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Prelude or elevator music?

by Jesse Ratcliffe

Music surrounds us from the moment we wake until we slip off to sleep. Our ears are constantly bombarded with strains of music, but how often do we take a moment and realize it? Do we notice it when we hear a familiar musical phrase? Or when it’s the chorus of our favorite pop tune? Or is it when someone points it out?


The term “muzak” which is the ambient music one hears at the supermarket, doctor’s office, or while on-hold. This commercially-driven form of music was developed in 1934 and has been used in a plethora of ways: to stimulate shoppers; to cover mechanical or electronic sounds, or to soothe stressful environments – supposedly NASA used it during space missions of the 1960s, and Eisenhower had it played in the West Wing.


What does that have to do with the prelude on Sunday morning?? Good question! The prelude serves numerous roles within the context of the liturgy: to signal that worship is beginning, to focus the worshiper, and to set the tone of the liturgy. When selecting music for the prelude (regardless if it’s for organ, piano, or handbells), the entire effect of the lectionary and hymns are considered. It’s the organist’s role to ensure that the readings, hymns, and prelude are in-synch. For example, the prelude may be a setting of a new hymn-tune which the congregation is challenged to learn, or it might be a requested old favorite to mark the beginning of a funeral. Despite the fact that muzak is consumer-driven, there are some similarities to that and prelude music.


Since our auditory nerves are stimulated constantly with such music, sometimes we tend to listen dismissively to music like the prelude. In the Sundays ahead, I challenge you to heighten your listening during the prelude. What imagery is being set up by the sounds of the organ or the piano? Does the prelude have a melody that’s used in the liturgy? In what you hear do you feel prayerful? Joyful? Hopeful? As always, contact me with any questions or thoughts.

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