The 10 Things Wrong With Contemporary Worship Music
You’ve probably been to church in the past 10 years and not liked some of the music but not exactly sure why. In this video we are going to look at the 10 problems with contemporary worship music.
Too Complex and Too Simple
In a strange way, contemporary worship music is both too complex and too simple. And these are our first two reasons. First, tempo and rhythm and second harmonic complexity.
#1 - Tempo too Slow
Contemporary worship music is slow. You’ll notice this in both new songs that are written and when old hymns that are sung. Everything has slowed down. Now of course the tempo of liturgical music should vary, some slow songs, some fast, and that should be determined by the content of the music. But the pendulum has swung in one direction, the slow direction. For instance, A Mighty Fortress is often slowed down both in tempo and by lengthening notes like the final note at the end of the first phrase, changing it from a quarter note, one beat, to a whole note four beats. So what was once, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God, a bulwark never failing.”
And I think this has happened, that is, the slowing of music, for two reasons.
First, there has been a loss of musical skill. Nicholas Temperley in The Journal of the American Musicological Society says that
In places where congregations are left to hymns without musical direction for long periods, a characteristic style of singing tends to develop. The tempo becomes extremely slow; the sense of rhythm is weakened; extraneous pitches appear, something coinciding with those of the hymn tune, sometimes inserted between them; the totall effect may be dissonant.
That is, when liturgical music is seen as of secondary importance, when skillfulness in music is not cultivated, the music slows down.
Bob Whitesel noticed that after
“Having evaluated hundreds of churches, I find that in many plateaued or declining churches their worship leaders are choosing songs in the Lento/Largo tempo (40-60 beat per minute)”
Second, modern worship music has slowed down because of a loss of scriptural hymns. If the tempo of a song should be dictated by its content, then we are slowing songs down because we are losing the language and themes of the songs in the Bible. Many of the Biblical songs are military in nature and military action needs vigor and energy. James B. Jordan has speculated that perhaps part of modern doubts of faith lies in the loss of the vigor of worship. It becomes harder to hold on to thin things.
Third, there has arisen an association of interiority with spirituality or seriousness. Because of our modern individualism and subjectivism we have come to believe that the more we focus inside, the more quiet we are, the more spiritual we are. This has become a staple in modern spiritual disciplines discourse: silence. And while I would by no means say that there’s nothing helpful about silence, the Bible has very little to say about silence, it is fairly silent about silence.
Biblical spirituality can be quiet but it is also vigorous, singing about God’s concrete acts of salvation and judgment.
And people don’t just want to sing in a hushed tone. They want to sing songs with substance. Marching songs, sea shanties, using the belly and not just top of the mouth. Songs with precision and power.
#2 - Rhythm
Second, rhythm. Much of the problems of contemporary worship music can be traced back to one fact: songs are neither written nor arranged for congregational singing. Often a song is heard on Christian radio and that becomes a sufficient reason to play it for gathered worship. But there is a vast difference between songs that are designed for performance and songs that are designed for congregational singing. One of those differences is how rhythm is composed.
Rhythms that are composed for congregational singing must be simpler so that most of the church can sing it easily. And when a song that was heard on the radio and thus designed for performance is used in corporate worship, the rhythms will be too difficult for many to sing. And this problem is compounded when the music is slowed down. For example, “The Banner” by Kari Jobe and others begins like this: [video].
Now you might be thinking what’s wrong with that, it’s beautiful. Yes, I agree. It is a beautiful performance. But it is not good for a congregation to sing.
Look at this first measure. You have to count a dotted 16th rest to begin singing and then the measure ends in a 16th and dotted 8th note. And when this is slowed down and the worship leader is singing behind the beat which is common, the congregation is waiting in suspense to hear when those last two notes are going to drop.
Then we get into this mess: (next few measures). Phew/whistle.
If we were to rewrite this for congregational singing we would dump that dotted 16th and just call it a 16th rest. And turned the last dotted eighth into a 16th so it would sound like this.
Now you might say, “Well, that’s not as interesting.” And you may be right, but interestingness is not the most important value for songs designed to be sung by a congregation. And the genius of the great hymns is the writers’ ability to write songs that are both wildly interesting and singable, but that takes great musical skill.
#3 - Simplifying of Melodies and Harmonies
While rhythms have become more complex, melodies and harmonies have become more simple. Oscar Osicki from the YouTube channel Inside the Score made a video about how melody has died.
He notes how songs like Poker Face by Lady Gaga, What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction, Look What You Made Me Do by Taylor Swift, and Bad Guy by Billie Eilish all lack a melody and repeat one or a few notes over and over again. And this has made its way into Christian music.
Lauren Daigle’s most popular song “You Say” begins with 7 of the same notes. In the first two phrases of the chorus, 7 out of the 11 notes are the same. I also went to ccli.com, the main worship music licensing company, and looked at the top worship songs from 2020 to today. The second most popular song is called Way Maker. And in the first phrase of the chorus half of the notes are identical.
