Style

For so many people today, attraction seems to be based on style.

Restaurants have known this for decades, if not centuries:  “presentation” makes the meal.  Picture yourself being served tough, gristly chicken cordon bleu with the perfect-looking cheese drizzles and a paprika-ginger glaze.  Add asparagus (for many of us have grown to like such things, or at least like to look as if we do) and some herbed carrots, and you have a nicely presented meal.  You might even have enjoyed an appetizer and been served by an attractive, courteous individual, adding to the style of it all.  Yet the core of main course was – see, you’ve already forgotten it, in the blur of all the presentation and style! – tough meat, full of gristle!

amygrantAmy Grant is one of the poster children for this presentation phenomenon within popular music:  she has always had a strong, distinctive vocal style — and considerable songwriting talent to boot, but a very limited vocal range and quality.  What she has offered in terms of visual “presentation” and personality has always been winsome, and the vocal style was convincing.  But the core – the actual vocal quality and content – is less worthy.

Not unlike pop singers who offer more style than content, contemporary churches frequently present well, yet have little “main course” that satisfies the soul.  Their styles eclipse their “meat,”as it were.

Some months ago, I visited a church in another town and was surprised to find someone we knew leading worship.  His style put me off mildly; I thought those mannerisms and verbal clichés had passed from favor ten years ago.  But apparently some people still go for it.  What he was doing didn’t strike me as particularly “contemporary,” but I think those in his audience felt it was pretty hip.

“Contemporary” is, after all, not static but fluid.  Style may well help notably with initial impressions, but it is ephemeral.

If it’s only style, it will pass.  And it may even be snickered at.  (I know you know people who laugh at Amy Grant.)

The moral goes without saying, but I’ll just state it simply, for the record:  major in content, not style, for if you don’t, you’ll be passed over when the style changes.

No diving boards here

shallowThese banal rhymes are but a few evidences of shallow, so-called spirituality in modern worship music.

face . . . embrace, grace
love . . . above, dove
see . . . free, let it be

Now, how about this one (not exactly a rhyme, and not exactly euphonic, either):

On the one hand, there is God . . .
On the other, I’m a fraud.

OK, didn’t like that?  How about deeply considering the inappropriate content and even innuendo in some of today’s songs?  I can think of a couple of places that present “seeing God’s face” with some drama, but what biblical basis is there for “feeling” God’s “embrace,” for instance?  Maybe I’m forgetting something here, but hear Lisa Colon Delay on worship songs with sexual overtones.

And for a more entertaining — perhaps less troubling — look at cliches, check out the Blimey Cow video on how to write a worship song.

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.


On new songs

May, or must, a church use new songs? Songs written by and for the current generation?

New songs may in truth speak of God’s work today, but I sometimes feel the need to probe what it is, really, that a contemporary songwriter is speaking of. These really aren’t the days of Elijah or Ezekiel, for instance, and though those expressions are taken somewhat as poetic extrapolations, a lot of us sing that song without believing that those particular kinds of work of God are going on presently. Further: personal, adoring worship songs may well be authentic, but they also may be mere cookie-cutter facsimiles of the last song that appealed to the masses, was recorded, and sold thousands of copies.

Imagery and cultural “with-it-ness” are important, and should be considered. The CofC repertoire, for instance, should certainly be expanded beyond the imagery of the 1800s and early-1900s examples that fill 90% of our assemblies’ song lists. For me, expanding means inclusive growth on both chronological ends: “Shepherd of Tender Youth” (Clement of Alexandria, from ca. 3rd century A.D.) has value, and so does Martin Luther, and so does Fanny Crosby, and so does Twila Paris, and so does Matt Redman. (I’m not so sure about Stamps-Baxter and the Gaithers, but that’s just my opinion. If I’m thorough, I would probably have to admit that there is as much worthy content in a few Gaither or Stamps songs than in some other songs whose musical styles don’t offend my aesthetic sensibilities.) Although I write, arrange, and lead new songs, I propose that it is not newness that is as significant as content.

The language of lighthouses and reapers and lifelines and such is definitely not my heart language. And the language of the King James era, or even of the early 1900s, is not mine, either. The question of imagery, though, begs the question of the use of scripture, or scriptural language, in songs. Not all scriptural language uses imagery with which our society is familiar. Should we ignore such passages and their concepts in writing our music today? It has been well suggested that Christians’ theology is more evident in the music of the church than in the sermons. Balance and scriptural moorings are of high significance in both!

