The Sociology of Vigorous Music

The Western church has tried, and failed, to reform its worship before, or at least failed to make the reforms stick.  The reforms lasted long enough to give us some wonderful music, but we are now trying to recover it, because in the intervening centuries, we lost it.  The historical trend is from the rich and complex to the simplistic and predictable, from vigorous, robust singing to plaintive, introspective howling.


One answer is that we are sinners, and we always resist God.  He requires music to match the songbook He gave us, and we simply don’t deliver.  His songs are profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction and instruction in righteousness, which is to say, they are often comforting, but always uncomfortable.  We prefer to be comfortable, so we don’t sing God’s songs.  Not singing His Word, we are free to write our own, comfortable words, and compose for our comfortable words a lazy musical score that does not challenge us.

That’s one answer, and I think it’s a good one.  I’d like to add to it, though, because I think it’s missed something important.  I do this provisionally, in the spirit of a trial balloon, and if this intrigues or outrages you, I would love to hear from you.

When we backslide, there are always two reasons why: first, because we wanted to go backward, and second, because we didn’t move forward.  The answer above addresses only why we wanted to go backward.  I’d like to address the second reason, and begin to discuss how to move forward.

Many of these older, more complex, vigorous tunes are dances.  In fact, this is precisely the reason Queen Elizabeth dismissed the Genevan Psalter as “Genevan jigs.”

So where are the dancers?

If everyone sits in pews, or even stands in place, and sings the original ‘Genevan jigs,’ the incongruence between their music and their actions will get to them sooner or later.  Eventually, they will slow down the music to match what they’re doing with their bodies.  If even a few people are dancing, though, the sight and tempo of the movement will reinforce the vigor of the music.  We’re going to have to recover worship dance along with worship music, if we’re going to succeed in reviving vigorous psalm-singing.   It’s a package deal — the physical movement demands a certain sort of music, and the kind of music many of the Psalms require naturally demands that the body get up and move.   It’s unnatural to sing a jig without somebody dancing a jig.

I don’t know that there’s biblical precedent for making dance a part of the ordinary liturgy, but there is definitely precedent for worship dance on an ad hoc basis — Miriam (Exodus 15) and David (2 Samuel 6) come immediately to mind.  In order for that to be an option, a vigorous tradition of folk dance has to be part of the ongoing culture of the church, otherwise we won’t have the skills when we need them.

Music and dance go together.  There’s one other ingredient, though.  Vigorous dance has a strong, even martial quality to it.   This is no accident: in premodern cultures, there’s no separation between dance and martial preparation.  The martial arts of premodern cultures are all related to the cultures’ dances, and although not all dance is martial preparation in these cultures, martial preparation almost invariably involves dance.

Why?  I’m not sure of all the reasons, but I can speak to at least one of them from my own experience.  Dance is sustainable (physically, but more important, psychologically) in a way that harsh preparation for combat is not.  Dancing with a partner or a group reinforces general athleticism, distancing, timing, coordination, and so on, but it does these things in a relaxed and joyful way.

Contrast the dance to, say, hard sparring.  Sparring — even friendly sparring — takes a certain amount of focused bad intentions, it hurts, and it’s really rough on the body if you’re older than 25 or so.  You can only do so much of it.  Dance doesn’t have those problems, and so one of its functions is to involve the whole community in sustainable martial preparation.

It works the other way too.  As long as there’s no artificial barrier between martial preparation and dance, the culture’s dance tradition never fully loses contact with its martial traditions, and is in no danger of becoming decadent and effete.

So here’s the problem as I see it: cultures the world over demonstrate that a martial backdrop, vigorous dance, and vigorous music all go together.  Lose part of the package, and it seems that you’re in some danger of losing the whole thing.  If we’re going to have vigorous music — and keep it this time, instead of losing it after a century or so — I suspect we’ve got to figure out a way to have the whole package.

All of that said, the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, and the church is unique among the cultures of the world in that regard.  So how does this work itself out for us?


