I have for too long complained about the unimaginative harmonic structure of much of contemporary worship music (cwm) without offering much in the way of suggestions for improvement. Oh, every so often I’ve given some specific exhortation, but I’ve tended to harp more than help, curmudgeonly behavior to which I most definitely do not aspire.
Hence, today I begin a series focusing on specific guidance for songwriters that comes from some of the best composers in pop-music history, courtesy of Songwriters on Songwriting, by Paul Zollo, a former editor of SongTalk magazine. Zollo interviews many of the biggest names in pop and rock music (and several of its offshoots) in this 730-page behemoth of a book. Despite some notable absences (Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder) and a dearth of entries from purveyors of contemporary R n B and Hip Hop, Songwriters on Songwriting is a must-read for anyone serious about honing compositional skills for any area of pop music . . . which, I would argue, includes cwm. He begins with Pete Seeger and ends with Me’Shell NdegéOcello, and along the way we encounter the likes of Bob Dylan, Carole King, Dave Brubeck, and Alanis Morisette, among others.
For each post, I plan to highlight one songwriter, share links to three of his/her biggest hits/best songs, and offer quotes from each’s interview with Zollo, words of wisdom I hope will spark some interest for those who labor to put songs on the lips of the people of God in corporate worship. Before diving in, I want to answer the understandable objections that might arise from this activity:
We can’t use what works for secular pop-rock music as a guide for what works for cwm. I disagree. While I will acknowledge a key component of the ancient Greeks’ Rhetorical Triangle–namely pathos, or your audience–is radically different for cwm, a song is a song is a song. The same basic elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm drive a worship song the same way they drive a secular song; hence, we can analyze how well the melody works, how helpful the harmonic structure supports that melody, and how effectively the rhythm propels both in all songs that are meant to be sung, whether by a soloist, a small vocal ensemble, a choir, or a congregation.
We can’t learn anything about worship music from unbelievers. I disagree. All truth is God’s truth, and all but the most hard-hearted of Christians have been moved to tears by art created by any number of folks who would fall into Fanny Crosby’s “vilest offender” category. Why does that happen? Because we intuitively recognize and are often deeply moved by the “finger of God” at work even if the artists don’t recognize It themselves. Like Balaam’s ass, they are involuntarily used for greater Kingdom good, good that the most atheistic in their ranks would be loathe to acknowledge exists.
The whole argument is irrelevant because pop music is for listening and/or dancing; cwm is for congregational singing. I disagree with the premise (though I agree with the reason used to support it). Yes, cwm needs to respect perimeters within which congregations can sing well. OK. Is Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” (eight different chords, not counting suspensions) singable? Listen to that crowd. That’s some serious congregational singing! Ditto Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” (six chords). Look at the crowd singing along. Hedonistic song? Undoubtedly. Infectious music? Indeed. Why should the devil have all the good music?
All this scrutiny is unnecessary; all that matters is that God is honored and the people of God sing passionately. I disagree. Strongly. Here’s what I wrote in the aforementioned post, in the event you don’t read the whole thing:
“What’s the big deal?” some might ask. God is being glorified. The Church is worshiping, it can be argued, more passionately than it has in years. How can that be wrong or bad? It’s not, necessarily–but it’s also not evidence of worship musicians studying to show themselves approved (2 Tim. 2:15) where the craft of songwriting is concerned. While I don’t wish to make Rory Noland and Greg Ferguson’s harmonically rich and satisfying “He Is Able” (with its nine different chords!) the standard, and I don’t expect every songwriter to be able to pull off the wildly inventive harmonic structure Jason Ingram, Reuben Morgan, and Stuart Garrard achieved in the first two verses of “The Greatness of Our God,” I am calling for better craftsmanship, as a general rule, in contemporary worship music, especially re: harmonic structure.
I then offered two specific words of encouragement. The second was to put a moratorium on mid-tempo/power-ballad songs using I-IV-V-vi patterns exclusively. Gracious, Christendom has enough already! When I can routinely, successfully, and well in advance call out chord changes of cwm songs I encounter for the first time, we have, as a body of songwriters, become too predictable, and we run the risk of being mediocre stewards of the songwriting gift. (For an interesting take on this issue, check out this video from Andy Crouch: 32:30 through 36:00. If you have time for the whole talk, it’s excellent.)
The blog’s first exhortation was to study the masters, and I hope in the series to follow to do just that. The Lord be with you, songwriters, as you craft music to put on the lips of God’s people!