I’m not sure whether to be relieved, annoyed or just inverted-snobbish about the fact that Nightshift didn’t review my demo or even bother telling me they declined to. It certainly raises questions about where I try and get myself noticed next though. Thoughts?
Some of this post is probably going to come across as needlessly critical, and some of it is probably personal opinion. But I’m trying to base all of this on putting the congregation first, and I think there are some problems in this area. A lot of my problems with the ways worship songs are sometimes sung are basically extensions of what I’ve already said about how they’re sometimes written. But I’ll spell out some of the extensions anyway.
Congregations, even the good singers among them, really benefit from a clear melody to follow. Which means, as well as writing clear melodies (see earlier post), those leading the music have to sing them clearly. And unfortunately there’s a fairly popular way of singing modern church music which I rather rudely call ‘warbling’, that involves a lot of deliberately vague rhythm, with hardly any of the notes actually on a beat, and lots of extra little passing notes and trailings-off added into the essential lines of the tune. It sounds a bit like a gospelly Celine Dion, and it makes it really quite hard to pick up and follow a song you don’t know – and for that matter can put you off a song you think you know without those ornaments. This isn’t made easier, of course, by the fact that a lot of these songs are transcribed from how their writers sing them – so you can end up with a published version including a lot of the warble. It then takes serious willpower and cheek to try and ‘refine’ that version down to something melodically more straightforward (though personally I find a lot of the published versions so hard to read (and I learnt classically, though not singing) that I end up approximating a, usually much more straightforward, version of the tune). In general, though, I’d encourage anyone who sings the tune in church contexts to remember that they’re not there to perform to or at the other people in the room, they’re there to enable the congregation to sing themselves. A congregation isn’t an audience, and I think some of us with mikes pointing in our faces and, love it or loathe it, basically leading soft-rock bands, are tempted to forget that. Of course, if you’re singing a harmony line then options are much more open on what you do (and I’m going to do another post sometime on countermelodies etc.).
The other thing, for this post anyway, that bothers me about common worship song practice is the endless chant habit (this is related to part of my earlier post on song structure). I don’t, in fairness, think this is that common in most ordinary churches, but it seems to be de rigueur for live worship recordings to involve repeating the middle 8, or another, perhaps even shorter, phrase, over and over with gradually evolving arrangement and emotion, before finally plunging back into, probably, the chorus. Now there are two problems I have with this. The first isn’t that important: it’s that I’m pretty listening to most of those recordings that the repetition is a kind of ‘rehearsed spontaneity’ – apparently being done on the fly but actually you can tell the band have rehearsed the changes in dynamic and when the drum-beat changes, etc. And in secular or religious rock, I just find that sort of trick annoying and kind of cheap.
The real problem with the chant habit, though, is it’s structural role. For one thing, I don’t think it adds much spiritually to the worshipping experience. There is definitely a place for repeated chants that you enter into as a kind of meditation – your conscious mind staying with a simple repeated phrase while the other parts of you are able to enter deeper into God’s presence without the distration of conscious thought always trying to go somewhere. But in general, I don’t think that’s the experience the congregations are having at these points in worship songs. They’re more usually being whipped up into an emotional frenzy by basically the same crowd-herding techniques used by straight-ahead stadium rock bands. Which doesn’t have anything distinctively Christian about it, and is potentially creating harmful confusion between the euphoria of a great rock gig and the spiritual encounter with the divine. Let’s not manipulate our congregations, folks. Assume they’re on side, or try and persuade them, by all means. But I’m not so sure about dragging them towards where you want to be through emotion alone. Is that them worshipping in spirit and truth?
Have I gone too far? Maybe. Argue back if so, I’d be interested to hear some opposing views.
So, I don’t really have the time, energy or hard cash to do any more recordings for a little while, but by way of giving you a taster of some more of my songs if you want one, I’ve started putting lyrics to some of the unrecorded ones onto the Music page of this site. Do take a look, give me some feedback and, as ever, if you want sheet music PDFs to any of my worship songs, contact me.
Think of the first six modern worship songs that come to mind. How many of them have a structure very similar to this?
middle 8 (repeated)
It seems that a lot of writers have fallen into a pattern of writing into that structure. There are perhaps further subtleties that could be found to be repeated to the point of being clichéd, but let’s just deal with the question of structure for now.
I’m not criticising the above song structure as such. It’s popular largely because it works, and it’s very effective for certain particular purposes. But like any other restricted convention, it’s never going to be flexible and accommodating enough to adequately express all that congregational singing in worship should – as I keep saying in this blog, nothing less than everything is enough to approach and offer to the Infinite.
Structure also tends to be tied up with emotional trajectory. And in terms of energy and positivity, the standard worship song structures tend to always head upwards. Patterns like the one I cited generally rise through verse, and bridge if there is one, to the chorus, drop down to do that again with another verse, and then either stay there through the middle 8 and closing chorus(es) or do the drop down and rise again. Even old-fashioned hymns like ‘Be thou my vision’, which only have one musical unit (the verse) with lots of words, are often done getting gradually louder throughout.
All of that’s fine, but if we’re honest – certainly if I, as a depression sufferer, am honest – the Christian life does not consist only of stories that go that way. Our walks as fallen humanity in a fallen creation with involve experiences that build up and fade away, hopes that trail off, confusion, searching and darkness. There will be minor keys as well as major, and diminuendos as well as crescendos. And to be genuinely honest, our music should attempt to embrace and embody that diversity. We are to ‘worship in spirit and in truth’, remember. Our present mixed experience is as true as looked-for unmixed one.