13 Responses to The Sociology of Vigorous Music

  1. Sanc says:

    Hi Tim,

    You said: “Music and dance go together. There’s one other ingredient, though. Vigorous dance has a strong, even martial quality to it. This is no accident: in premodern cultures, there’s no separation between dance and martial preparation. “

    Is marital arts causal for dance? How about, alternately, that martial and dance art are both correlated by a third, undisclosed variable?

    Perhaps systems of movement are cultural. Culture has no way of explaining its origin besides its religion/supersitions. Culture is a distinct pattern of tradition that varies from place to place, though it is subject to evolution.

    In Japan women are very submissive in their body language. Traditional Japanese dancing is a reflection of this view of femininity. Compare that to Western modern femininity, and I imagine the body language set would be utterly unfeminine, to their eyes. But can I explain why Japanese body language is very controlled and subdued? Where did that originate from? Why did that become the accepted cultural expression? I don’t know, I just know that it is what it is.

    I think I too can see that Japanese dance is a close cousin to martial arts. I desire to go on a mission trip to Rwanda next year. There, their dance is very rhythmic and free-form. Is this style born from their tradition of warfare? I don’t know.

    When I go there, God permitting, they and I are going to share some worship dance. I am excited to think of it.


  2. Tim Nichols says:


    I don’t think it’s simple cause/effect in any direction. I’d say that both martial art and dance spring from the well of the culture — and then serve as vehicles by which the culture is conveyed, thereby becoming conservative forces that guard and maintain the culture.

    That said, there is a more basic ingredient in some sense: different cultures have a different ‘body set’ — how they walk, sit, stand, etc. The martial art assumes its home culture’s body set, and so does the dance. This is why American practitioners so often fail to grasp Asian martial arts in spite of years of practice — you can train techniques until the cows come home, but they don’t work the same way if the basic way you hold your body is different from how the home culture moves. Worse, because the body set is *assumed*, there are no training drills or progressions for it within the art — they never had to train their own people in that. So practically, unless you happen to have a teacher who understands this issue — unlikely — you either manage to pick it up on your own, or you don’t.
    A pair of examples of this phenomenon:
    1. Indigenous Russian martial art is making serious inroads in the West. It operates from a more Western body-set than the Asian arts, so Westerners pick up on it faster.
    2. Paul De Thouars, a masterful Dutch-Indonesian martial artist in the Pentjak Silat Sera(k) tradition, moved with his family to the US in the sixties, and created a very effective martial art called Bukti Negara for his students here. In contrast to Indonesians, Americans are bigger, heavier, have longer legs, bad knees, bad lower backs, etc., and so he designed his art to accommodate those differences: comparatively very upright, less bending and low squatting, like that. This led to the joke — still proverbial today, to the chagrin of the present practitioners — that Bukti was for “cripples, old people, and Americans.” It’s true, but smile when you say it…

    Just to be talking about it, let’s grant that martial art and dance — indeed, all forms of movement — come from culture more generally. Culture, in turn, springs from worship, which is in turn expressed in music and dance — so it all comes full circle. My concern is not to solve the chicken/egg problem, so much as to make sure that when we’re trying to reform, we don’t leave gaping holes through simple inattention.

    If our mission is to reform worship, then we need to sing psalms. Singing psalms means music that befits them. Vigorous music means vigorous movement, at least at times (cf. Miriam and David), and vigorous dance in traditional cultures also has a mutually influential relationship with the cultures’ martial traditions. I’m not particularly concerned about finding the one point to advance so that it will “trickle down” into all the other areas. Let’s just advance on all fronts together, so that all parts of our approach reinforce all other parts.


  3. Sanc says:

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for that satisfactory answer. I’m interested in exploring the range between pew-shifting weight dance to what you call “vigorous” dance. What does vigorous dance mean to you?

    At the extreme I really appreciate the kind of dance that goes on for a good deal of time, and is indeed vigorous, but, I can’t help but suspect that this is because of its exercising quality, as we were discussing, the dopamine release is addictive and that’s why people get hooked on exercising at all.

