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.


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?

MWM: Standards in church music (1)

This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.  Other, related posts are here.

In 1978, Harding College hosted a lectureship on the general theme “How Great Thou Art”; most of the lectures dealt in some way with worship.  Included were two opposing-viewpoint speeches on the music of the Church of Christ.

One presentation, by Kenneth Davis, Jr., called Christians to higher standards and depth; the other, by Alton Howard of Howard Publishing, shared alternate views, supporting some newer music that many in the audience then would have judged to be “lower-quality” music.

Although I did not hear those speeches, I do have a printed version.  And I vaguely remember hearing differing views of their relative effectiveness:  one thought it was so clear that the Davis speech won the day, while others, predisposed to gospel songs and Stamps-Baxter music, though Howard was more convincing.  I frankly doubt that either man influenced many people by the power of words or thought.  The feelings and concepts and scruples that resided in people’s heads and hearts when they entered that room were probably still there when they left.

There was once a time that I thought I also could influence sizable segments of Church of Christ populations viz. the their music choices for gatherings.  I was leading worship a lot, making decisions, forming and working with groups, working with teenagers, talking and writing to a lot of people, compiling song book supplements, writing and arranging — doing too many things, really.  I had the feeling that some people were listening and appreciating, but I was probably exaggerating the numbers.

I do have a couple of minor, yet significant, claims to almost-fame in CofC music realms; these could lead one to think that I had at least some basis for my delusions of potential influence.  I am deluded no more.  (Not in that way, at least!)  I think it will be interesting to share someone else’s thoughts, although I seriously doubt these will be very influential now, either.

Now, at this juncture, not wishing to “hold forth” personally on the musical status quo, I’d like instead to offer someone else’s critiques of music standards—particularly those that pertain to a past generation’s “pop” music in church.  (I don’t think I’ll play one of those games in which one quotes something as though it could have been written today, but then it turns out to have been written decades or centuries prior.  On the other hand, it is intriguing that some of these things could well have been written at other times!)  This author, Erik Routley, was a musicologist and English minister with whose many published works I am not acquainted.  I recently pulled his book Twentieth-Century Church Music off my shelves, though. . . .

The point here to be made is that it was [“pop”] music which first caused persons of cultivated taste to observe that there was such a thing as “good” and “bad” church music:  that on principle certain kinds of music were to be regarded as inferior.

. . .

[Certain music gets dropped out of use] because it is dull, cretinlously edited, or feebly sentimental.

. . .

The basis of the (“pop”) style is an extreme naivety of rhythm, harmony, and melody.  It is “folk” music in being music which the industrial peasantry of the new age could immediately receive, join in, and take comfort from.  There is no kind of sophistication in it; all the tunes are virtually the same tune, and the vocabulary they use is really a small collection of clichés whose repetition gave no kind of offense to its simple constituency.  The same is true of the words, and indeed of the preaching that they expressed.  Little was demanded, little was given, but that little, often and doggedly.

– from “Evangelistic ‘Pop,'” pp. 196-209, in Erik Routley, Twentieth-Century Church Music, Oxford University Press, 1964.

[ To be continued next Monday . . . ]

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (4)

Part 4:  Tessitura

I have for years been an advocate of high-quality contemporary songs.  With that said, I’ll also confess something of a “mutt” identity: I am a cross between a very late Boomer, a GenXer, and a Postmodernism sympathizer.  You’d think I would be open to most musical styles (I suppose this is true) and would be able to affirm the worth of contemporary and popular singers alongside the seasoned art-singers of the past (not so much). I think there are very few modern-era singers who have anything to offer us aesthetically.

I think the Beatles’ music is grossly overrated, and, though it is certainly not weak, I dislike Barbara Streisand’s voice.  (Now I’ve probably lost half my audience!)  And among modern worship leaders in large, famous, instrumental churches, there are equally few truly good voices.  While Linda Ronstadt in her day and Mariah Carey in hers merited praise, very few are trained to sing without amplification these days, so today’s voices are typically weak and undeveloped, compared to voices of past eras.

Don’t think I am about to build myself up.  My voice itself is mediocre; I certainly can not compete with the singers referred to above, and probably not with most of you who are reading this, either!

My suggestion here is that we be aware of tessitura when transcribing contemporary songs into a cappella settings.  Tessitura simply refers to the pitch range of a melody (or other part), and how long it stays in the same range.  High tessitura for church songs, for example, might have the sopranos staying in the D-to-F range through eight straight measures of music.  It’s not that the sopranos can’t hit the notes, but it is both a musical and a vocal strain to stay in that high range.  Sometimes pop voices have to sing very low, or sometimes they scream too high, but that does not mean we have to do the same if we use their music in our churches.  Often, male pop singers sing in high tenor ranges for a while, and we don’t even notice it, because it’s natural for them.  If their songs are imported into a cappella settings and the key is not lowered, we get that soprano tessitura problem.  Female pop singers are most often altos (or might even be tenors, if they have a history of abusing their vocal folds). And their melodies can be too low for churches, unless the key is raised.

