New Song Friday and A Call for Rhythmic Variety.

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!


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7 Responses to New Song Friday and A Call for Rhythmic Variety.

  1. philwbass says:

    Sounds like I missed some fun. As you know, my musical background is mostly in black music (for want of a better word: soul, jazz, funk, reggae, gospel…) and I can’t help but try to funk the music up a little when we’re playing on church. All Souls is blessed with people from so many backgrounds and experiences it’s good to have variety of musical style. I agree about choosind singable songs but that’s not always incompatible with funkiness…the old spirituals can be a fertle field for a start. And simgs like ‘When I was lost’ with that swung 16th feel and much Israel’s New Breed I would guess is quite singable.

    • drivingwheel says:

      Hey Phil. I agree. I certainly wasn’t trying to say that we shouldn’t push folks a little but that we need to do it sensitively. And I’m a big fan of spirituals – the older the better.

  2. Interesting stuff dawg. I share your opinion on the pushing the genre into new forms (sing a new song et al) and that’s the approach I took with the Souled Out albums we produced years ago. The interesting thing is that because these songs and style were unfamiliar and outside the popular genre, they didn’t connect strongly with audiences in a corporate setting. It will be a challenge, and perhaps a special kind of leader/gift to be able to introduce new styles/songs to a corporate setting with enough sensitivity and and authority to draw everyone in. A for me and my house, we follow the funk. Rock on dude.

  3. jmichaelrios says:

    I think I remember reading in Augustine about how Bishop Ambrose was revolutionary because he combined song with the scripture readings–the rhythm helped people remember the words. And, from what we (in a super limited way) know of ancient music, those rhythms weren’t all that intuitive to us. Some of them are downright awkward.

    Still, it seems interesting that rhythm served meaning. I’ve listened to a fair amount of prog rock, which as a genre seems to demand the employ of odd time signatures. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I expect that artificial changes will feel, well, artificial.

    This is me punting right now, but we like or dislike a movie based on its story, and we like and dislike a song based on its melody. (After all, people repeat the story of the movie, they don’t describe the individual shots, and they hum the melody of the song, not hammer out the rhythm.) I wonder, given that assumption, how that would inform songwriting in the church today. What would it look like for people to hum scripture in their daily lives, because the Sunday melodies were so compelling?

  4. philwbass says:

    You mean it’s just me that sings those songs in my head all day? : )
    Yes, the rhythm can help people remember the words – but also can uplift the congregation to create joyous worship in itself.

  5. drivingwheel says:

    Hey guys, thanks for the comments – very much appreciated.
    I’m certainly not pushing for really difficult rhythmic structures, necessarily. I’m just feeling the need for a little variety – even in 4/4. Whatever happened to a backbeat?
    I was recently talking to a couple of friends from a church close to mine that is more on the contemporary charismatic end of the spectrum. They, without any prompting from me, were saying that all the songs in their church sounded like Snowpatrol and, while they liked them to a degree, they and their friends were getting a little bored. At All Souls, we don’t do a lot of these type of songs so people find them refreshing as I introduce them but I don’t want to be restricted to only these.

  6. When Jon & I play we always try to fit in a groove from one of ‘Totos’ songs. One of us will call over the title and we lock in. ‘The Other Side’ worked quite well last week with the new one you led : )

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