I have already opened the contentious topic of modern Christian music for your consideration and in this post I want to start building a basis for thinking through some of the divergent elements to find a means of assessing, understanding and directing what we are dealing with.
I pointed out previously that there are battle lines about Christian music in many churches, involving the style of music and how it is used in the church. One of the hot issues is volume, but that is only part of a rich tapestry of musical elements which work together to create a style or idiom or genre of music.
Some churches maintain ancient traditional values in their music, whether accompanied or a cappella, psalmody, chants or historic hymns. Other churches only use the latest songs from the top music houses, disposing of songs as fast as they can get new ones. Other churches have created a mix of old and new, fast and slow, based on their traditional background and the major musical influences which they have subscribed to.
Because of the wide ranging diversity and the general lack of real principle behind most church music choices there is little in the way of reference points which churches, home groups and music lovers can use in their personal and ministry related musical choices.
Back to Basics
Before we get entangled in argument about preferences, age related tastes, and so on, we are best to go back to basics and look at some of the underlying musical and spiritual considerations. Whatever you build you are wise to have a solid foundation. So let’s see if we can’t get some foundational thinking in place on which to build.
The three most basic elements of music are melody, harmony and rhythm. This is where we will start. For those who are well educated about music, please excuse my simplified descriptions of these elements. I need everyone to have a clear idea of what we are talking about so I will give a basic description of these basics, to get everyone on the same base.
The melody of a song is the series of musical notes that we sing. It is the part that identifies a song, when you hear it being whistled or you hum it to your self. The melody is the purest element of the song. It IS the song.
Many songs share the same harmony and chords and many share the same rhythm. But what identifies one song from another is its melody line. If you hear someone singing something to themself, they will almost certainly be singing the melody.
A melody can be sung slow or fast without destroying the melody itself. It can be sung or played as a tune and it can also be only partially used but still be identified as the same song. That is why I say that the melody IS the song. Just as YOU are yourself. Whether you are happy or sad, energetic or worn out, clean or smelly, healthy or sick, you are still you. The same is true for the melody. You can present it many ways, yet people readily recognise the song.
When two or more musical notes are played together they will either blend and make a complementary sound or they will clash and spoil each other. Harmony is the mixing of multiple notes together to create a pleasing enrichment of the melody.
There are many ways to mix musical sounds and the mixture can create happy or sad feelings (major or minor), soothing or grating effect, fulfilling or plaintive emotions and so on. Therefore harmony is very powerful. Good use of harmony can give powerful charge to the melody and can particularly emphasise the message in the lyrics. A sad song will have sad and doleful harmonies. A celebration song will not have any of those harmonies in it.
Major key harmonies are brighter and more positive in the emotions they evoke. Minor key harmonies tend to be more reflective and sad.
Different harmonies can written for the same song, changing the feeling of the song. Basic harmonies using the three primary chords tend to give a song a childlike simplicity, while complex chords tend to give a song a more alluring quality.
Rhythm is the pace at which the song moves forward. Pace does not only refer to speed, but also to the kind of steps taken. Imagine, for example, a toddler running, compared to a professional sprinter. Their individual pace is not just the speed of their movement but how big and even the steps are.
Imagine then a horse with one lame leg, or a lame person pushing a chair forward then taking awkward steps toward it, before pausing to push the chair forward again.
All of those examples give you a sense for rhythm. And another way to get a feel for it is to speak a line of poetic verse. Say, “Pushes ev’ry purpose out of mind”. You will most likely emphasize the push / pur / and mind. Every syllable will probably be given the same amount of time, like a run of even steps. That’s rhythm at work.
Rhythm and Beat
Rhythm involves the beat of the music, but I hold off reference to beat until you have a sense of rhythm without a notion of beat. Beat has been abducted by the rock and roll phenomenon and some people are distracted by the term. Allow me now to clarify the place of beat.
While just about every word has its own natural rhythm and music reflects the rhythmic realities of nature and language, rhythm also has the quality of picking the music up and carrying it along. In the absence of a strong beat music might tend to run along happily, with rhythm undergirding the melody and harmony. But for marching music the movement of the music is meant to provide a clear beat to march to. The beat is them more pronounced, while not obliterating the melody and harmony, to give a stronger sense of momentum and regulation to the music.
In rock music, rap and modern dance music the beat has become highly pronounced to energise the dancers or to impress a listener who seeks that more strident input.
Balancing the Basics
I trust you can see already that these three key elements of music stand separate but complement each other in the building of a musical experience. We cannot do without them. They are not evil. They each have their place. They are ideally woven together in a happy balance that enhances the musical experience.
Now that we have an idea of the natural elements of music we are ready for the next consideration, which is how spiritual realities impact music and how music impacts the spirit. That will be part three in this series of the Christian Music Primer.