Modern Music.

I’m inspired to write this blog post because I’m frankly quite tired of hearing people complain about musical styles in churches (contemporary vs. traditional). Some of you are TEACHERS, and when someone teaches something inaccurate you have a cow. I’m a church musician (among other things), and when mistaken people make inaccurate assumptions about music in the church – I’m gonna have a cow. So here’s my cow. 🙂

Myth: Adding Drums and guitars to a hymn will make it sound contemporary.

The truth is that the instrumentation and arrangement of the song has very little to do with the historical placement. The key is song structure. It’s been this way for centuries. The first written music used in the organized Christian church was chant. It sounds like chant not because it is a capella, but because of the song structure. The Classical era of music is most noted for its Sonata form. The Sonata form is a SONG STRUCTURE where there is an exposition, development, recapitulation, and then coda. I could go on and on with example after example but the bottom line is that musical styles have always been and are marked by a changed in musical structure. Adding guitars and drums to a Mozart Sonata will not make it sound contemporary – the structure would still make it sound classical (although they’d probably call it “neoclassical”).

In popular music today, the structure isn’t exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. It’s more like Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus. Modern music today relies on a HOOK (which is in the chorus). It’s all about getting back to the chorus. Every good modern song written today has a hook in the chorus. Nearly all hymns were written in “Strophic” form; several verses sung to the same melody. Adding guitars and drums to a strophic song (hymn) won’t make it sound any less strophic, and therefore any less old.

Am I against hymns? Of course not. I’m just saying that hymns sound old because they’re HYMNS, not because there’s an organ in them.

A great example is the NEW song “In Christ Alone.” It was written in the past 10 years, but it sounds like an ancient hymn simply because it was composed with the strophic (old) song structure. What if we took things the other way? What if we took an ancient song and used a NEW song structure? In other words, give it a chorus.

Chris Tomlin = Genius.

Chris Tomlin understood what I’m saying when he gave hymns like Amazing Grace and The Wondrous Cross a facelift. He added a chorus to both of these and transformed them from strophic hymns to modern songs: “My Chains are Gone” and “The Wonderful Cross.” A first time church attender could listen to these songs and not realize the song is hundreds of years old. It sound modern because there is a modern song structure. If you were to play “Amazing Grace: My Chains are Gone” with only an organ, imo it wouldn’t sound as hip – BUT IT WOULD STILL SOUND MODERN.

Another thing that goes into this is time signatures. Triple time doesn’t get used much anymore, but hymns were almost always written in 3-4 (the really old ones HAD to have been written in triple meter because the Church sanctioned 3-4 meter to be the only time signature holy enough for church (three beats per measure = one beat per God head)). Today, 4-4 meter is most common. Time signatures aren’t nearly as big of a deal as the song structure though.

The implication . . .

In modern music, the chorus has the hook and the verses have the information. In the hymn’s strophic form there were only verses, and that means ONLY information. So if you put a modern song and a strophic hymn side by side, guess which one will have more theology? THE HYMN. That’s because the strophic hymns ONLY had theology – that was their purpose! Putting a modern song and a strophic hymn side by side isn’t really fair. The strophic hymn has ONLY information because that was the purpose of the song… teaching theology. Today, modern music in the church has a myriad of OTHER uses (teaching theology isn’t as necessary in music because today people know how to read.. . . but that’s not to say songs should be any less theologically sound!)

Let me give you an example of this. My church just started doing Houghton and Gungor’s song “Say So” which was nominated for the GMA’s best song of the year. It deserves that award, I think. The chorus contains the hook – “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!” And we repeat it several times. That’s all there is to it. Is it a scripturally sound statement? Yes. Does it provide information? Not really – that’s the job of the verse: “What does it meant to be saved? Isn’t it more than just a prayer to pray? More than just a way to Heaven? What does it mean to be His? To be formed in his likelness, know that we have a purpose: TO BE SALT AND LIGHT IN THE WORLD!” This hook-less verse gives the information. And its doctrinally sound, however it isn’t teaching theology as much as its inspiring the church to rise up and tell the world they are redeemed! (Although that becomes abundantly clear in the second verse.

I hate it when people complain about hook-filled choruses of songs simply because they don’t contain as much information as a hymn. They are two completely different forms of music – and not comparable. Here are a few more examples of hook-filled worship songs that repeat several lines: Open the Eyes, Friend of God, We Want to See Jesus, I Love You Lord I Love You I Love You (I’m thinking of the David Crowder song), and I Could Sing of Your Love Forever. These songs are not any less spiritual than information-filled hymns. They’ve just taken on a modern STRUCTURE of music in order to fulfill a different felt need of the church.

