Monday, 25 January 2016

Ageism and music (both in churches and in other contexts)

I don't know if you've noticed this as well, but older people aren't as "old" in their musical tastes as they used to be.

Let's imagine one hypothetical example of a proverbial "little old lady" living in a home for the aged.  If she celebrated her 85th birthday this week, she would have been born in 1931.  Her early teens, a crucial time of life for the development of many people's musical tastes, would have been during the Second World War, the era of "Big Band" swing music, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and all that.  She would have been in her mid-twenties when Elvis started shaking his pelvis.  She would have been in her early thirties, and probably still interested in the music of younger people, at the time when the Beatles first appeared on the scene.

Nevertheless, the majority of people who visit homes for the aged as volunteer entertainers will play and sing music, not from the time when this lady and her contemporaries were young, but from their parents' era at the time of the First World War, or even from their grandparents' era in the 1890s. 

Whenever I tell this to people who sing or play music at homes for the aged and suggest they may want to add some music from the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons (or even, to be a bit less radical, some "Big Band"-type stuff), they look at me like I've taken leave of my senses.  I just think that this lady and her friends may occasionally be "In the Mood" for some "Good Vibrations" from her own generation's music, rather than her grandparents' music.

Anyway, I believe the assumption that all older people in 2016 will automatically enjoy music from the 1890s is just a bit ageist.

I hear similar ageism at times regarding music in churches.

Most of the Uniting Church congregations I know use a reasonable variety of music, singing a mixture of newer and older music, with probably a bit more new stuff in the mix. 

As far as the newer music is concerned, you may find hymns by Elizabeth Smith or John Bell.  Worship responses from the TaizĂ© and Iona Communities may feature, as will the occasional African or Latino chorus, Scripture in Song jingle, or (the - very occasional!) Hillsong ditty.  Such mainstays of the post-Vatican 2 Catholic repertoire as "Here I am, Lord" and "Come as you are" will be sung at the drop of the proverbial hat.  All very good!  There may the occasional raised eyebrow (including mine) whenever "God gives us a future" is used (once again!) at a time when the Church Council is trying to persuade the congregation to take a particular course of action.  But, nevertheless, the mix of newer music is mostly pretty good.

While the newer music comes from a variety of sources in most UC congregations, the sources of older music are a bit more limited in some congregations.  In some churches I know, requests by some worshippers for "a few more of the older, traditional hymns" are regarded as a desire for 19th century revivalist hymns.  For the most part, with the exception of a few worshippers of a more conservative bent in their own beliefs, that's not what they're asking for.  They may be asking for the occasional Scots Psalm, or the occasional Reformation-era German hymn, or one of Chuck Wesley's greatest hits.  In only a very few cases, are they asking for 19th century revivalist songs.

I believe it's ageist to assume that an older person today, born in the early 1930s, would automatically prefer popular music of the 1890s to the popular music of their own youth, be that music Glenn Miller or Elvis.

I believe that it's equally ageist to assume that the same older person, if their religious background was in a mainstream congregation of any mainstream denomination, would suddenly develop a taste for Sankey.  While they may be "In the Mood" for "Now Thank We All our God", being fobbed off with "Trust and Obey" may send more than a few to "Heartbreak Hotel".


  1. Very good points. One fantastic side-benefit of the 'post-modern' delusion (;-)) is that people today feel free to dip into the 'modes' of the past. But in fact there's not always a lot of real listening to what past times provided. There's more to the Wesleyan tradition than "And can it be + O for 1000 tongues". More to Methodism, indeed, than Wesley. More in the Revised Church Hymnary than the Psalter it came bound with. And an authentic treatment will preserve the harmony and use a key that allows people to sing their part! (This last point is a bit of a quandary for me. Authenticity isn't always mandated. If a band wants to lead an old hymn, the harmonies will be simplified and the people will sing in unison. The guitarist can't comfortably 'call all the changes', as they say in jazz-talk. However, people who knew the hymn tune in all its beauty - its attention to both vertical and horizontal form - will feel the loss rather than celebrate the reworking. So, at least at a Synod Jubilee of Ordination tribute, let's have the hymn in its original form!

  2. I was surprised when my Mother in her 90s was in the car with me and started singing a Beatles song. And I don't want 'Roll out the Barrel' when I'm in my old age.
    Worship songs are another matter. I see people singing with gusto songs they loved in the past when I suspect their theology has moved on. Oops! Maybe that is me

    1. Glenys, I suspect two things may be happening here, with different individuals. On the one hand, some people whose theology has moved on may still be drawn to the 19th century gospel songs because these songs may remind them of a kindly aunt, or of good times in youth group, etc. Others whose theology has moved on may be seriously repelled by the old gospel songs because they remind them of the traumatic effect that fire-and-brimstone preaching may have had on them.

  3. Indeed, some good points, Bob. I think we also need to remember, when it comes to popular music, that people in their 90s have also lived through the culture of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s etc and there may well be music from those eras that have caught their ears when they heard them on the radio at the time. (Just because I, personally, can't tolerate modern popular music that's been produced since the 1980s, doesn't mean that others, including those older than I, are not more tolerant and eclectic in their tastes :-)


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