I recently read an interview with N.T. Wright, who is known in some circles as “the world’s most foremost New Testament theologian.” In this interview he stated his concern about music used in contemporary worship today. He notes that many of the songs written today for worship do not have melodies in a traditional sense; and we went on about how he feels these songs are lacking something because of this loss.
Now I completely understand where N.T. Wright is coming from – many of the songs today do lack a melody like the great hymns – but they were composed for a completely different medium. A composer of music for the church 100 years ago was writing music to be lead with an organ and choir; the composer today is writing for the basic rock band format with several lead singers.
This is a key difference.
When writing a song to be led with organ and choir the melody must be a key part of propelling the song forward. And this is done with leaning tones/dissonance/resolutions – as well as meter. Check out our hymnals: Many of the songs written more than 75 years ago have a triple meter, which also helps move the song forward with a natural lilt. Also take a listen to popular music, triplet based meters of the 50’s gave away to the back beat of the 60s.
Today we are more of a four on the floor world.
Turn on the radio and you will hear that bass drum thumping. Rock, country, R&B, Christian, pop, Top 40 – you will hear (nearly exclusively) meters in four. Of course there are exceptions, but overall much of our music has been written over a meter that does not lend itself to that natural lilt of melody.
For me this always leads to the discussion of how much of the music written for worship today is inferior to the hymns of old.
And this is a discussion I have grown weary of…
Yes – many of the songs we hear today are inferior to our collection of songs written long ago. Because we are listening to everything that has been composed today, a catalog of music which has not been be subjugated to the filter of time. Whereas our hymns are songs that have stood the test of hundreds of years (in some cases). There were many more songs written than just those bound in our hymnals – and why weren’t they included? Because they were not as good! If you listen to classic rock radio station how many songs are you really listening to? Or perhaps a music of the 50s station? Are you listening to everything that was coming out during those periods, or just the best? How many lesser songs from those recent times have already been dropped from our musical conscience because they have not stood the test of time?
With that said, it is hard to judge what songs will stand the great test of time. Do we dig this song or that song because it is tapping into the trends of today – or because it is tapping into trends which last? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care.
As a musician my job is to just try to write and find songs I feel will enhance worship.
All that other stuff will get sorted out in time.