#109: Simple Songs

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #109, on the subject of Simple Songs.

I find myself in the awkward position of defending a practice I don’t particularly like.  Someone criticized Christian record companies.  I think that there are serious problems with Christian record companies, but I don’t think that the particular problems suggested in the supposedly satirical video were the real problems.  I will probably write more on this subject, but first I want to talk about the problem of simple, that is, simplistic, music.  The video (undoubtedly facetiously) suggested that record companies demand that all Christian songs use the same three chords.  That’s not something record companies ask or expect.  What they expect is that songs be marketable to the people who are expected to want them, and for a certain kind of Christian song that inherently means simple.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not impressed by simple songs and I do my best not to write them.  I had an argument with a piano player who insisted that the B# I wanted him to play (in a G# major chord with a minor sixth added–I know, ugly chord, but the song needed it) did not exist.  I cringe sometimes at the fact that so many of the songs I wrote on the piano when I was in high school and college are so similar, and eventually made a point of not writing songs on the piano unless I could do something really different.  I could probably be a lot more prolific if I weren’t so insistent that every song had to be distinct.

Worship band Hillsong United
Worship band Hillsong United

I also remember being horrified when I was in high school when someone I knew casually told me that he had been baptized in the Spirit on Friday night and over the weekend God had given him five hundred songs.  I approached skeptically, and discovered that he knew three chords, stopped the music to change between them, and sang very nearly monotone.  There is nothing wrong with the miraculous happening in connection with the Holy Spirit; this I don’t think was that.

The temptation is to think that all the musicians who write such “simple” three-chord songs with simplistic melodic lines are like my high school friend, unable to do better or even to know they are doing poorly.  The fact is they are not doing poorly; they are writing the kind of songs needed for their ministry.  One thing that helps me not judge other ministries is understanding what they are actually trying to do and why, and how that is different from what I am doing, and why that different objective requires different methods.

We talked extensively about Christian ministries.  Of particular relevance here, the 1960s and 70s were dominated by evangelist music ministry, which meant music that would catch attention of unbelievers and cause them to listen to the message.  It was frequently interesting, often intricate, always performance-oriented material.  Today, we noted, the dominant stream in music ministry is pastoral, music that benefits the sheep, with participatory worship music at the top of the list.

Don’t misunderstand.  Many great professional composers from Michael Praetorius and J. S. Bach through Charles Ives and Randall Thompson have written some great worship music to be presented by professional musicians, and there is a worship experience in which the worshipper listens and is overwhelmed by the beauty of the music and the presence of God.  However, that is not participatory worship.  When men like Luther and Wesley wanted to get people involved in worship, they took simple songs that their audience knew–usually from singing in taverns–and wrote Christian words to them, because the majority in the congregation are not musically literate and can only sing simple songs that they know or can quickly learn.  The typical congregant can’t handle complex melodic lines, intricate syncopation and time signature changes, modal and key transitions; those are for professional musicians.  Thus songs for participatory worship are best if they are simple.

Further, when someone records a song intended for worship, the expectation is less that you will listen to the recording–which is certainly part of the intention–but more that churches throughout the world will learn to play it and use it in their worship.  Johnny Smith who got a guitar for Christmas and has been trying to teach himself to play has to be able to stand in front of Little Country Church and lead half a dozen worshippers in a song they might never have heard.  If it isn’t simple, it isn’t going to succeed.

There is complex and interesting Christian music out there, because there are still musicians doing non-pastoral ministry, and pastors using music for aspects of their ministry that go beyond corporate participatory worship.  The primary forms on Christian radio though are songs of worship which ordinary people can learn easily and sing along while driving; the primary songs that get played in churches are the simple songs of worship which the congregation can embrace quickly.  They are the kind of music most Christians are buying; they are important in the scheme of music ministry; they are not the totality of it.

Returning to record companies–well, I probably have more to say about the recording industry, but for the moment to give them their due, they have to be interested in the bottom line, in producing recordings that people will buy.  That means songs that will be played on the radio and sung in churches.  That means, primarily, simple worship songs.  Sure, they produce more than that, but since songs for participatory worship are the most popular in the Christian market, they dominate product.

If you want to do something different with your music, that’s a good thing; just understand that you are not looking to reach the present core Christian market if you aren’t doing simple worship songs, not because of the record companies but because of the audience.

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2 thoughts on “#109: Simple Songs”

  1. “The typical congregant can’t handle complex melodic lines, intricate syncopation and time signature changes, modal and key transitions; those are for professional musicians. Thus songs for participatory worship are best if they are simple.”

    And I might add, the words familiar.

    Some time ago, it’s been a year or more, the congregation at the church I attend was admonished for not being joyful in worship. It was light hearted, taken as such, but there was, as there always is, that kernel of truth in it. My thought at the time was “well, if I knew the words and the music, I’d be a lot more joyful, not having to muddle through this thing.”

    While it is a good thing to add music to the repertoire, singing a new song as it were, some are more difficult than others to introduce and too many new ones at a time makes it difficult to keep up. At least to geezers like me. Maybe all the youngsters are listening to this stuff on the local Christian radio station, but I’m not. More on that later. And I suspect most people aren’t either. So unless it’s something we’ve been doing for a while, and isn’t challenging to sing, that’s great. I can, and do, sing it (not well, but it’s joyful). The other stuff, well, even with the words projected up so I can see what they are, I’m lost until it hits some scriptural reference, or a couple bars of a classic.

    As I said above, I don’t listen to Christian radio. There’s a couple reasons: First I’m generally in the car with someone else and that’s usually a good time to talk. Not that I’m particularly chatty, I’m not, I register as a borderline introvert on the Briggs-Meyers assessment. But, unless everyone agrees on the music, then it seems rude to push that on them, and it’s always good to discuss with friends and family things you have in common. Builds bonds, maintains relationships and all that. And then there’s the style of music that is typically played by Christian stations. To be blunt, it’s pretty tame elevator stuff in my book. Even the wildest stuff they play is barely on my scale of enjoyment most of the time. Not that it has to be head banging stuff…I’m cool with that, even re-scoring the classics to metal is good in my book. But it has to be stuff that you can do loud. There’s more than rock that can do that. But most contemporary Christian worship stuff can’t really. Yeah, you can turn the volume up so the whole auditorium can hear it, but that’s not the same thing.

    And while I’m on a roll, I’ll point out that to a certain extent, secular music has the same issues. I would be surprised to be told that there were any top charting songs that weren’t inherently simple and repetitive. I mean think of it: Another One Bites the Dust; Tequila, Louis, Louis; Hawaii 5-O; Sweet Home Alabama; Stairway to Heaven; to name a few. I’m sure there’s some complicated ones out there, but I’m sure not singing along to them.

    1. One of C. S. Lewis’ arguments against updating the (Anglican) liturgy was that the value of the liturgy was precisely in the fact that worshipers knew it well enough that they didn’t have to think about what they were saying, they could just say it and think about God while they were worshiping. I had always been opposed to liturgy of that sort, because, being the “thinking” kind of person that I am, I thought the function of the liturgy was to teach people. I still don’t care for liturgical services, but I understand that this is largely because I am so unfamiliar with the words, and that for someone who knows them, repeating the same words can be (I won’t say “is”, as for many it’s just the vain repetition of many words) a significant aid to worship.

      I was going to add that to the article, but forgot. But you’re right, it is the same with music: familiarity is important to worship. That’s why “old” churches tend to sing the old hymns.

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