Objective Standards – Musical development

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In the last post I wrote on this topic, I stated that there is no objective standard that music must be measured by.  There have been great composers and great periods of musical development.  Over the years, best practices for composition have developed.  But there is absolutely no reason why all music has to follow those best practices. 

In fact, creating an atmosphere where it is considered wrong to break the rules of the past is a sure way to stifle innovation.  And we would be arrogant indeed to think that we know everything we need to know about music and no longer need innovation.

Here is an example of what I am saying.  For close to 1500 years, music in the Western world was tightly controlled by the Roman Catholic church which imposed all kinds of ridiculous rules on musical composition and performance.  While development happened during that time, it was very slow.  Only when the church lost control of music did rapid development occur (practically the entire Common Practice Period).

While what I am about to say is controversial, I firmly believe it to be true.  Within conservative circles of the church, the same phenomenon has occurred over the past century.

Want proof?  Study the church music that was composed and performed during the first 70 years of the Twentieth Century  and compare it to Broadway show tunes.  There is no comparison in terms of musical quality.  Compare “A Shelter in the Time of Storm” to the hit “But Beautiful.”  These songs were both written in the 1940′s and I like both of them.  But one of those songs is brilliantly written and the other one is musically bland.  You know which one is which.  And you could make those kind of comparisons all day.

What is the difference? The secular world was still breaking the rules and improving music, especially in the area of harmony.  But the church decided not to go along with that development.

Pick up a Christian piano arrangement book from the 1950′s and compare it to what the great jazz pianists were playing at the same time.  If you didn’t know better, you would never guess that there could be that much difference in the quality within the same period.  After all, both were playing popular (or folk) music.  The jazz pianists were playing Broadway tunes while the church pianists were playing gospel songs written at the same time.

I studied for a few years with John Innes, Billy Graham Crusades pianist for
decades and one of those arrangers who was publishing music that long
ago.  I remember asking him about his music from that period and he told me he was embarrassed by it.  By the way, his music today is extremely good–in fact, I think he is one of the best pianists in Christian music.  And the reason why is because he learned to embrace Twentieth Century musical development in harmony.

Now how this phenomenon happened is complicated and I am not sure I really understand it.  I would guess that the church decided that the new harmony was worldly.  They may have rejected jazz development because of association.  And they very well may have rejected some music because of racial issues.

But reject it they did.  And the results have been devastating.  Today, our music is still way behind in areas where there has been good, healthy development within the rest of the musical world.

Is there a problem with the church rejecting music because of worldliness?  Absolutely not, but adopting a position that stifles honest development is something that cannot be taken lightly.

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Latest Comments

  • Paul Johnson

    You have got to be kidding. Are you really trying to tell us that Broadway tunes are superior to hymns in the music itself?

  • Greg

    Paul, yes, that is what I am saying.

  • Jason

    I do understand your point. In leading congragational singing, I can see some people, get bored with the choppiness of many of the hymn we sing. The way hymnals are written don’t help either.

  • Peter

    I have to say that this is a perspective I have never heard. I have always just bought into the idea that all music in the 20th century is garbage without thinking that development was still occurring.

    Can you talk about the differences between the two songs you mentioned? I listened to “But Beautiful” on Rhapsody a minute ago and it is gorgeous but I really don’t know why it is better technicaly.

  • Josh

    Greg,

    Your post leaves a lot to the imagination. Could you please give some examples of healthy innovations, and what we as music directors could do to implement them?

  • Jason

    Rejecting certain trends due to association is not only healthy, it is biblical. Stifling innovation is not sinful, if it is being stifled for the right reasons.

    There is nothing wrong with implementing elements of the evolution of music, but we must also step back sometimes and take a look at the big picture and weigh the costs and benefits. Sometimes embracing innovation will be God-honoring in its inherent excellence, but other times it will distract and potentially cause people to stumble.

    Music is certainly a high risk occupation, especially to those who are passionate about its artistic nature.

  • Greg

    Josh, I will certainly do that, but it belongs in its own post. In a nutshell, the biggest innovation is in harmony. Church music in conservative circles tends to be very unimaginative in that area.

    Jason, notice I did not say I found it wrong to reject music because of association. I actually believe that is a perfectly fine reason for a church to reject music. But sometimes, those decisions are based on bad judgment.

  • Paul (not Johnson)

    Greg, it is my understanding that some on the conservative side of the music issue have a deliberate strategy of exercising caution in using newer music styles,especially in worship services. This is to allow time to evaluate the impact and implications of musical innovations and their effect on worship.
    I think it is believed that being current with the musical development in
    the culture at large is not as important
    as other spiritual considerations. Do you think this is a legitimate concern?

  • Greg

    Paul, yes the appropriateness of music for worship is more important than whether it is cutting edge.

    But let me say that I am skeptical of the church’s ability to evaluate music in the way you say some do. Frankly, the track record is bad going back hundreds of years. Conservatives by nature are skeptical of innovation and tend to reject it without real cause, only to turn around and accept it a few decades later. I am a conservative, but I can admit that weakness.

