Monday, February 11, 2013

Toward Better Contemporary Music

The intent of this post is not to wear even further the already well-worn road of the “worship wars,” nor is it to be an offensive attack on music that has often received, justifiably or not, the wrath of snobbish “traditionalists” who may laud hymnody as the be-all-and-end-all of worship music.  It is precisely the opposite, critical though it may be.  There is much to be praised for the work of contemporary Christian rock/pop songwriting, especially as the genre has evolved over the last decade.  Nevertheless, for church musicians and worship planners who, like me, seek to expand our congregations’ musical repertoire into other territory, the pool of contemporary Christian rock/pop songs that are both theologically appropriate for my denomination and also have musical and textual integrity is still woefully inadequate.  What follows is a brief list of common characteristics I find among many contemporary songs that prevent me from incorporating them more fully into worship.

1. “Chunky” melodies.  A highly technical term this is not.  What I mean by this is a tendency of contemporary Christian songwriters to craft whole verses and refrains out of a series of short, measure-long phrases, separated by up to whole measures of rest.  The result?  A melody that lacks musical direction and gets old very fast.  Imagine if you were playing musical chairs to a song like this and you only moved when the melodic line came up.  The scene would be four beats of walking, a beat or more of standing.  Go. Stop. Go. Stop.  It’s not good music.  What makes hymnody durable and effective over the long haul is that the melodies are longer and more lyrical.  This, of course, has implications for the text as well, because with a “chunky” melody, the songwriter is forced to confine textual ideas to small bits of melody, or as a singer you’re forced to breath constantly in mid-thought, meaning songs tend to lack idea development and cohesion in the text.  Examples: “Revelation Song,” “Jesus Messiah,” “All Who Are Thirsty,” “Breathe,” “Everyday,” “Lord I Lift Your Name on High,” and many more.

2. Stagnant melodies.  By this I mean melodies that hover around the same few notes.  You can get a quick sense of this by this exercise: 1) Pick a song.  2) Look at the verse or refrain.  3) On a piece of staff paper, jot down the lowest note of the melody, then the highest note.  4) Note the interval between them.  Some contemporary songs, like “Blessed Be Your Name,” and “Everlasting God” have verses whose melodies are confined to a range of no more than a fifth. “Your Grace is Enough,” has verses whose melody that, for three out of its four phrases, has a range of no more than a minor third—literally three notes.  These melodies are, by necessity, highly repetitive and, with so few notes at their disposal, not very interesting.  Again, I’ll contrast this with hymnody; the hymn tunes that stick around are ones people can stand to sing over and over, year after year, generation after generation.  The unfortunate consequence of contemporary Christian music is that it winds up being highly disposable; 90% of the songs just aren’t durable, so congregations are in a constant search for new music, ditching the old worn-out songs for new ones that are fresh.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there’s little music that’s memorable and can be passed on over time.  Songwriters would do well to work on crafting melodies that are more memorable and interesting.

3. Virtuosic melodies.  This is the ditch on the other side of the road from #2 above.  Some melodies for some songs have ranges approaching an octave and a half, pushing the limits of what’s practical for congregational singing.  Certainly some of these can be sung in keys that keep the congregation from singing too high or too low.  For example, “In Christ Alone” by Stuard Townend has a range from a fourth below the tonic to an octave above, limiting its use in congregational worship to a handful of workable keys.  Other songs have tricky ornaments or vocal stylings characteristic to their performance by recording artists that aren’t singable by congregations; they’re just too unwieldy.  To use them, one is forced to simply print words and leave the congregation to fend for itself, or to print a simplified melody in the bulletin.  Some songs can work fine with a simplified melody, but others, like “You Are My King (Amazing Love)” rely on the syncopation and rhythmic complexity and would be awkward if they were simplified.

4. Theological bias.  It’s not that a bias isn’t okay—bias is what makes a song fit with one church’s theological stream and not another.  The problem is that the bias isn’t a diverse one; far more contemporary songs fit with a conservative and (arguably) anti-liturgical stream on Christianity than a liberal and pro-liturgical one.  As a result, texts as a whole are limited in their focus (these are based on my own perception and are purely anecdotal):

  • texts focus more on one’s personal relationship with God than with one’s relationship to the Body of Christ as a whole or to humanity/creation in general
  • texts focus more on one’s personal spiritual “destination” (i.e., salvation, conversion, etc.) than on elements of one’s spiritual “journey” and the Christian life (i.e., confession/repentance, prayer, giving, service, etc.)
  • texts focus more on unrealized eschatology (the not-yet-ness of the coming of God’s kingdom) than realized eschatology (the already-ness of God’s kingdom in our midst, here and now)
  • texts focus more on Christ as savior and victor than on Christ as example and model
  • texts focus on faith as something one has rather than something one lives
  • texts focus more on the joys and blessings of the Christian life than the trials and tribulations
  • few texts exist that function well as parts of the Mass: confession, kyrie, sanctus, agnus dei, etc.

5. Gender-exclusive language.  I find it ironic that songs that are intended to be “contemporary” expressions often use antiquated, gender-exclusive language, but I suspect that this is probably a product of a socio-political bias that runs parallel to the theological one listed above in the more conservative segments of Christianity.  Nevertheless, the language—and not just the music--needs to speak to the issues and culture of our day.  21st century songs should be employing 21st century shared meaning in their texts, not vestiges of 19th century vocabulary that reinforce gender barriers, especially in a religion that believes “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  There is no excuse to continue using “men,” “man,” or “mankind” except when poetic license may allow it.  For example, “In Christ Alone,” (mentioned earlier) includes the line: “No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man | can ever pluck me from his hand.”  I’ve tried to tweak this line to “No pow’r of hell, no earthly plan,” but I’m not yet convinced that it’s a good alternative to the original.

These are a handful of my current frustrations with contemporary music options.  Three of them are related to the music alone—it simply needs better crafting.  If it’s not interesting if sung unaccompanied, it’s not interesting enough. 

I hope that future years will bring better options.  The church deserves good music worthy of use for the worship of God.

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