Why Christian Music Remains Rooted in the Past, and that’s OK

When I arrived in music school many years ago, every incoming freshman was required to take Music History 101. One of the principles the professor imported from the world of architecture was “form follows function.” The principle is nearly self-explanatory, but when it comes to music, it may require some observations about how it is worked out. Dance music, for example, has certain rhythms that are symmetrical, because humans are symmetrical in our bodies. Music that was intended for performance in a cathedral had open intervals, amenable to reverberation in a cavernous space.

Music is constantly changing, continually evolving, but with Christian must, we’ve remained solidly facing the past. The musical materials the church continues to use are tonal. For those who aren’t musicians, you know all about tonality and have deep experience with it. Everything you sing in a church gathering is in a certain key, and behaves with predictability. Notes of the scale have their place and function and “want” to move in a certain way. If you sing “Happy Birthday,” imagine singing the final “Happy Birthday to you” and instead of going down a step on “you,” you sang the same pitch for the words “to” and “you.” It would be uncomfortable, it would feel unresolved, and would leave you feeling like the song didn’t actually end, didn’t come to closure. The final word wants to go back to the note it does. This is tonality at work.

Composers in the early 20th century began to move away from these assumptions and created music that did not have a defined tonal center. But Christian music hasn’t followed this path (nor, for that matter, has popular music in general.) The reason has to do with “form follows function.” The function of Christian song is to praise God in congregational singing, by people who are not professional musicians, and thus the form of the music must have an appeal to what is known and singable. Music with no center of tonality does not fulfill this function of having non-musicians quickly become participants in the music. If it can’t be sung on a first or second hearing, it fails that test.

Hymnody generally uses simple tunes that don’t have a lot of complexity or wide vocal range, singability again being a prime goal. Hymns are not harmonically adventurous, and rhythmically, not complex. There is now a distinction between hymns and “worship songs,” (CCM falls into this category), a difference that is newer in Christin history. Nevertheless, worship songs, too, follow these rules and if they owe more to pop music than to classic hymns, they still adhere to the parameters I set forth above: singability and participation by the congregation. Where we notice more difference than with hymns is that worship songs sometimes begin their lives as performances by contemporary Christian artists, and are later employed for congregational use. That can sometimes lead to awkward singing. What wasn’t designed for congregational participation doesn’t always work well when we try to make it so.

None of this means that creativity in our Christian songs has to suffer, though to be creative in writing what is singable by non-musicians requires more of songwriters. It seems like everything has already been done with the melody, harmony, and rhythm of traditional song. But there is always someone who comes along and surprises us. In English, we still have the same 26 letters we’ve always had, yet writers still find ways to come up with what is new and compelling. The same is the case with the notes of an octave, the harmonies that result from combining those notes, and with the common time signatures used in popular music.

The best outcomes in Christian songwriting come from those who start with the view that every aspect of what they are writing is important, but chiefly that they are enabling worship on the part of a congregation. When it comes to the words we sing, it is not the expression of my own sentiments or feelings so much as voicing the commonly held theology of the body of Christ. Our personal experiences, important as they are, are not authoritative for the whole body, while the theology of Scripture is. Hewing closely to Scripture is in one sense being rooted in the past, but past events that define our redemption.

On the musical side, every aspect of this must support the text, for every element of melody, rhythm, and harmony will give character to the words, and will influence how the singer/hearer perceives those words. Here, too, if there is a common body of musical “doctrine” it is the tonal music that prevails in Western culture. (I write this as a member of that Western culture. For those not part of this, other cultures have their own received musical artifacts and thus the West cannot dictate for them what this is.)

The music of congregational singing will inevitably seek this common ground of a culture that promotes the things listed above. If these things are rooted in the past, that’s OK. Our praise of God in song can still be new with the tools of a prior age.

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