Circulating through many of my favorite worship blogs is the distillation of Keith Getty’s presentation on songwriting at the National Worship Leaders Conference. It is getting widespread press for good reason—Getty’s insights are golden. With particular regards to melody-writing, Getty had to say:
“To write strong melodies remember that folk melody has to be passed on orally (aurally). I try to write songs that can be sung with no written music. I imitate Irish folk melody, with a great deal of contour, of rise and fall.”
When I first heard Getty talk about this in January at the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship, my mind was immediately flooded with the modern worship songs which don’t live up to this criterion and yet seem to still gain momentum in churches. Of particular prominence in my mind was the material of Hillsong and Hillsong United. Many of their songs’ melodies would fall flat without their music. And, though filled with melodic leaps, I would not characterize their vocal lines as having “a great deal of contour, of rise and fall”…at least in the way that I understand Getty to mean it.
When I hear the melodies of Getty, I am always struck by their melismatic richness and flowing elegance. They are “easy on the voice.” They rise and fall step-wise with minimal intervallic gaps. Leaps, when they happen, are intentional and cautiously used (“In Christ Alone” would be a perfect example of this). Such melodies certainly stir the senses and move the heart. They arouse the more elegant folk sensibilities in me. To describe them in a nutshell: Getty’s melodies express through refined artistic beauty.
When I hear the melodies of Hillsong, I am always struck by their emotional immediacy and speech-like, colloquial accessibility. There is something more basic and instinctual in me that resonates with the stuttering rhythms and jolting intervals that characterize the melodies of Hillsong (for an example of this, listen to “Freedom is Here”). Their melodies arouse the more earthy, “tribal” sensibilities in me. To describe them in a nutshell: Hillsong’s melodies express through raw human emotion.
Must these worlds be at odds? Some say yes. My more intelligent and analytical friends would be quick to (correctly) point out that the melodies of Getty will stand the test of time while those of Hillsong won’t. In their minds, it would logically follow that, for that reason, one should favor Getty. But, while my classical training and artistic sensibilities agree with this, on an existential level I can honestly say that something basic to my humanness would go unexpressed if all I sang were the refined, lyrical melodies of Getty. Folk-influenced melodies pull back some of the emotive punch I would want to express in my musical worship unto God. Sometimes, with Hillsong melodies, they come close to being shouts barely bound by pitch and key…and any honest reading of the Psalms shows that Scripture affirms this type of raw emotion.
I’ve noted that my more artsy friends have been quick to dismiss much of the Hillsong repertoire because it lacks melodic and musical sophistication, so they say. They consider it poor songwriting. But I wonder whether their criteria are formed in an artistic bubble such that they can’t see the obvious evidence: Hillsong’s music is sought after and passionately sung by (I would speculate) millions of people globally (yes, even in non-Western countries…check out their “I Heart Revolution” DVD). Hear me out. This is not as simple as an it’s-popular-so-we-should-do-it argument. It has more to do with how the rhythms and contours of the melodies (wedded, of course, with the texts) tap into something deep in the human spirit (check out Sarah Mac’s post saying this very thing).
Let me put it another way. As I think about the complex faculties that make up my humanness, I can make this observation: With Getty’s music, my brain sings; with Hillsong’s music, my gut sings. Again, I am talking about melody, not text. When I hear/sing these melodies, different faculties in me are stirred emotionally. With Getty, my refined, cerebral emotion is stimulated. With Hillsong, my basic, instinctual emotion is stimulated.
Here’s where this all gets intensely personal for me. I’ve been planning and visioneering our second hymns album (which we’ll begin production on in January 2011, Lord-willing), and I’m settling on a songwriting and production approach which mirrors much more what Hillsong is doing from a musical standpoint. My hope is to make hymns palatable to Hillsong junkies and modern worship exclusivists. More than that, I’m excited to move into uncharted waters in the convergence of old hymns to modern music—not only am I writing hymn-tunes which are “contemporary” and accompanied by rock band instrumentation, I am writing them in a contemporary style that many think is impossible (or foolish) to wed with such texts. The people-pleasing side of me (which I need to repent of) knows that I will not be looked upon favorably by the hymns movement guys and gals I so respect and admire, because they tend to fall in line with Getty’s melody-writing philosophies (not to say that their albums and production all sound the same, because they don’t). So perhaps my above reflections are an attempt to justify the musical validity not just of Hillsong but of my own new risky endeavor.
What’s frustrating to me is that I don’t hear anyone talking about this kind of thing. Just as there have been worship wars between traditional and modern music sentimentalities, so I’m witnessing mounting polarities between mainstream modern worship and the modern hymns movement types. I desperately want the camps to come together, mainly so that the latter can speak into the former. But right now, there’s a lot of critical rhetoric out there from the hymns movement folks without any counterbalancing of encouragement and appreciation. The hymns movement is reacting to mainstream modern worship prophetically (which is not without merit), but they need to couple that with a pastoral approach, as well.
I’ll conclude with a fictional encounter that illustrates my fear: While having coffee with some leading figure in the hymns movement, I ask them “So what do you think of Hillsong?” They either respond with, “Hill-Who?” or “I don’t listen to that trash.”