Aside:  the same principles apply to any multi-part congregational arrangements (not only the a cappella variety).  When it’s the melody only that’s being sung, and when instruments carry all the energy, the tessitura isn’t so much of an issue.

For example, a Twila Paris song—which, incidentally, can be expected, by virtue of its authorship, to express well the genuine worship of God—might originally have been sung with a range of low “A” (low in the alto range) to “A” above middle “C.”  For congregational use, that range will not work if there is to be four-part harmony.  Sopranos will sing the song better if it is raised by a third or a fourth, and the other voice parts will not be stretched too far one way or the other, either.

Just some things to think about for arrangers of a cappella music, and for leaders who are trying to figure out why the congregation sounds either strained (high tessitura) or lifeless (low) on some songs.

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (3)

Part 3 — Arrangements that Assume an (absent) Bass Guitar

Sometimes arrangers of contemporary songs seem to assume that there will always be a bass guitar present.  They may simply not be able to fathom that there are purely a cappella churches that will sing the music; they perhaps have not conceived of the possibility that they should account for the entire, essential harmonic structure in the voice parts.  Contemporary arrangers tend to think much more vertically (bass on the bottom, chord in the middle, and melody on top), and if the bass guitar handles the bass part and the guitar and/or keyboard handles the chord, there’s no reason to give much thought to any vocal writing besides the melody.

[For musically notated examples to support the above, please click here and scroll down to “Contemporary Music 3: Syncopated and Delayed Rhythms” on the bottom of p. 55.]

In the example “He Is Exalted,” in the second measure, the bass part is not truly the bass part, if you will.  An octave higher, the alto line approximates the implied bass on the F-natural in the first half of the measure, but no voice part sings the implied “D” on the syllables “alt-ed on,” and the lack of the dominant “D” renders this section of an otherwise acceptable arrangement rather directionless.  In the version below, the implied harmony is accounted for.  (Note that the key is one step lower, and the notation, in doubled rhythmic values, in the example below.  The Eb and C in the bass in the example below would have been an F-natural and a D in the example above.)

I think it is interesting that the arranger of the first example is from an a cappella church, while the arranger of the second is not.  This may seem to be a minor issue, but if we want good a cappella music in our churches, we should not assume that all arrangers know how to produce effective music for singing without instrumental accompaniment.

Another intermittent issue that stems, at least in part, from the vertical or chordish orientation of most contemporary music is inappropriate voice leading.  “Smooth” writing may come across as somewhat boring sometimes (think of the seemingly droning monotones of some alto and tenor parts), but the lack of attention to linear skips can make part-singing downright impossible.  Imagine this:  you’re a tenor, and the song is in the key of D.  You sing a fourth-line F#, and are then asked to jump up, without intervening notes, to a high F-natural.  The chord progression from D major to F major will likely create to some parallel motion, which is ill-advised except in contemporary music, but proper linear writing does not skip a major seventh.  There are better ways to handle such musical moments!

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (2)

[For musically notated examples to support the above, please click here and scroll down to “Contemporary Music 3: Syncopated and Delayed Rhythms” on the bottom of p. 55.]

We have taken a brief look at songs that require rhythmic awareness.  There is at least one other category of songs that deserves similarly discriminating consideration by leaders in a cappella churches:  songs with slow harmonic rhythm.  This type of song does not change chords very often—maybe once every two, or even every four, measures.  Bart Millard’s “Word of God, Speak” is an example of a song in this category that a cappella churches might do well to avoid. [Ex.]

Why avoid songs of this type?  Because they are, relatively speaking, boring without the supporting rhythmic patterns or guitar strumming/picking patterns that undergirded the original renditions.  Notice the chord symbols above the musical staff—all the chords are some type of “C” major chord.  The variations are possible only by the best singers, with rehearsal, or when instruments accompany.  Less discriminating worshippers may hear songs in this category and think “that would be easy to sing in my church,” and some of them are easy, in one way of thinking.  Yet they are not generally the best choices.

Twila Paris’s “The Joy of the Lord” may strike one as simple and effervescent, and its melody and text are worthwhile.  Its harmonies, however, make it a bit difficult to carry off in an a cappella setting, not unlike Bart Millard’s “I Can Only Imagine.”  [Ex.]

