Saying goodbye (Ending a song well)

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Recently, I was in a church service and I want to make a point about something I observed. I will not say where or when and because I have been in lots of different churches over past months, no one is going to know the particular church. Frankly, what I am about to discuss could apply to hundreds of thousands of churches scattered throughout the world because it is generally accepted practice in contemporary church music. I am not calling anyone in particular out; I am just making a general point.

As we moved through the music portion of the church service, it hit me that I could accurately predict the endings to the songs. They were all the typical praise and worship songs and as they moved toward conclusion, it was easy to see how the musicians were setting up what the last chord would be. The IV chord is always a safe guess these days, but in that service, V was just as popular.

That I was able to predict the last chord was not a big deal of course. I am a trained musician and corporate music should be somewhat predictable anyway. But as I listened to the musicians intentionally making an effort to avoid ending a song on (gasp!) a I chord, I found myself wondering this:

If I had a conversation with this worship leader, would he tell me goodbye at the end?

Here is why I say that. When musicians decide to end songs on the IV chord, they possibly just think it sounds cool or perhaps they think it fits the lyrics to sort of leave a song sounding incomplete (sometimes that is a valid reason). However, the fact that almost all P&W music ends on an off-tonic chord is an implied philosophical statement as well that I can summarize like this:

Just because the church (and for that matter, practically all Western music) has ended its songs on the I chord for centuries does not mean we have to.

You know what? They are right.

It is not a sin to end a song on a IV or V chord. It is not musically wrong to end a song on a IV or V chord. I would just call it a fad or cliche. It is ironically a cliche that resulted from an attempt to avoid a cliche.

No I can’t definitively prove that the I chord is the BEST way to end a song. For that matter, I can’t even prove that our tonal scale and all the harmony we derive from it is God’s ideal for music. I doubt that music in heaven will be based on our 7 note scales.

Here is something I can say though: just because something is old does not make it inferior or superior and just because it is new does not make it inferior or superior.

It is easy for those of us living today to throw rocks at the ideas in the past and in many instances, the ideas of the past should be discarded. However, they should not be discarded because they are old; they should be discarded because they are wrong or inferior. Change is not good unless it is change for the better.

The same of course goes for traditionalists that look disdainfully at progress in church or anywhere else. Today’s ideas should not be judged on their age. They need to be judged on merit.

Now, in the case of music, old music does not equate to better music. Bach’s music is not still performed today because it is old. There was tons of music written while Bach was alive and most of it was garbage.

No, the evidence of Bach’s greatness is not that his music is old but rather that it has survived the passage of time while the garbage did not. The same is true for many other composers that are still household words centuries after they died.

Now, here is something great musicians over centuries have shared in common: they ended their compositions on I chords. Almost always. Time has vindicated them. In addition, there are logical reasons why they were on to something with that ending. I don’t know if Bach could explain why he did what he did but today’s musicologists can certainly logically explain why the I chord is a superior choice to a V chord to end a song.

In short, ending a song on a I chord is a tradition that makes sense for many reasons. A song ending generally needs to um, end.

Sort of like ending a conversation with a goodbye. That is an old tradition that most of us agree would make sense too…

I doubt that worship leader would walk away from a conversation with me without a goodbye in spite of the fact that it is a old tradition that we don’t have to still do. He would accept that tradition and instinctively understand why it might be problematic to walk away from a conversation without ending it. Music traditions are a different story though. Those traditions need to be challenged. (I am speaking tongue-in-cheek.)

Here is the moral of the story. I am not upset about what I heard musically in that service. However, I am somewhat tired of the continual battles where different positions seem to be more about how old or new they are rather than how good and correct they are. Both sides (traditionalists and progressives) are equally guilty in this and that is why the fighting never ends.

None of us should check our brains at the door and assume that tradition is good or bad or progress is good or bad. No, ideas need to be evaluated based on criteria that actually matters.

In the case of ending on the I chord, tradition wins. Not because it is old; because it is better. Sorry, worship leader guys…