46 Replies to “Modern Music.”

  1. This is an interesting and informative post. I never realized the difference in the structure of the songs. Makes a lot of sense. Now I know why a lot of modern songs annoy me. Its the repition. Drives me batty to sing the same thing 4 times. Not kidding, when we sing a chorus six times in a row, that’s just dumb.

    Not to say that all modern songs are awful, but shouldn’t the repetition be tempered a bit?

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong, Adam, but repetition in music is not modern, it’s extremely OLD. I’m thinking chant and what is called “early music” here. My friend Jenny the choral director is a big early music buff and sings with a group in Fort Wayne. Most of what I have heard is repetitious, and this music predates what most people understand as “classical” music. Possibly we think it is modern because modern artists are bringing back an ancient form in a way, but people have not heard of it before. Also, as I understand it, repetitive choruses that repeat the same lyrical theme are closest to the way worship would have been done in biblical times. Hymns and sacred music of at least the last couple hundred years have their place in the Church’s history, and they are great to revisit for their rich theological texts and connection to the foundations of our faith. But it isn’t all there is, and that is important for us all to realize, especially so that we validate, not disenfranchise, youth who are converted that would like to worship God with their favorite genre (rap, metal, hip-hop, pop, rock, etc.) I may not remember all of the five verses of any given hymn, wonderful as it is, in crisis. But I have, while in crisis, repeated many times,”the enemy has been defeated, death couldn’t hold you down, we’re gonna life our voice in victory we’re gonna make our praises loud” and the reason it is in my heart and head is because every time we sing that chorus at church we say those words 10 times! So all I am saying is that given the chance, I would rather get lost in worship saying the same thing over and over, than concentrate on what the words are and miss out on that. It’s a preference thing but one of those things that so many people are closed-minded about that it causes division and that’s the thing that is stupid. I’m with Adam, it’s not about knocking traditional music, it’s about recognizing how awesome God is because he has given us so many ways to worship Him. I hope Todd doesn’t think I’m trying to argue with him, just offering another perspective, and maybe Adam will elaborate since I know he is more familiar with ancient music history than I am.

  3. Okay if you want to go WAY back we’d talk “chant.” Its the first stuff ever used in the church (at least notated). In chant, the text might be, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (in latin, this is the Agnus Dei…). Many chants would take 4 or 5 minutes to say that sentence ONE TIME. In later chant, the “Cantus Firmus” began to get used more. This is when multiple voices were chanting, but the “cantus firmus” would hold ONE NOTE and repeat “lamb, lamb, lamb” like that over and over (usually it was EXTREMELY SLOW on one note that didn’t change the whole song). And then another voice would come in and would say “Behold the lamb” a few times, and then “who takes away” a few times… and then “the sins of the world” a few times, finished by 5 or 6 minutes of “amens.”

    THAT’S repetition, and yes its very old. But the repetition I’m talking about today is still DIFFERENT… today its not about the repetition, its about the HOOK. A great way to get the “hook” is through repetition. (I’m not talking about HOW the song is performed, I’m talking about the song writing itself).

    And to answer Todd’s question, “Shouldn’t the repetition be toned down a bit?”

    I think the best answer is – maybe. IT ALL DEPENDS. I could say the same thing about hymns – most hymns were written in a time when people couldn’t read the Bible on their own and so they were jammed packed with information, yet lacked intimacy with God.

    So since we are no longer in a place where people cannot read the Bible on their own, should I not say to the hymn writer, “Shouldn’t the information be toned down a bit?” Of course I wouldn’t say that because the information NEEDS to be there – that’s why they exist. The purpose of most hymns is to transfer and instill information. That’s NOT the case for modern worship songs that are repetitious. So it depends on what the song is trying to do. Let me restate this in a different way, outside of the stylistic differences of music:

    Many people get close with God through nature. I do not, although I appreciate it.

    Many people get close with God while they are alone. I do not, although I appreciate it. I feel closest with God when I’m connecting with others.

    Many people feel the deepest worship connection when they are reading and studying their Bibles. I do not, although I appreciate it (and do it). I feel the deepest worship connection when i expressively play the piano by myself in the middle of the night.

    What I’m trying to say is that we all connect with God in different ways… that’s why there’s so many different songs! Some are ultra intellectual – some are ultra emotional… JUST LIKE SOME PEOPLE!

    And that’s not bad. It’s good.

  4. Hey man,

    Thanks for the reply. I guess I just feel like 90% of the way many churches “do” worship is the ultra-modern, light and fluffy style, rather than a nice mix.

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