    However, if a conservative presents a position that is specific and backed by objective research instead of personal bias, I am happy to support it. I am going to talk about this in another post shortly.

  • Danny Gardner

    Mr. Howlett, would you say that hymnals and choir books should be rewritten (or simply modified at the church’s discretion) in order to catch up with modern harmony? It seems difficult to find very many hymns without just basic primary chords. Thank you.

  • Paul

    Do you think it is wrong to refrain from using a new musical form or style until one becomes convinced that such innovations can be used in good conscience to worship God?

  • Greg

    Danny, it is not that simple. Hymnals do contain basic chords for the most part but remember that they are designed to be used by non-musicians. Difficult chords are hard for not-musicians to sing. However, there is certainly a lot that can be done. Fetke’s hymnal for example is a good example of a reasonable approach. Even using some minor ii7s in front of the V7s in the cadences is a good start. You can almost tell the time period of a song simply by looking at the cadences. If they are just V-I, they are likely to be quite old. If V7-I, newer. If ii-V7-I, newer still.

    I think it is reasonable to see more minor 7ths and some diminished chords in hymnals and perhaps some more secondary dominants. Tritone subs? Probably not…

    Even though I would say that as a whole, we are way behind, that is not to say that there are not writers writing good stuff (especially recently). You can find choir music that utilizes interesting harmony. You just have to choose to use it. And the same is true for special vocal and instrumental music.

  • Greg

    Paul, I would not say it is sin. But I think it is faulty logic to assume that something is wrong just because it is new when there is no evidence to support that. I am skeptical because of the miserable track record that goes back hundreds of years.

    As I mentioned before, the way this works is this: something new comes out; conservatives reject it; 20 years later, conservatives decide it is OK after all.

    I can assure you that the most conservative musicians you know are happily doing musical things that were condemned by other conservatives in the past.

    I am going to write in a few days an article and give two valid reasons why the church might decide to reject music–association and inappropriateness for a worship situation. If in your opinion, new music fails in either of those two areas, then by all means reject it.

    But, the decision to reject or accept certain music is in the end of the day, a preference that will not be shared by all churches or Christians. Conservatives should keep that in mind if they do decide to reject music. And if they do demonstrate grace to those that might disagree, I have no problem.

    Now, if you believe that music has moral attributes, you might need to take some time to evaluate new music before accepting it. But I have never seen where that has actually happened. In other words, when the church was slow to accept the harmony we are talking about, did they do any studies to determine whether it was immoral? If so, I would love to see them.

  • Danny Gardner

    That’s kinda what I thought. Oh and your mention of a tritone sub in a congregational hymn made me laugh. It illustrates your point well. Thanks again.

    Have you considered discussing the lyrics of hymns? It seems as though we don’t even bother checking out just how biblical some of the songs we sing are. For example: I believe there’s a catholic song that’s about going to heaven and finally meeting St. Peter. Baptists use that same song and replace every mention of Peter with Jesus.

    What are your thoughts on this?

  • Greg

    A quick note on the tritone sub. There is a specific reason why it won’t work in church. It has to do with the fact that a tritone sub is essentially an altered dominant, meaning it is going to have either a flat or sharp 9th and a flat 13th in it. Imagine a church congregation singing that. But I have seen it in choir music.

    Yes, the lyrics are important. I am not a theologian and leave that debate to them though. I could say more but really, there is a lot of good discussion about that on the web already.

  • Paul

    The amount of time is not the point to me-it is about not violating one’s sense of right and wrong. I don’t think it is correct to say that conservatives have automatically assumed new things are wrong. They have reasons for their concerns about certain music whether everyone agrees or not. I agree about the need to be gracious, but I think that goes for both sides. It is not easy to participate in a worship service where music is being used that seems wrong. It seems to me that people with more liberal convictions want those with more conservative convictions to give up our position because we can’t convince them we are right. I’m not convinced by the liberal arguments. So now what? My concern is not so much about using richer harmonies as it is CCM songs. It is difficult to find a church that doesn’t use music that makes me squirm morally speaking. Where I live there are none. Greg, I think your music is fine. I admire the way you have developed your talent on the piano. It’s an interesting and inspiring story. You may be conservative in the music you play, but your blog is a constant assault on the foundation of conservative christian music. That’s how it comes across to me anyway.

  • Greg

    Paul, you can have the last word again. I will hopefully answer some things better for you in coming days.

  • Matt

    There will probably never be any two churches (let alone worship leaders) who will agree on every point about music. It seems that often times we are caught up with “institutional” standards based on where someone went to college or what “camp” they run in. It’s time that musicians lay down their preferences on the altar of Biblical authority and refrain from attacking one another. This is not to say that we cannot stand up for and defend what we believe, but so often the attacks become so personal.

    There is good reason to believe that conservatives are a bit behind in the area of music. It is often the case. But by getting back to being unconcerned with what others think and pursuing a truly Biblical worship, then we never need be lagging in musical development. Why delay in using a style or technique? Compare it to Scripture and then do all you can to reach people with the glorious gospel of Christ!

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