Last night we had our monthly open rehearsal at All Souls. It was a smaller group than the last time but there were still seven of us making music together. Whereas the previous time was great fun due to the number of people all playing together (5 guitars!), this one was fun due to the space everyone had to explore their ideas. There was even some open-ended jamming! Good times.
At one point, the jam got a little funky and that got me thinking about how many of today’s worship songs are rather limited in terms of rhythm. Everything is played straight, in 4/4, and with no backbeat. Now, that totally works for some songs. Coldplay, Snowpatrol, and others have sold LOTS of records by playing with that feel and doing it well. But perhaps too much modern worship music finds its musical roots in those bands. Much of it is starting to sound the same. Here in Britain, there are a couple of other songwriters (who will remain nameless) whose music could be described as ‘old-sounding hymns with a Celtic feel’. Those songs all start to sound the same too. Please don’t get me wrong, there is a place for these songs and we are (and should be) very thankful for these writers and their music. They are serving us, the Church, and helping us to glorify our God. But I think, in all humility, that it’s time for some new songs with some more variety, particularly when it comes to rhythm.
One of the problems with too much variety, or too adventurous a rhythm, is that the songs can be difficult to sing. We as worship (in song) leaders always need to keep in mind that we are facilitating the singing of a group of people, be it 10 or 100 or 1000. If the congregation can’t sing it, we’re not doing our job. That’s not to say that the congregation has to get it on the first try but one has to gauge whether this particular group will be able to sing a particular song. I once was the ‘director of worship’ at a church in Canada. On one of my first weeks on the job I vetoed a song because no one in the church could sing it. It was one of those hyper-fast Hillsong tunes that makes sense if you listen to lots of modern r&b/gospel music. The leader on the day wanted to teach it to the church. I asked her to picture individual people in the church and imagine them singing this song. For the most part, she couldn’t. “But,” she said, “it’s not that hard.” Unfortunately, “not that hard” for singers who understand a particularly complex style can translate into “impossible” for a large group of non-singers who don’t have an understanding of the form.
At All Souls, we regularly deal with the same issue. We have a great and continuing legacy of hymn-singing and we also incorporate new music. It is, for the most part, working quite well but some of the new songs are taking a while to catch on simply because of the form: they’re pop songs rather than hymns. The structure of the songs is different between the two styles. For those of us who listen to pop music, these songs make sense. We can feel when a song is building into a bridge, which we expect to be different from what we’ve been singing up to that point. We can feel when, after the bridge is done, we’re going back into the pre-chorus which will launch us into the great truth and strong melody of the chorus again. All of this makes sense to us. But not everyone has this same musical background and so as we teach these songs we need to remember that they don’t necessarily make sense to everyone. How we teach and lead the songs should reflect that awareness.
So let us challenge ourselves to use (or write, please!) songs with some variation in rhythm. And as we seek to expand our musical and rhythmic vocabulary, let’s start (or continue) to broaden our listening. To that end, our new song of the week: “Wheels”. This song was written by Gram Parsons so it’s probably about as old as I am but this version was done much more recently by Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller. Most people’s introduction to Emmylou was when she sang with Gram so she’s staying faithful to his legacy as she sings this. If I remember the quote right, Gram called this “a righteous shuffle”. Enjoy!