Comments on musical style & quality (2)

Having basically contradicted my own stated intention by holding forth on musical style (I guess I can’t help myself) in the last post, I might as well talk a little more.

For years I might have named “Father and Friend, Thy Light, Thy Love” as my favorite hymn, and for the first time, when I wanted to refer to it while writing this post, I could not remember its title.  I only remembered its number — 370 — in Great Songs of the Church No. 2.  This effect of the passage of time saddens me; I used to be inspired by, and wrapped up in, the singing of such great hymns.

I used to plan and host singing events in which such songs were sung.  None of that gospel song diet or Stamps-Baxter “junk food” for those in my closest circles.  We really sang to the Lord — songs of worth . . . songs of high musical and high poetic quality . . . songs that spoke from the soul of the devoted Christian to the awe-inspiring Lord God.  Many of those songs were older, and some were newer.  They were all worthwhile.

I don’t remember ever feeling that musical quality should be considered equal to spiritual quality when dealing with the “music of the church.”  But I do feel that musical quality is worth some attention—just as many of us assess quality when thinking of preaching or Bible teaching.

Quality is not, at its core, a matter of taste or preference.  Trained, cultivated musicians and a few others are able to judge fairly well the relatively quality of a song, and there is no good reason to avoid such judgments.  When there are thousands of songs available to us, there’s no reason to sing anything other than the top 40 or 50%.  Arguably, style is also a matter to be assessed more by educated personas than by dilettantes and amateurs; when considering quality, the thoughts of trained, experienced musicians ought absolutely to be attended to.

My opinions are only my opinions, but I am a trained musician who has the ability to judge music quality and composition in quite a few genres.  I’m only a C+ poet with limited linguistic training, so, please ingest my assessments of the words with a few ounces of saline solution.  But you may generally trust my music critiques and comments more implicitly and thoroughly, and I’ll try not to abuse the honor of your trust.


Epilogue

I had written a follow-up post in which I commented on musical quality in specific (mostly) contemporary songs of some merit.  I’m electing not to post the whole thing, because it was such a tiny sampling of songs, and because, in the end, I thought it was less than useful.

Oh, why not? . . .  Here’s an abbreviated version—less than half the text I had before:

“Above All” has some theologically questionable expressions and a musical challenge or two.  Watch out for the III chord — difficult for most singers to hear and harmonize with.  Its melody is somewhat difficult and is likely to be watered down in terms of rhythm, but it is tuneful, and the motion into and out of the chorus gives it a melodic arch.

“As the Deer” is a mixed bag.  The “apple of my eye” thing is a terribly upside-down expression and ought to be stricken permanently . . .   A sense of longing does seem to be inherent in the chorus, especially—partly a function of the jump to the octave-higher keynote on “You alone” and the similar, upward skip on “to You” a few notes later.  Again, a major III chord presents difficulties:  less than 25% of the a cappella attempts at this song attain to the harmony of the F# suspended-4th chord in the key of D.

“Father and Friend” reaches deeper into the soul of the poet . . . and has music that’s more readily singable than most contemporary songs.  Its melodic arch is subtle; its harmonies, perfectly supportive of the relatively simple, yet profound, text.

The construction of “I Love You, Lord” is of reasonable quality, and the poetry, not flowery, is . . . well matched to the musical yearning in the melody.  For churches that feel a compulsion to major in faster tempos, this song may feel like a downer, and/or people may skip beats.  Don’t do that.  Just live in the comfort of the slow tempo.

B.  Casey, 5/18/15

For perpetual consideration:
What constitutes a “good” song?  What makes a song worthwhile?

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5 thoughts on “Comments on musical style & quality (2)

  1. Brian Casey 06/08/2015 / 7:28 am

    Tony Mowrer, PhD (via Facebook): I’ve enjoyed reading your blog on worship and music. Your parents will remind you that I championed the “great hymns” while at NCJC. Those days are so long ago and far away but I still have that love for the “great hymns.” One of my joys over the past 10 or so years is that I don’t have to “argue” about . . . worship music. . . . we’ve been worshiping with a group of Mennonite Brethren in Fresno where I’ve served as the church’s choir director. What began as an experiment has become one of our real joys. Our theology aligns—pacifism, social justice, etc.—and the approach to worship has fit us. We routinely sing the hymns you speak of and many more, some I hadn’t heard before. New poetry is set in “true” hymn fashion and is part of our hymn vocabulary. I really don’t know what we will do if we leave the area!

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  2. Brian Casey 06/08/2015 / 7:30 am

    Tony, it’s good to hear from you. I well remember how much my parents thought of your work at NCJC. I’m jealous about the M-B experiences. A couple of our hymnals are Mennonite publications, and one Menno group’s a cappella singing is the best we’ve experienced in a decade.

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  3. Brian Casey 06/08/2015 / 8:31 am

    [via Facebook:] Stan Manning: Good article. You mentioned something in passing that I like, but have never been able to articulate as well as you just did – the matching of the poetry and the melody.

    “Above All” – to me – is totally cheapened and voided by a very small phrase in it. A totally out of place triviality that was, seemingly, simply a search for words to fill space. First time I heard it, repulsed me.

    “Father and Friend” – now THERE’S a hymn.

    Brian Casey: Thanks. I haven’t actually sung “Above All” in a while, or I might remember/feel the same about that phrase. I miss “Father and Friend” so much. Memorized it in high school. As for marriage of words and music, “He Bore It All” is down there w/the worst.

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  4. Lisa Thompson Graves 07/07/2015 / 12:19 pm

    It has stuck with me for 30+ years (OLD), but I remember a class at Music Camp when I was an incoming freshman where Dr. Ganus said that singing hymns was akin to bible study, in that there are songs that are “milk” and songs that are “meat.” Most — not all! — contemporary songs, in my opinion, are milk. “Above All” is one, as is “Ten Thousand Reasons.” Some are not. “How Deep The Father’s Love” is a great song, as is “The Greatest Commands.”

    But as good as they are, they’re no “Be Still My Soul,” or “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”

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    • Brian Casey 07/07/2015 / 11:20 pm

      Your examples within categories ring pretty true to me, Lisa. “Above All” (assuming you’re not talking about “Above All Else” here) does have a theological issue or two in its lyrics, but its intent is pure. Personally, I need another few years off from “The Greatest Commands” (and a closer church community) before it becomes as easily singable as it once was for my soul, and maybe that will happen. Love your last two there!

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