extends to instruments as well. Or at least that has been the case within my memory. You don’t get to play much music other than Hymns in the chapel. And no matter what you play, you better play it on an approved instrument. The list of instruments that you have heard in your chapel is probably as short as the list of instruments I have heard in mine: organ, piano, violin or viola, cello. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ve heard an occasional flute or bass viol, but not much else. Is there a good reason for this?

Here is the language from the new Handbook 2 on the subject:

Guidelines for Choosing Appropriate Music for Church Worship Services

All Church music should be consistent with the following guidelines.

The hymns are the basic music for worship services and are standard for all congregational singing. In addition, other appropriate selections may be used for prelude and postlude music, choir music, and special musical presentations. If musical selections other than the hymns are used, they should be in keeping with the spirit of the hymns. Texts should be doctrinally correct. (See “Hymns for Congregations,” Hymns, 380–81.)

Secular music should not replace sacred music in Sunday meetings. Some religiously oriented music presented in a popular style is not appropriate for sacrament meetings. Also, much sacred music that is suitable for concerts and recitals is not appropriate for a Latter-day Saint worship service.

Music in Church meetings should not draw attention to itself or be for demonstration. This music is for worship, not performance.

Organs and pianos, or their electronic equivalents, are the standard instruments used in Church meetings. If other instruments are used, their use should be in keeping with the spirit of the meeting. Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.

So you can see that “most brass or percussion” are specifically discouraged, if not outlawed completely. I’m not sure why this is. What is it about a trumpet that strikes our current ears as “less worshipful.” I think a french horn can be as worshipful as any instrument, but then I feel the same way about an electric guitar. Isn’t “worshipful” a function of what you are playing and how you are playing it rather than the instrument?

And what about acoustic guitars? Why can’t our worship service include them? I have heard that some wards have allowed this on occasion but have never seen it myself and never heard of it happening recently. I want to see more musical options in our meetings and certainly in our ward talent nights. Let’s open up our musical minds and experience a full cornacopia of musical options, not just the standard four or five narrow instruments.

I am intrigued that the new Handbook 2 language may open up more musical possibilities, but I am not optimistic. What do you think? Can guitars be included under these guidelines? What about worshipful woodwinds? What is your experience with these instruments and what do you hope to see in the future?

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