    On the other hand I cannot say for sure that other spiritual disciplines, such as bible reading or journaling, is not also pleasurable because of the same release of dopamine, speaking chemically, I am sure the drive for both must be related regardless of the negative connotation of what dopamine is and does.

    Honestly, if dancing gets vigorous, you’d better clear a good space out.

    😀 Michele

  4. Tim Nichols says:


    Describing ‘vigorous’ in suitably concrete terms could be difficult, but does “If you ain’t sweatin’, you ain’t dancin’ hard enough” cover it? Psalm 150, for example, explicitly requires dance — along with wind instruments, stringed instruments, and a very active percussion section. It’s meant to be raucous and joyful, and the dance should match the music, which in turn should match the lyric God provided.
    Another way of putting it might be “leaping and whirling before the face of Yahweh” (2 Sam.6:16). And yeah, that’s gonna take some space.

    Think of the dopamine as God’s way of saying “Thank you.”

    Seriously, if dopamine release is addictive, and doing what God calls us to do releases dopamine, then we’re just going to have to grit our teeth and endure the fact that living God’s way can sometimes be fun. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it…

    Okay, actually serious now: why would we be suspicious of dopamine? What are we telling ourselves, that it even makes sense to worry that obeying God might be pleasurable, and then we might do it because we like it? We claim that God is not a sadist, and living God’s way is genuinely better than the alternative. If we really believe it, then why does dopamine make us so nervous?


  5. Sanc says:


    REALLY enjoyed your response.

    Don’t know how to answer that one, though, where the nervousness comes from.


  6. Tim Nichols says:


    If I might respectfully suggest an answer, I think it’s because we don’t really believe that God is not a sadist. We say that, but we really think that God is stingy and mean, and He takes pleasure in our suffering.

    This is bad because it’s a lie and a slander against God, and it’s also bad because it’s rocket fuel for all our temptations, which are nothing more than suspicions that God is holding out on us, that there are good gifts that come from some source other than God, if only we can figure out how to make an end run around Him.

    We should give more attention to passages like Deut. 28:47, Deut. 14:22-26 (note especially “that you may fear Me” in v.23) Eccles. 2:24-26, 3:10-13, 5:18-20, 1 Tim.6:17, James 1:17-18. Gratitude is essential to Christian living, and God will judge us for lacking it. It is poor gratitude indeed which does not relish both the Giver and the gift.

    If you got your son the perfect Christmas present, and he set it in the corner and refused to play with it or enjoy it, you would consider that ungrateful, and it would be. If he excused it by saying, “But Mommy, I love you, not your gifts,” you might think it cute the first time — but it would quickly grow wearisome and annoying if he kept it up. Why? Because you can’t love the giver by spurning the gift. If you love the giver, then you show that love in part by relishing the gift.

    If we believe — as we all claim to — that all the good things we have are gifts from God, then we not only can, but must enjoy them, because that is a necessary expression of our gratitude. It’s not really optional.

    Even for dopamine…


  7. Sanc says:


    You are a blessing to listen to. I can tell you believe in what you say, it’s so refreshing that I can’t get used to it quite.

    Hey, guess what: I think I found the missing link you’re talking about, between dance and combat

    😉 Michele

  8. Tim Nichols says:


    That’s it! Mandalorian armor, functional jetpacks and Irene Cara! Genius!

    Seriously, thank you for your kind words. Upon re-reading my last comment, I feel a need to add that I don’t think that’s the only possible explanation for the nervousness — but I think it’s a strong contender, for a lot of us.


  9. Elana says:

    Hi Tim,

    I am doing a bible study about worship (music, dancing and studying the word of God) in the church. To study the word of God is easy for me to see as the highest form of worship, but I struggle to see the significance of music and dancing in the church today – to me it’s emotional hyping and distracting at most. I joined a womens dance group at my church a while ago, mainly for my private worship in spending time with God and give expression since I love music…I enjoy this very much. Problem is now they want to take the dance group to the platform in the church and this is very disturbing to me since it becomes a show again and keep other people out of worship instead of drawing them closer to God. I just need some clarity on this situation…do you have any wise words to share with me.

