5 Admonitions for Modern Christian Music Writers

Why does modern Christian music suck? Notice how I did not ask whether it does suck or not because that would be like asking if Hilary and Trump are corrupt. The answer is yes, but why?

The answers are numerous and interwoven, but as one who spent literally his entire life listening to Christian music in the car, the church, and even at family gatherings, and as one who spent over a decade studying music in one capacity or another, I’ve identified five major problems, or rather their solutions.

1. Find More Adjectives

“You’re a good, good father.”
“You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me.”
“You are good, you are good, oh.”
“I sing because you are good, I dance because you are good…”
“Because you are good to me, good to me.”
“For you are good, for you are good, for you are good to me.”

We get it. God is good. He’s also awesome, phenomenal, spectacular, amazing, resplendent, singular, extraordinary, magnificent, great, incredible, stupendous, opulent, grand, exceptional, and super. Pick one!

Why do so many modern songs sound a simplistic as the Newspeak from 1984?

2. I Will Give $20 to the Next Person who Writes a Non-Repeating Chorus 

That is not a joke. Anybody seen this comic?

i-write-modern-worship-choruses

Go back to #1 and you’ll see the trend already. Now I know this is not exclusive to modern choruses (Holy, Holy, Holy; Amen; etc.) and the Psalmists were fond of repetition for emphasis, but we’re so oversaturated that it’s starting to look like laziness rather than ingenuity.

Seriously, write a well-thought-out worship chorus that doesn’t repeat itself and email it to me. I will LITERALLY send $20 to the first person who does that.

3. Finish the Thought

This one is a little hard to describe, but music has a certain “feel” to it, a rise and fall of finality. When a song rises up and then…stops, it feels incomplete, like the writer was so caught up in how amazing his lyrics are that he just stopped singing and clocked out.

An example? The song “Give me Faith” by Elevation Worship. Click here to hear it on Youtube. Here are the lyrics to the chorus (starting at 0:58 on the video):

Give me faith to trust what you say
That you’re good, and your love is great
I’m broken inside, I give you my life…
[awkward silence]

Look, I kind of like this song, but every time the chorus comes on, I keep thinking there’s a fourth line that got lost in the sound booth. The music and even the lyrical progression just seem stunted.

Go listen to some hymns. They can finalize a song like nobody’s business.

4. Get Outside the Bedroom

Boy, God sure is intimate, loving, and touchy-feely, isn’t he? Lately, you hear lyrics like “sloppy wet kiss” but you know what I haven’t heard in ages? “There’s thunder in his footsteps and lightning in his fists.”

Modern songs are really focused on how close, comforting, and snuggly God is. Like repetition, this is fine to an extent (and when it’s written well), but it’s only half of the picture. God is also the person who pimp-smacked Egypt with plagues. Jesus may be intimate, but he’s also coming back with blood on his robe (see Revelation 19:13).

Jesus loves intimacy, but he’s not our equal. He’s God. You can’t take what boils down to a parental relationship and make it quasi-romantic. It didn’t work in The Killing Joke, it won’t work in church.

5. Think Outside the Guitar

For centuries, the piano was the weapon of choice for musicians. Around the 50s and 60s, that changed to the guitar. Nowadays, the church has followed suit with more worship pastors strumming strings rather than tickling ivories.

I have no problem with the acoustic guitar or those who play it, but there’s one fundamental difference: pianos play notes, guitars play chords.

 

For a guitar to play every note, you have to pick the strings, which is complicated and requires skill. Chords are “general” sounds and require a more static hand position on the frets while you strum the strings, not pick them. Chords are easier, but they only produce a vague sound.

Do you know why the piano was such a masterful instrument? Because it could play the foreground and the background at once (right and left hands). This allowed the musician to think about their song on a bigger scale than one instrument because the notes translate easily to other instruments, partially because of sheet music.

But when you play a guitar, everything you do only really works for guitars. Unfortunately, the guitar is not the only instrument on the stage.

The result? Melodically-limited songs because the writer only thought of chords and slapped other instruments in there (usually just more guitars and a drum set which does not use notes). Oh, and a keyboard which is really just a synthesizer, which also makes sounds instead of music.

Writers of music must know music. Playing just one instrument worked for pianists, but not so much for the guitar. If you play guitar, fine, but you have to get out of your six strings and understand music itself. Notes, dynamics, progressions, tempos, rests, time signatures, note relationships, articulations.

Those used to be called “fundamentals.” Today’s fundamentals? Strum, strum, strum, repeat.

Any hipster can play some chords. But you take whatever instrument you love go beyond the twenty-something in her dorm room. Don’t just play songs; play music.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “5 Admonitions for Modern Christian Music Writers

  1. All 5. Right on. And I will add another $20 to the person who comes up with a non repeating chorus… or $10 to the person who writes a repetitive chorus deep enough to warrant repeating.

    Like

  2. Interesting. “Sloppy wet kiss” was a lyric? Wut.

    Have you taken music theory? You have a great analysis right there.

    I was thinking the same about instruments–more variety perhaps? I think mainstream secular music could do with that too, for that matter. Like, what about the flute, oboe, bassoon or even harp?

    Here’s a good guide on how to select worship songs: http://singwise.com/cgi-bin/main.pl?section=articles&doc=SelectingSongsForContemporaryWorship

    Ahh, piano. I’m trying to get back into it.

    Do you know Michael Card? I really like his style.

    Like

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