How important is it for each generation to have its own songs? Well, it strikes me that importance to a generation is different from importance for a generation. It’s probably more important to this generation than to most older ones. Something about this one — and here, I speak not necessarily of a single, identified generation of 20-years-or-so, such as “GenX,” but of a great bunch of us breathing in this eon — seems to demand more attention than others. We’re a self-centered lot.

But back to the question … how important is it for all generations to have their own songs? I’d probably give it a 9 on a 14-point scale. It’s good to validate worthy creations in our time by using them, side-by-side, with more time-tested material. People can survive spiritually without fresh musical voices, but perhaps not all will thrive. Alongside this guess, I would suggest that it is just as important to connect with other generations’ songs, creating a deeper, broader repertory. For one generation to isolate itself, as though only its creations are significant, would seem self-centered.

A related area that deserves thought is the ubiquity of contemporary songwriters. I, for one, can’t examine the large numbers of contemporary songs and songwriters and immediately attribute the numbers to a move of God among us. Computer software and the omnipresence of guitars (along with people who can strum 4 or 5 chords and read “tab”) are two factors that have led to the outpouring of new songs in the last couple of decades. But not all these songs are outpourings of God. Some are just outpourings of the computer processor. Aside: I fear the overuse of the word “anointed” to describe worship leaders and songwriters these days. I think “anointed” is a synonym for “cool” or “has charisma” or “last year, some company recorded a CD with his music on it.”

If we give a song credence solely because of how new it is, or how cool it seems, we would appear shallow. Equally troublesome to me is appealing to familiarity as the primary criterion for whether a song should be sung in church. If we are constantly constrained by fear of the new or less known, we are impoverished. How many times over the years have I wondered whether this or that song would “work” on a Sunday morning, because we haven’t sung it before, or at least not for a year or more … and who is going to get upset if we use this or that new song? This is the concern of those of us who value congregational music and don’t typically have select groups that perform songs for everyone else. (Readers who have choirs and/or worship bands won’t share the concern, to the same degree.) It’s been impressed upon me that new songs should be introduced at times other than Sunday mornings. I’ve swallowed this, but I’m not sure why. Why isn’t Sunday morning the perfect time to sing a new song to the Lord?

I do think using new songs is important. It’s not the only thing, but it’s important.

The 70s, 80s, and 90s

Sunday evening, I’ll have the opportunity to lead a song or two at a city-wide unity meeting in Rochester. The repertoire is to be drawn from songs written since 1970 (from the host church’s hymnal).

I found the list of songs that fit this bill to be woeful, I’m sorry to report. The 70s and 80s were particularly dry decades in terms of congregational music, I think.

There were probably 90 songs on the list, and I was hard-pressed to come up with 5 or 6 that I would really want to lead. The good ones are 1) over-sung, 2) out of the musical range of most congregations, 3) abridged so they will be more singable, or 4) trite.

I’m torn in situations like this: part of me wants to champion and teach older songs (true hymns) like “Shepherd of Tender Youth” and “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee”; another part wants to differentiate didactically between the good contemporary songs and the drivel; another part wouldn’t mind seeing the charade of Church-of-Christ “worship” in flames … I could hope that it might be refined by fire.

On or after 10/29, please see addendum on the “Sing to the Lord a New Song” city-wide unity event.

Days of Elijah?

If your church has been singing “contemporary” songs for a few years, you probably know “Days of Elijah.”  It’s a pleasure to sing for many, including myself—musically speaking, at least.

I seriously question whether these are in fact the days of Elijah, “righteousness being restored,” or whether these really are the days of Moses or of Ezekiel, “dry bones becoming as flesh.”  It seems to me that some of these lyrics are rather gratuitous references to OT personalities and incidents, cobbled together mostly to get the congregation pumped up emotionally.  They may also betray a theology of modern-day prophecy and miracles (the likes of which most of us have never seen), but we still sing about them as though we have.  Are the pumpings-up based in reality?  Are the assertions and theologies, as sung, meshing with actual beliefs, and are those lyrics and beliefs both corroborated by scripture?

And what about another CofC favorite of the past 10 years or so: “There’s a Stirring.”  This song is so mixed up in its imagery that one never knows whether he’s praying for inspiration, calling attention to Jesus’ cross (or to His  position at the Father’s right hand), or begging to die.  Think about it: “My time has come . . . I will rise up … and bow down … and lay my crown at His wounded feet.”  This seems to be expressing suicidal intent with holy purpose of worshipping later.  I get weirded out by this song now, but I confess that I used to lead it, and I even have a recording of it.  I think I’ll keep it around, just to remind myself how unprincipled I can be sometimes.

Not all of our songs—traditional or contemporary—bespeak sound theology, do they!  Got any examples you’d like to share of songs with words that bug you?