Defending the Musical Simplicity of Worship Songs

Zac HicksArt and Worship, Songwriting7 Comments

From several directions is sometimes heard the critique that “all modern worship songs sound the same”–the same four chords, the same trite melody, the same form, the same epic rise and fall.  Songwriters like me, when sitting down to put pen to paper on a musical staff, feel these critiques both consciously and subconsciously. We feel pressure to come up with something new, fresh, and different.  So we try to think outside of the conventional box of chords and progressions or come up with surprising melodies or out-of-the-ordinary song-forms.  Honestly, whenever I’ve succumbed to that pressure, I’ve crashed and burned in writing a good worship song.  But there’s a reason why that has happened.

Elements of simplicity should characterize worship songs.  There should be aspects of a worship song that make it sound “the same.”  

In worship songs, the music should always serve the text.

Unlike perhaps all other songwriting ventures, the worship song has a unique job description.  It is not first and foremost to be an art piece, though it could be. It is not first and foremost to be musically received with great reflection to mine the depths of its complexity and uncover new layers of truth and meaning, though it could be. The very genre of “worship song” or “hymn” in the songwriting field demands a pecking order: text above music. Have you ever noticed with certain paintings how a frame that’s too ornate detracts from being able to engage with the piece of art itself?  Of course, there are times when the frame is part of the piece of art, but most times, the goal of a frame is to provide a level of simplicity to effectively surround, enhance, and amplify what is on the canvas.  So it is with the music of a worship song.  The music is to frame the text.  A good rule of thumb, when a worship songwriter is venturing into some uncharted or risky musical territory, is to simply ask the question, “Does this musical moment enhance or take away from the text?”  Worship songs are intended to be sung by masses of people who are attempting to corporately dialogue with God through faithful words. The conversation of worship can get easily interrupted when the music honks louder than the text. It becomes obnoxious, and it derails the train of the purposes of worship.  So, because music serves the text in worship songs, one should expect that such songs are more musically simple, just as one can expect the frames of paintings to be simple more often than not.

Simple is not the same as simplistic.

The frame metaphor is helpful in parsing the difference between simple and simplistic. There is a difference between a frame which is made simple through purpose, intent, wisdom, and a harnessed craftsmanship, and a frame which is cheap.  Sometimes, to the indiscriminate and undisciplined eye, a simple frame and a cheap frame look the same.  Likewise, the charge of a “musically cheap” worship song can be proffered too quickly and too easily. There is a difference between simple clarity and simplistic kitsch, and sometimes a quick, off-the-cuff, far off glance isn’t good enough to determine the difference. (Some of the measures for how to determine the difference are below.)

Simple music serves the musically simple congregant.

Crazy chord progressions might pay hommage to the musical innovation of Beethoven or the Beatles, but they often become a stumbling block to the average congregant who doesn’t have the musical compass to navigate those turbulent sonic waters. A songwriter who seeks to be a servant of their brothers and sisters knows they must err on the side of simplicity so as to not alienate or distract.  There is a measure of relativity to where this boundary between “challenging” and “too far” is. (Some congregations are centered in musically robust cities, where the culture generally “educates” people into greater capacities.) But the general principle still applies, and a songwriter seeking to faithfully love and shepherd God’s flock probably knows when what they’re writing will confuse the musically simple congregant.  And, again, when the congregant has to stumble over the music to get to the text, you’ve lost the battle. In this way, we can see how worship songwriting is a pastoral endeavor.

The genre of rock demands an element of simplicity.

I hear this argument less, but it should be articulated, especially to musicians who are irritated by “the same four chords” and “the same trite melodies.”  Most folks writing worship songs in the West these days are consciously or unconsciously writing in the genre of rock.  Though it’s an ever-evolving art form (and, yes, I believe it to be an art form), its evolution has carried with it certain “constants,” which are precisely those building blocks that make it “rock.”  

When I have conversations with classical music elitists (I used to be one, myself) who view rock as restricted and simple, I am quick to remind them of our beloved sonata form.  No serious classical musician would fault the sonata for having a predictable form–A, B, A, or “exposition,” “development,” “recapitulation.” They wouldn’t say “how trite,” or “how boring,” or “how uninspiring.” They would properly recognize that working within its form is part of the artistic endeavor of that pursuit. They would see the “rules” of that form not as binding to the ability to artistically express.  They wouldn’t say, “Groaner…here’s another trite return to the same thing they started with in the previous A-section.”  No, they’d recognized that the art comes from how the composer expresses from within the rules of the form (and sometimes pushes the boundaries of those rules).

Similarly, rock has rules and a vocabulary that most people are now subconsciously attuned to.  Part of the reason “the same chords” are prevalent in worship songs is because they are the principle chordal building blocks of the rock genre.  The songwriter is not so much being trite as they are being faithful to the form. There is an element of truth to the fact that all rock “sounds the same,” but it is no different than the way a sonata “moves the same.” Suddenly, critics must work a lot harder and be a lot more nuanced in their criticism if they’re going to fault the worship song for its “predictability.”  (This, by the way, is some of the nuancing I see thinkers like T. David Gordon not doing.)