This beautiful expression of eternal worship lends itself to uninteresting harmonizing by those unfamiliar with the original.  Some churches ignore the chord change on the word “walk,” since the melody can also be accompanied by the same E2 chord through the entire eight measures (and the phrase to follow).  The extension of tonic harmony through eight or even sixteen measures does not do this song justice.  Yet “The Joy of the Lord” and “I Can Only Imagine” may well be deemed worthy of a cappella use because of their surpassing textual contributions and strong emotional undertones.

It is worthy of mention here that many of yesteryear’s gospel songs so popular in some sectors also tend to change chords less frequently than songs written in a more hymnic style.  Songs such as “I Was Sinking Deep in Sin,” “When the Trumpet of the Lord Shall Sound,” and “A Wonderful Savior Is Jesus My Lord” have relatively slow harmonic rhythms, yet they have been sung with good congregational response for decades.  One of the distinctions between songs that don’t work and songs that do is, simply, legacy.  Combine the years of usage with the previously higher level of musical literacy of the congregation’s altos, tenors, and basses, and you achieve at least a modicum of success.  Also, when the melody is more active and “tuneful,” the fact that the underlying harmony continues unchanged for a full measure or more is not as significant as when the melody hovers within a small pitch range and is not well conceived for a cappella use.

Another, similar category is songs whose melodies have long notes that depend, again, on underlying bass, harmonic, or rhythmic patterns for their sense of forward motion.  The extraordinarily inspiring prayer-song “Draw Me Close” serves as a wonderful example of this type:  [Ex]

In this song, each four-measure sub-phrase begins with a measure of rest.  The chord changes are subtle, using very little root movement, and the rhythmic activity essentially carries the song, although the melody is also fairly well conceived.  Without voices that can solidly realize the chord changes—independent of the melody—this song, unfortunately, falls flat on its face.

In some cases, the newer songs in these categories can be arranged effectively for a cappella churches, but they depend on strong singers among the altos, tenors, and basses … and on the leader’s having a solid sense of rhythm.

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (1)

From time to time, I have some pretty distinct opinions on the use of contemporary Christian songs in a cappella churches.  Essentially, there are three categories:  1) those that work, 2) those that work with praise teams filled with musically ept folk who use intricate arrangements, and 3) those that don’t work.  In some cases, I mark my opinions with expressions such as “this appears to be the case” or “it seems to me that …,” but in this case, I’ll mince no words and attempt no humility.  Rhythm is a primary issue with introducing some contemporary songs into a cappella churches.

Part of the problem in the “rhythm of the saints”[1] is the longer melody notes that are, in the original versions, supported by non-vocal musical material—i.e., strums of a guitar and rhythmic patterns played on the drum set.  In a non-instrumental setting, it feels like forever to hold a whole note tied to a half note in the next measure!  But in the original, because of the underlying musical activity, the time that elapses during six beats does not feel like an eternity.  Face it:  It is just plain difficult to use some contemporary music in a cappella settings.

Add to this difficulty the apparent shyness of some modern worship leaders about using their hands to help keep the beat and keep the congregation together—I know, it seems old-school to “beat time.”  But the problem is made worse when beats are skipped and no one can predict when the leader is going to sing the next note because he is not rhythmically governed, and there are no visual cues, either.

Maybe we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.  Yes, there are some unhelpful aspects of how we used to do song leading.  But leading rhythmically with the hand may be a method worth saving—especially if it helps keep people together.[2]

Some judgment should be applied when selecting contemporary songs for use in a cappella churches.  In succeeding musings, I will try to provide a couple of examples of modern songs that work, and some that do not work, in a cappella settings—and why.

What makes a good “crossover” song?  Which modern songs work well in both instrumentally accompanied and a cappella settings?

First, I would like to look at syncopations,[3] which were only rarely used in church singing until the last few decades.  Even some “camp songs” of my youth—including such songs as “Jesus Is Lord,” “Have You Seen Jesus My Lord?” and “May I Call You Father?” used no syncopations whatsoever.  On the other hand, “Blue Skies and Rainbows,” for which I have gained a modicum of appreciation in more recent years, has plenty of syncopations, but they are rarely sung well.  But I always liked that song, you say?  Well, sure—it’s musically engaging and says something worthwhile about the Creator.  But if you’ve never heard a really tight musical ensemble sing or play syncopated music, you have little idea of what’s missing in terms of rhythmic spark.

Songs conceived with any considerable degree of rhythmic complexity should not be sung by the typical church . . . not without some teaching, at least.  Put bluntly and frankly, a cappella churches just can not sing successive syncopations.  One syncopation every few lines … maybe.  But more than one in a measure, and we die!  The feeling is lost, and those that loved the song when they heard it on the radio are either disappointed with the effort or deaf to rhythm.