Similarly, the harmonic content, the chords, used in worship music has also been vastly simplified. The number of chords used have dwindled down to four and all harmonic color, chord extensions, and passing chords have all but vanished. Also, minor keys are almost completely absent as well.
So here’s a tip for writing melodies. If you can sing a melody by itself, that is, unaccompanied, and it is still good, you’ve got a good melody. If you can’t, it’s probably not complex enough and thus it’s not very good. This is because if you can’t sing it by itself that means that you need something else, another instrument, another musical part to supplement what is lacking.
Now you might be thinking, “wait, why are you arguing against complexity for some things and against simplicity for others? Are you just being arbitrary or selecting whatever you want?
Well, no. And that’s because the main point is that church music is congregational music so all the musical decisions should be made with that goal in mind. And for some things like rhythm, having simpler rhythms helps the congregation learn, sing, and thus engage in worship.
Other things, like more complex harmony, does not add to the difficulty of learning a song but can add great beauty, color, and expression to a song.
#4 - Harmonic Simplicity
The harmonic structure of worship music is too simple. By harmonic structure I mean the chords that accompany the melody. Now you may say, “what’s wrong with that? I mean shouldn’t music be simple and accessible to the whole congregation?”
To answer that question we have to understand what the purpose of harmony is. And the purpose of harmony is to provide the emotional structure or narrative architecture to a song. In its simplest form, harmony provides the tools or palette for tension and resolution, the sense of being at home, away from home, and back home. It gives the character of the music. And the smaller the harmonic palette, the fewer the colors, the less profound the picture, the story, the journey can be. And as we already said, the wonderful thing about harmony is that complexifying harmony (to a certain degree, of course) does not increase its difficulty to sing. The melody needs to be more simple because that’s what the congregation sings, but they don’t sing the harmony so that can be more complex.
It has become a trope that all you need to know to be a contemporary worship leader are four chords. And by that they mean the 1, 4, 5, and 6. But it’s worse because not only are these the dominant harmony choices but often these chords that they do use are emptied of their harmonic content by removing the third from the chord.
For a harmonic refresher, a chord is made up of the root, the third and the fifth of the scale tones. And it is especially the third that gives the chord its most distinctive character because it is the third that determines whether the chord is major or minor.
When you remove the third it creates an open or floating feeling, less distinct and determinate. Often this is accompanied by the addition of the second or fourth that is called a suspended or sus2 or sus4 chord. The addition of the two or the four reintroduces tension. But often the two and four are simply left out. So the only main harmonic decisions are removing chords and notes.
The point of all this theory is that harmonic content is lost. Of course there’s nothing wrong with leaving out a third, or having an open and floating feeling, the problem is one of proportion, there’s too much of this. We need to use a larger palette of harmonic information to communicate both God and man.
#5 - Complex Introductions
Traditionally the introduction of a hymn, typically 2 or 4 bars, will give a preview of the melody by helping people learn or remind themselves of the song. Today, intros will be melodically completely unrelated to the melody and thus it is either jarring or confusing when the song actually begins because, in a sense, you have been prepared for a different song.
Take the song King of Kings by Hillsong. The opening 8 note phrase that’s repeated twice never occurs in the song. Not in the verse, chorus or bridge. And no variation of this occurs. No seven consecutive eighth notes, no consecutive doubling of notes, no time intervals occur but transposed to another place in the scale. This phrase has nothing to do with the song, the only reason it fits at all is because it is in the same key. But that would be like saying you could open a novel with any sentence as long as it’s in the same language the book is written in.
Imagine going to a new doctor and you get to the location but it looks like a circus tent. When you go in the receptionist is dressed like a clown. You finally get led into the exam room and your doctor shows up. You have a regular appointment and you go home. The introduction had no relation to the actual substance of the appointment and was off putting and confusing.
It may be a wonderful musical phrase or melody, but I want to see clowns at the circus, not my doctor’s office.
#6 - Vocal range
The lowest common denominator for selecting a song is people have to be able to sing it. And one's ability to sing a song is in large part due to the song's dynamic range and the high and low pitches in the song.
The dynamic range of a song's melody is the range of notes that you sing from the lowest to the highest. Most people have a comfortable range of an octave and traditional hymns were written with this in mind.
David Wesley, a worship leader who runs a youtube channel, has created a range finder software that shows a bunch of data about the dynamics and ranges of songs. He uses the example of Crown Him with Many Crowns to demonstrate how contemporary worship music has expanded the range.
The original hymn had a range of 1 octave, perfect. It also shows the rating for vocal strain in different keys. That is, how difficult a song will be to sing not only has to do with the range but also the key because that will affect the range. Crown Him with Many Crowns can comfortably be sung in C.
But when you look at Chris Tomlin’s reworking of the hymn, the range jumps from one octave to 1.4 octaves and there is no great key that will avoid vocal strain.
