Know Your Bible

VOL. 15                                                                                               November 26, 2017                                                                                                              NO. 35



On occasion when I have pointed out that the only "music" the New Testament authorizes for congregational worship is singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:15, et. al.), and that the use of mechanical instruments of music is not authorized, someone will ask, "What about a pitch pipe?" One may believe there is inconsistency - that we allow an instrument (the pitch pipe) to get the pitch, but will not allow a piano, organ, or other instruments while we are singing. Several matters may be considered. 

First, a pitch pipe is not a musical instrument in and of itself: It is not designed to play a tune but for obtaining proper pitch (how high or low a tone is to be). The same could be stated for a tuning fork, though because of their little use, most who ask such questions don't mention these. Therefore, on the surface a pitch pipe or tuning fork can't fit into the same category as instruments designed to play tunes and harmonize tones because pitch pipes and tuning forks are not designed for such purposes. 

Second, even if a pitch pipe were an instrument, its use for obtaining a tone is not parallel to playing an instrument while singing: Leaders use a pitch pipe before the song begins. The pitch pipe is silent during the singing, and is not part of it. Pianos, organs, and other instruments used by those who justify such are played during the singing. In fact, the instruments make a kind of music (instrumental) that is different from what is authorized (singing), and this is what makes it unauthorized. The pitch pipe makes no music (vocal or instrumental), and is also silent during the singing. 

Having said this, I have sung in groups in homes and other places where a piano was near by. When a pitch was needed, someone who knew the notes on a piano struck the keys for those notes. Once the pitch was heard, singing could begin and the piano was silent. The only use of the instrument was to obtain proper pitches - the same that is done from a pitch pipe. No Bible principle is violated. Singing still occurs. No instrumental music is played either before, during or after the singing. 

Electronic tuners are becoming more common. Tones are sounded electronically. These may eventually replace pitch pipes, but it will probably be a few years, and they are more expensive. However, these would be authorized on the same basis as would pitch pipes. 

Third, singing is commanded, and in order to sing, a song must have a pitch: Some pitch must be found on which to start a song. This can be done by using a tuning fork, pitch pipe, or by "guessing" at it. Whatever method a leader uses, he has to start a song on some pitch. The pitch pipe is simply an aid to obtain a pitch, which is essential to singing. 

Song writers attempt to write songs in keys that allow all voices to sing either in unison or parts (harmony) in ranges that their voices allow. Correct use of a pitch pipe guarantees that a song will begin in the key in which it is written, allowing the music to enhance the sentiments, not detract from them. When a song is pitched too low, the basses and altos have problems singing; when too high, the sopranos and tenors have difficulty. While a song can still be sung, it will not be as easy, and thus not as edifying. Straining to reach either high or low notes beyond one's range makes one more conscious of the music, thus detracting from the lyrics. Songs sung in keys as written by capable writers enhance the words - they edify. Difficulty in singing does not edify. I have seen leaders began songs too high, and then have to quit singing altogether on high notes. The same is true when beginning songs too low. When either occurs, we do the best we can to follow, but it would be more edifying if songs were pitched in the keys in which they were written. This is why I encourage song leaders to use a pitch pipe, and why I encourage them to mark time with the common two, three, and four beat hand movements. Our singing is more "together," edifying, and orderly when we can follow the leader (1 Cor. 14:26,40). 

Fourth, a pitch pipe is actually parallel to song books: Song books provide words and music (both are necessary to make a song). Books are aids to carry out the command to sing. 

The Bible doesn't demand we use song books, but in order to sing the same song, we must know the same words. They could be taught line by line by a leader. In fact this might be the most edifying for those who cannot read. We do basically the same with children. This was done in the past before the printed page was as common as it is now. However, it is more edifying when every individual can read for himself the words and music. While we can sing without song books, they are authorized and edifying. Likewise, while we can sing without a pitch pipe, it is authorized in that it is an aid to obtain a correct pitch, a pitch being necessary to sing (see previous point). Since a pitch is necessary, why not have one that makes a song easier to sing rather than difficult? A pitch pipe therefore is parallel to song books, and helps to make singing more edifying.

What about "humming" the starting pitch? If humming is unscriptural since it is not singing, what about humming the starting pitch? First, humming the starting pitch is simply allowing our voices to "find" the right pitch in order to start the song with the right pitch. Any humming is before the singing begins, ceases before the singing begins, and is not a part of the singing. It is similar to the use of a pitch pipe. In fact, one may try to "find" the right pitch by humming a little before beginning a song, and without a pitch pipe! I have seen and heard this done - a trial and error process usually. 

Second, humming the starting pitch sustains to singing the song the same relation that the pitch pipe does to finding the right pitch of a song - both are preparatory to singing, and are for the purpose of beginning on the proper pitch. When a leader "finds" the right tone by humming it with his voice so that the first words of the song are pitched properly, this "humming" is not worship, but is preparatory to it and an aid to worship in song. 

I have never seen a pitch pipe misused in a worship service. While I suppose one could continually blow a loud note while people are singing, I believe we would all oppose such. The same could be said about humming. 

Conclusion: While we should be concerned that we do only those things authorized, we should also be concerned that we do our best and give our best in every area of service to God, including worship in song. Pitch pipes, song books, singing classes, and learning more about lyrics and music in such classes are all for the purpose of aiding in our carrying out the command to sing to the best of our ability. 

—Phillip A. Owens

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