I might have lost some of you here.  Not that you don’t understand, but you might prefer that I not get all “musician-y” on you.  Please stay with me.  I’m trying to use what I’ve learned and experienced in music in the past 25 years or so to recommend a course of action for the church heritage I love.

An example of a great song that works fairly well in an a cappella setting is Twila Paris’s “We Shall Assemble on the Mountain.”  This song works pretty well, despite the syncopations.  (I have notated it above the way it is commonly sung, which reflects neither Twila Paris’s original nor the way it is notated in popular arrangements.)

The song “Listen To Our Hearts” presents multiple issues (see above under Common Rhythmic, Melodic, and Harmonic Mistakes).  While it is certainly a worthy, unique song, lyrically speaking, the long notes that occur at regular intervals during the verse (on the words “ex-plain and “des-cribe, for instance) invite infractions of the “agitated style” genus.  In other words, it is difficult not to rush through those measures, if you are singing the melody while the altos and tenors are supposed to be supplying the rhythmic interest through syncopations:

In addition, please notice the end of the song:  “Words we know” goes fine, because the syncopation is interrupted by the strong-beat rhythm of the word “tell.”  But it is then inescapable that the subsequent rhythms on “tell you what an awesome God You are” will be rushed through, since seven successive syllables are syncopated.

Is it important that congregational singing be as rhythmically tight as a top-flight jazz combo or a professional vocal quartet?  Of course not.  “Listen To Our Hearts” may certainly be sung by most churches with some musical—and a lot of spiritual—success.  When leaders pay attention to these syncopation issues, though, it may help to solidify the feeling of rhythmic togetherness, as well as aiding in the choice of songs.

A song no a cappella church should ever use is “I Will Sing of Your Love Forever.”  Singing syncopated rhythms accurately is essential to the nature of this song, and since (sorry to be so dogmatically insistent on this, but please do notice that I say “since” and not “if”) we cannot sing them well without instruments, we simply should not sing them in a cappella churches.  This song, and others, sung poorly, i.e., without an underlying sense of rhythmic pulse over which the syncopated melody can float, just sounds stupid.[4]

The main difference between the two—that causes the former selection to be workable in a cappella churches and the latter not to be—is the extent of syncopations.  In “We Shall Assemble,” there are one or two syncopations (syllables sung off the beat) per two-measure section, while in “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” there is not a single syllable sung on the beat in the entire reproduced passage.  It is simply not possible to sing this song without the support of underlying rhythmic activity provided by bass guitar, drums, and/or other instruments.  Not even clapping will take care of the problem.

You may be asking what the big deal is.  So what if we don’t sing the rhythms right?  The thoughts contained in the song lyrics are great, so surely we can gain something, whether the rhythm has the right “feel” or not.  I’ll grant you that there can be some benefit for someone in virtually any assembly activity, but when there are so many good alternatives when choosing congregational music, it’s incumbent on us to choose songs that can retain their essential nature when sung a cappella. Some songs fail miserably without the under-girding of instrumental parts, and they’re better heard on the radio than sung in the assembly.

[For musically notated examples to support the above, please click here and scroll down to “Contemporary Music 2: Syncopated and Delayed Rhythms” on the bottom of p. 53.]

[1] This phrase is used with a nod to Paul Simon, who recorded an album by the same title.

[2] Please see previous post on “Hand and Arm Gestures.”

[3] “Syncopation” is a term used to describe musical accents that occur off the beat, or steady pulse, of the music.  Some jazz styles tend to involve syncopation.  Very little traditional church music is syncopated.

[4] More than once, I have been understandably censured for my word choice here.  I know it sounds childish, but consultations with other people and with the thesaurus provide no better options.  It’s not that the lyrical concepts are boring, vapid, tedious, pointless, or humdrum; or that the musical effect of singing such songs with persistent syncopation is ridiculous, absurd, horrificly daft, ludicrous, or preposterous.  I’ll just stay with the crassly offensive word stupid to describe the result when a cappella churches sing songs whose melodies depend on underlying rhythmic activity in order to make any sense—when no such underlying rhythmic “feel” exists.

Tempo variation

Beat-skipping continues to be the main bane of vain Church of Christ attempts to sing contemporary songs.  But tempos are also a problem.  Tempos can be

  • Too quick, resulting in
    • being out of breath
    • feeling like the main goal is to be “upbeat” (remember that “upbeat” was, first, a mood or attitude, not a tempo)
  • Too slow, resulting in
    • a lot of otherwise unnecessary breathing in the middle of phrases and clauses (this contributes to lack of understanding on the part of those singing)
    • a lifeless mood

Whatever the preferences of the leader or the church, we should take care to aim for a variety of tempos in our church music.

[Note — this post was originally an unintentional duplicate of an earlier post.  I have changed it after the fact, just for posterity.]