This seems like stating the obvious: worship songs should have good words.
Well it sort of is, but maybe we should unpack what we mean by ‘good’ here by assuming the case is closed.
Firstly, they should be words the people singing them believe in. State the obvious, but congregations in singing are lending their voice to the words of the hymns and they shouldn’t really be asked to sing something that’s radically out of tune with what they believe. And there are divisions of opinion within Christianity which can be an obstacle. The most obvious, alas, is penal substitution – a cornerstone of belief for many conservative evangelicals but repugnant to many other believers. My local group of churches resorted to editing ‘In Christ alone’ to lessen this problem, probably illegally. If you know the song you’ll know which line I mean, but that’s not really the point. More to the point is that worship songwriting as usually so called has been dominated so far by writers from precisely those conservative evangelical backgrounds; and that ought to give anyone coming from a different theological and spiritual place (like, say, me) pause for thought about what words they give the congregations they minister to to sing.
Secondly, though, good words should have meaty content and make sense. I have had arguments with fellow church musicians over a well-known worship song which is usually printed starting:
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
The city of our God the holy place
We fall down on our knees
Now I have gone over and over that and the only sense I can make of it is that the Lord and the city of our God have to be the same thing. Which is fairly clearly nonsense, or certainly not Christianity. But I’ve heard this song sung:
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
In the city of our God the holy place
We fall down on our knees
Now that makes perfect sense, even if it’s a little bit Old Testament (isn’t God now understood to be everywhere?). What worries me is that anyone would prefer the first version unless it was absolutely thrust on them!
Secondly, decent solid content. Ideally, I think the words we sing in church – and hopefully remember through the week because words set to music are generally so much more memorable than words alone – should mirror the range of our prayer and our preaching. That means that we have to get a long way beyond lyrics that don’t say much more than ‘God I love you, you’re very powerful and I want to say that I love you and you make me feel good. That’s fine, but if that’s as much content as your whole service-worth of songs has, I recommend expanding your repertoire. Stuart Townend commented, when I saw him touring his last but one album (the very folky one, Creation Sings) that too many of our songs are about our experience of God when there is so much more to Him than that. And I agree. But there is also so much more to our experience of God than worship and praise, important though they are, and the label ‘worship music’ perhaps illustrates a narrowness of outlook in the genre. Penitence, intercession, social justice, questioning, wrestling, desire (including unfulfilled), discovery – all these are places the songs of the Church should go. We’ve only ever scratched the surface of the infinite God, and as I see it the job of the Christian artist – in this instance, songwriter – is to enrich their fellow believers with as much as they can convey or hint at of that infinite nature.
Just a small challenge to write at the top of our game, then.
So I thought this would be a good place to put some of my ideas about music in congregational worship, and what I’m maybe trying to do when I write songs for that purpose. It might even help you make better sense of the demos, who knows!
What seems to be an underrated value in worship at the moment is melody – tunes. There are a lot of songs with good or even great riffs and backing grooves, and some of them have really good lyrics (although I’ll come back to that in another post methinks); but all too often the tune is more or less produced by the singer throwing the lyrics at the riff and seeing what comes out when they hit each other. It’s often a bit warbly and not very memorable.
Is that the worst thing in the world? I hear you ask. Well, certainly not the worst, but it is a problem. To say why, I need to dig down onto what I think song in church is there for.
It’s not a performance, firstly. Or rather, there are places for performed music in worship, definitely, but that works very differently to how most church music as we know it works. If people sing as a congregation, rather than listening or vaguely singing along while being deafened like a gig audience, they very importantly make those words their own. They’re not observing them, they’re participating in them. That has much more emotional and spiritual impact than just listening to someone singing something you probably do agree with, but aren’t getting too involed in. But, you can only achieve that if the tune can be picked up quite readily by the congregation. If they’re continually struggling with the music, they’re not going to get very involved because their concentration will be elsewhere.
Secondly though, church music should be memorable. One of the advantages of setting words to music is you tend to remember a good tune, and if it’s a sung good tune, the words tend to stick with it. So this is why a good tune is generally better than a good riff for a worship song – if people go through the week with the riff running through their head, it might almost as well be a secular song once they’ve left the church building; but if they go through the week with the tune and the words stuck in their head, they might actually think to live those words out a bit more.
So singable, memorable tunes matter. So, clearly, do clear delivery and good lyrics, but I’ll go into those in other posts. Think of it this way: if you’ve followed the above, hopefully you at least agree that a good melody is a good thing. And we wouldn’t want to offer anything less than the best we can do to God, surely? So let’s make them the best tunes we can think of.
Just sent the demo for review in Nightshift’s regular demo page – as those of you around the Oxford gig scene will know, a slating from them is almost a rite of passage for up-and-coming acts, so I thought I’d just try transferring that out of the secular gigging sphere for the hell of it. And get it over with as quickly as possible! Watch this space for ironic appreciation of a truly unappreciative review, if they even decide to review it at all …
Have to admit, I’m quite pleased with that – well done all you lot!
… so it happens to be here. A fistful of demo tracks and a rudimentary website. My assumption is that if God got me into this, he might just get me out of it. We shall see! I certainly don’t claim to know where it will all go from here.