    I’ve learned a lot already out of your previous writings but the actual execution of that in the church today is a little hazy to me.

  10. Tim Nichols says:

    It’s difficult, in our culture, to do anything worshipful that doesn’t involve the whole congregation — we’re so entertainment-oriented that if we’re not actually participating, we can hardly help viewing what’s happening down front as a spectacle for our amusement. We should see those who lead us in worship in exactly that way — leaders, not performers. Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t happen, and so you almost have to have everyone participate in order to get away from the entertainment headspace and begin to engage in worship.

    I’d say it’s the same for dance, so I’d suggest that if you have a Messianic Jewish congregation anywhere near you, that may be the best way to get some guidance.

    I wouldn’t agree that Bible study is the highest form of worship, first because I wouldn’t know how to define “high” in that context, and second because if there’s such a thing as a highest form of worship, I very much doubt that it’s individual. We’re a body, and when we come together to worship as a body, that images our Lord in ways that will always be lacking in any one person’s inner life, important as that is.

  11. Elana says:


    Thank you for the feedback. I realise we will have to involve the congregation although everybody is not that into dancing, but at least everybody can put in an effort to sing.

    I am not aware of a Messianic Jewish congregation near me, but I will try to find one. I realise with our western background there are so many things we do not understand while trying to study the scriptures and it would be very helpful if I could get some guidance. I am just very causious as well, there are so many hebrew roots movements out there and I do not know whether I know enough about the truth to decern the error yet.

    Thanks for the correction about the highest form of worship, I didn’t really think about it that way. I heard it somewhere and it sounded very noble to me, therefore I just accepted it as truth (very ignorant). I haven’t spent much time thinking about “worship as a body” yet, I’m still struggling to find out what true worship is in my own time with God. But I definitely hear what you are saying and it sounds like poetry when you put it that way – far more precious than individual worship could ever even start to be.

    I think you can appreciate my frustration, there are so many things I do not even start to grasp yet and so much to learn about God, His attributes and who He really is. You are so fortunate that you had teachers that educated you in these matters from an early age.

    O yes, I wanted to ask you – where can I find sheet music for the Psalms? I don’t even know where to begin to search for it.

  12. Tim Nichols says:

    You’re right that there are a lot of Hebrew roots movements out there, and some of them are bad news. However, even with some of those, if they’re willing to help you learn to dance as a congregation, it might be worth it to spend some time with them. There’s a shortage of places that have access to that kind of cultural heritage; you have to get it from someone who has it. The bad theology provides a teaching moment if your church leadership is ready for it, and has prepared the congregation. That’s a call the leadership has to make, and there’s no one right choice there — depends on your leadership and your congregation.

    As to sheet music: Canon Press has Cantus Christi, which gives a good cross-section of historical tunes indexed in helpful ways, including metrical. That’s my top recommendation, generally. It’s powerfully therapeutic for people who are trapped in their own century, musically. Canon also puts out a couple of CD sets designed to help people acquire the songs. They don’t have all the psalms yet, but they’re working that direction. Crown and Covenant has a goodly selection of other psalters and recorded music. All of the above draw heavily on older musical forms, which I think is glorious and absolutely fitting for people who profess to believe in the essential unity of the church in all times and places — but I must admit that some Christians find late medieval music off-putting. If you want more modern, performance-grade music, Sons of Korah has a songbook available as a pdf download (go to their Australian distributor to download it). The danger there is that, well, it’s written for performance. It’s not designed for ordinary people to sing together, which makes it difficult to adapt to church worship. (Google any or all of the above; they should pop up readily.)

  13. Elana says:

    Tim, Thank you for all your help – will definitely follow up on those music links


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