Much of rock is built on:

  • strong attention to rhythm
  • primary chords: I, IV, V, and vi
  • secondary chords: ii, iii
  • verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form
  • a folk-style aesthetic of less chords over longer melodic lines as opposed to a traditional/classical aesthetic of chord changes on nearly every move of the melody (i.e. “block-chord” formation, which most old hymns employ)
  • short instrumental melodic motifs, often called “hooks” or “riffs”
  • simple, repetitive vocal melodies which vacillate between being melismatic and “leapy”

These are arguably the general boundaries within which most modern worship songwriters engage their craft. Any honest musician would not think of these as “limitations” as much as the components of the genre, and their exploration of these components is not necessarily evidence of lack of musical prowess.  Just as the sonata structure is “simple,” so the components of rock are “simple.” Critics are making category-mistakes when they indiscriminately throw the “trite” and “kitschy” labels out there.  Just as the sonata is “predictable,” so in many ways rock is “predictable,” and one shouldn’t necessarily fault them for being so.  My friend Jered McKenna made this same point well in a post a few weeks back.

The Heart of the Matter

The truth is, for worship songwriters who know what they’re doing, it takes more discipline and humility to write simply and avoid the temptation to more overtly display one’s artistic prowess.  At least for me, the times when I’ve crossed the boundary into being too complex and too ornate are the times where I can admit that my sinful heart was engaging in a self-salvation project, desperately trying to prove to other songwriters and art buffs that I was worthy.  In a great post on this very subject, Bobby Gilles outlines how the greatest hymn writers (e.g. Watts, Wesley, Cowper) understood and cherished the dynamic of harnessed simplicity.  No one would accuse that crowd of being trite, surface-level, fluffy theologians and songwriters. So in the end, my encouragement to critics is not to cease criticism but to go about their criticism from a more informed, generous, and nuanced approach. 

7 Comments on “Defending the Musical Simplicity of Worship Songs”

  1. I appreciate your thoughts on simplicity in music used during worship. It is very important that the music be able to be sung by the congregation. But, that doesn't mean it has to be so simplistic that one can predict where the chord is going next, without ever having heard the song before. Then it becomes banal and boredom-inducing, not helpful for worship. Being simple enough in form for the congregation to sing, does not mean that it should be able to be sung by everyone with no practice. And I think, that is the distinction.

    Part of the problem is confining church music to that which can be played in guitar chords. There is a whole genre of music produced by the church in history, known as sacred music. And most of it cannot be accompanied very well by guitar because it doesn't fit the "chord mould." It's made for voices.

  2. hey Zac, thanks for writing this. Speaking of serving, you've got a lot of big words in your posts…it's probably just your style, but I had to go to google about 4 times in order to make it through this post. You may consider "dumbing down" your vocabulary for those of us that are less sophisticated 🙂 all the same, this is great insight and thanks a bunch for writing the stuff you do.

  3. Great post, Zac. One of my professors and readers for my doctoral dissertation in liturgical studies at Saint Louis University was the liturgical theologian and composer John Foley, S. J., one of the famous St. Louis Jesuits who wrote folk liturgical music for the Catholic mass during the 1970s. He has written some very high art music (sonatas, concertos, etc.), but he has spent most of his career writing for liturgical settings. He once told me that he felt like he had 100 tools to use to composer music but writing music for congregational singing in corporate worship required him to set aside 95 of those tools and make the most of the 5 remaining ones. Writing good music for congregational singing is indeed an art form of its own that requires a lot of discipline to work within a lot of constraints. Thanks for summarizing some key ideas in defense of simplicity.

  4. Although you make the valid point that "simple" is different from "simplistic," some of your other statements make me wonder if you truly understand the difference between the two.

    A Beethoven sonata is neither simple nor simplistic despite the basic ABA form it is built on. Pounding on a G chord for 30 seconds singing the same phrase over and over is both simple and simplistic.

    Displaying one's "artistic prowess" doesn't have to be a matter of pride. If it were a sin to play skillfully, the bible would not explicitly encourage that very thing.

    Like the parable of the talents, we are expected to take what we are given and make the most of it for the glory of God. When I witness an amazing display of sheer artistic virtuosity, I'm awed by the fact that God entrusted that person with so much talent in the first place, but also by the fact that they followed His command to develop, multiply and share it.

    Does this mean I'd expect a congregation of untrained singers to be able to sing Handel's _Messiah_? Of course not.

    I just think much of today's modern worship music has been over simplified to the point that it's insulting even to people who only have marginal singing talent.

    The music SHOULD enhance the text. I'm with you on that point, but the text these days is generally aimed at people who have a second grade reading level. Most of the song texts commonly sung by adults in congregational worship settings comes nowhere close to addressing the sort of topics time-proven hymn writers you mentioned commonly covered. There's more depth in a William Cowper song title than the entire text of some modern worship songs.

  5. I have to agree with DBM. I also must take issue with the baffling way you've reduced rock music to the level of unimaginative worship music. I quite agree that rock music is an art form. Indeed, it is a far more interesting and creative art form than you give it credit for here, and always has been.

  6. Rock music is an art form. It's one which I have enjoyed my entire life, and still do, usually when driving on the highway. But, it is a performance art, not a participatory art, and one with associations primarily other than the reverence which is required in public worship. I find that rock music has little or no place in the worship of the Church.

    And if it is simple enough to be sung along to, it is usually simplistic.

    A number of other things could be said about it, like, for instance, it's being rooted in a particular culture that not everyone shares. So it will seem inviting to some, and off-putting to others. Sacred music avoids this idiosyncrosity by using music that is universally understood by all as being ecclesial, worshipful, and reverent. It sounds like "church music."

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