Wrong notes versus wrong words

23rd April 2010 | Daily Life, Musings | 3 comments

We attended a funeral in a small church this week. As we sat waiting for the service to begin, an organist was stumbling through some well-known hymns, their outlines blurred by a haze of wrong notes. Though I tell myself to lighten up, I find I’m very impatient with this kind of stumbling. I can’t ignore it and tell myself that it is done with love, or at least goodwill and community spirit. Every time there was a wrong note or chord, I was distracted from my peaceful meditation on the life of the dear departed.

Why is it considered OK to be musically incompetent on a public occasion? Wrong notes or harmonies in well-known tunes are, for me, as bad as wrong words in a well-known text. Everyone would agree that it was unacceptable if, say, a vicar began the funeral service with the words, ‘We are tethered here today to calibrate the life of ….’. Yet musical errors are not considered equally startling.


  1. peter

    Perhaps people tolerate it because they don’t realize some notes are wrong (although I think that would probably be unlikely). In contrast, I have traveled in Southern Africa, where one often hears complete strangers burst into song together, for example on a bus or waiting for something, singing four-part harmonies, seemingly improvised.

    • Susan Tomes

      Really? How wonderful. That’s something I would like to hear!

  2. Gretchen Saathoff

    I’m a preacher’s kid, so this may be relevant. When someone plays in church, there are family connections to consider. (We wouldn’t want to hurt Aunt …..’s feelings.”)

    And with children performing in church, the “Isn’t that cute?” factor is very strong.

    That said, I agree with you completely.


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