Popular music changed a lot of things about music; it revolutionized how people consumed it, it changed popular culture forever, and it created an unfortunate environment in which Justin Bieber could become a famous musician. However, another thing that popular music did was to modify and segment one of the basic sources of musical inspiration: religion. In today’s popular music climate, religious music is its own genre. It is set away, compartmentalized, where it operates under a different set of rules than ‘secular’ music.
It didn’t used to be this way. In years past, there was indeed a dividing line between sacred and secular music, but the music itself was classified first based on what kind of music it was–choral, orchestral, song, what have you. A piece was first a choral piece, and then it was a secular piece, or it was a sacred work based off of a Psalm; you can still see this in ensemble work today, as its content merely further defines it within its own genre.
Charles Stanford was an Irish composer who lived and composed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Stanford composed all manner of things, including symphonies, requiems, art songs, concertos, and operas. Arguably, he is most known for his choral works, in particular his services, English settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitis. Clearly sacred works, intended to be used in a church service, they are nonetheless performed as is in a concert setting as well. Have a listen to this one:
It’s a beautiful piece, and I can say from experience that its musical worth does not change regardless whether it is performed in church or in a concert. Notice how Stanford masterfully uses the music to reinforce the text: for instance, he brings the dynamics, tempo, and melodies down for “the lowliness of his handmaiden”, and then ratchets up the volume and intensity on the very next segment on the words “For behold.”
Stanford’s Magnificats are not terribly complicated, but are difficult in their own way and not really intended for communal worship. However, even if one brings down the complexity, one can still have a beautiful piece. Consider this 1912 work by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov. Its text, translated from Russian, is merely, “Salvation is created, in midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia.”
Notice here that these composers are writing music with deep messages under intensely religious convictions. And, yet, they are not secluded, counted as something else. They are works of art first and foremost. That’s what makes them beautiful.
Worship music today is both extremely complicated and unbearably simple. In the modern music industry, worship music has become a huge payday for many artists. Stations such as K-Love play nice, friendly pop-rock worship-y songs constantly, and churches pay money to use a song database called CCLI that allows them to use these songs as a congregation. Money has always been a part of music, but these days it’s different. The system has evolved to the point where true artistry is pushed to the side. Consider these statements from the most prominent worship artist in the world, Chris Tomlin:
I strive for trying to write something that people can sing, that people want to sing, and that people need to sing…I’m thinking as that comes out of my heart as a song of response, I’m trying to think, how can I form this so that everybody, people who are tone deaf, who can’t clap on two and four, how can I form this song so they can sing it, so that it is singable?
This should be a bit of a red flag, shouldn’t it? There are all sorts of problems with this statement. We should be worried about what this means for our general music education and knowledge. Realistically, the ability to clap on beat 2 and 4 should be a required skill to be accepted into our society, but whatever. The most worrying thing to me is the shift from artistry to consumption. As a musician, I want to see good music (I mean hear good music, but you know what I mean). As someone whose faith is important to me, I believe that we should represent it the best we can. Otherwise, you get worship music. Like this.
Of course, not all popular music is bad, and not all worship music is awful. But what happens when you ditch the ‘worship music’ or ‘Christian’ label and write a song that, lyrically, would technically be described as ‘worship music?’ Well, good things happen.
Because it’s popular music, it is by definition not very complicated. However, that doesn’t mean it lacks complexity. The song is in 4/4, but it is masked by a tricky guitar rhythm and a syncopated melody. It’s sincere, the vocals are emotional, and it avoids all lyrical worship music tropes. It’s amazing the difference that occurs when the point of view shifts. Hopefully, we can get back to the point where worship music composers are expressly interested in the artistry of their compositions. I, for one, would enjoy that very much.