When we look at the original Amazing Grace and Chris Tomlin’s Amazing Grace, the same thing happens. The vocal range of 1 octave increases to 1.4 and the vocal strain increases.
#7 - Simplification in Content
It’s no news to anyone that the content of contemporary worship music is thin. But I wanted some data so I did a back of the napkin calculation. I took a random selection of the 10 most popular hymns (https://www.challies.com/articles/the-10-greatest-hymns-of-all-time), the first 10 Psalms, and the 10 most popular worship songs from 2020 to today (https://songselect.ccli.com/search/results?SongContent=&PrimaryLanguage=&Keys=&Themes=&List=topdecade_2020&Sort=Popularity&SEO=&SearchText=) and looked at the unique words:
Traditional hymns had 583 unique words, the Psalms had 613, and contemporary worship songs 428.
Now of course this is a flawed metric and no I didn’t look at the Hebrew words, didn’t have time, and of course unique words are hardly the most important feature of church music, but it is part of a cumulative case. If God wrote his songs with a certain level of complexity, then perhaps there’s a reason. Perhaps he is engaging both the head and heart, perhaps God’s music should raise us in all sorts of ways, and perhaps God would like to increase our expressiveness about him and what he’s doing.
But not only has the vocabulary thinned so has the content.
The general orientation of modern worship music is the subjective experience of the worshiper and particularly in very general categories.
For instance, the song Way Maker repeats the following 6 lines:
You are here, moving in our midst
I worship You
I worship You
You are here, working in this place
I worship You
I worship You
By contrast traditional hymnody as well as the Psalms focus on God’s particular acts in history. Many of the Psalms include headings that locate the songs at a particular time in Israel’s history. For instance Psalm 104 is a meditation on creation or Psalm 77 that reflects on God’s redemption at the Red Sea. That Psalm will say:
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Similarly, both lament and judgment of enemies is almost entirely missing from contemporary worship. Scholars have identified different types or genres of Psalms and the most common type is lament. A lament Psalm is where the singer is frustrated, complaining to God about his situation, perhaps because his enemies are having victory over him or he doesn’t see God doing what he thinks he should. In the end most of the time the Psalmist confesses that even though there are these frustrations he trusts that God is good.
And if we take the 150 Psalms as an architecture of the Christian life, then the voicing, nay, singing of our frustrations to God should be a central feature of our worship.
For instance, Psalm 2 says
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath
Can you imagine a contemporary worship song talking about the current political rulers and how God will laugh at them and then speak wrath to them? No we can’t. Our internal feeling that that’s somehow improprietous is evidence of our problem. Our souls should be oriented the way of the Psalm.
#8 - Lack of Unity
Contemporary worship songs often lack unity of content. There is little if any thematic development or progression. It will be a collection of statements about God or the worshippers' feelings and often lacks unifying themes or narrative progression.
Notice, just as the intro melodies were unconnected to the song proper so the content has little internal coherence.
God's lyrics used both progression and unity. The singer is taken on a journey. For instance in Psalm one we begin with an explanation of the blessed man and end with a description of the wicked man. The psalm is divided into three paragraphs, the middle one being images of these two characters and it is in this metaphorical section that the transition happens between the blessed man and the wicked man.
We are brought through the fundamental lives of these two characters, their behaviors, their nature‘s, and their ends. And the writer of this song holds back God's action until the last verse, the only thing God does in this song, that is, he knows the blessed man. In contrast, the end of the wicked man is ironic, God takes no action toward him, unlike the righteous man whom God has knowledge of, there is no knowledge of the wicked man. He simply perishes.
Or take the alphabetic acrostics like Psalm 119 that works through the Hebrew alphabet, giving full linguistic expression to the theme of God's word.
The result of a lack of unity and progression is that singers will not remember it as easily and they will not be as transformed by it.
The reason why there is less transformation is because one of the main ways God transforms us is through stories. The majority of the Bible is a story, our lives are stories, both in large and small ways. Every day is a story with a beginning, morning, middle, the day time, and end, the night. And each day has conflicts and transformations.
And this is what worship music should do.
#9 - Too many new songs
Many churches introduce too many new songs. Introducing too many songs has two problems: first people don’t know the song so it takes them longer to engage God with it and two, each new song will displace an old song and old songs have had time in the church to be tested.
I understand why this happens. Worship leaders love music and when they hear a song they love they want to share that with the church. But we shouldn’t confuse our taste with good congregational musical selections.
#10 - No Psalms
This is one of the stranger features of Contemporary worship music. God literally wrote a hymn book and we sing almost none of it. Now, this was complicated by the fact that some denominations believe that you should only sing the songs. And certainly that is not true because we see a pattern in scripture when God works a great redemption, new songs are written and the writing of new songs is commended in Scripture. But just because we can sing other songs in the Psalms doesn’t mean we should only sing other songs than the psalms.
God wants our worship but he wants our worship in a certain way with certain words.