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” 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.
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, 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.
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.]
This phrase is used with a nod to Paul Simon, who recorded an album by the same title.
 Please see previous post on “Hand and Arm Gestures.”
 “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.
 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.