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.