Dr. Timothy Shafer is a professor of music at Penn State University.
In recent years, in response to criticism of CCM based on shallow lyrics, some CCM songwriters have begun to assign the doctrinally dense and theologically astute words of great hymns to pop/rock style musical settings. PCA pastor and songwriter Kevin Twit, along with a number of enlisted friends collectively known as Indelible Grace, are among those who have determined to set vast numbers of great hymn texts to inferior musical compositions. A brief theoretical examination of the objective musical characteristics of the songs may help us to get a better understanding of the skill level and compositional craftsmanship in view in Twit and friends’ efforts.
Let’s consider the objective musical characteristics for just one of these works for the time being: Scott Roley’s retooling of “And Can It Be?” You can look at the music and hear the work performed here:
and you can see and hear a performance of the work here:
In this song, generally speaking, the verses are poorly set for congregational singing, the phrases are incessantly repetitive, excessive syncopations are employed to the point of being cliché, the harmonies are simplistic and repetitive, the character of the melody is not congruent with the text, consideration for textual declamation is poor to non-existent, the connotation is profane, and the incongruity of the musical expression with the text results in a violation of propriety in worship.
Consider the following specific points regarding Scott Roley’s setting of “And Can it Be?”
*There are 10 clauses of text per verse in this setting. These 10 clauses of text are all set to exactly the same musical rhythm without regard for the natural poetic structure and inflection of the text. Over four verses the congregation sings this identical rhythm 40 times. Charting the rhythmic structure of the phrases looks like this:
vs. 1 with chorus a a a a a a a a a a
vs. 2 with chorus a a a a a a a a a a
vs. 3 with chorus a a a a a a a a a a
vs. 4 with chorus a a a a a a a a a a
*The rhythmic device of syncopation (irregular stress placed between strong beats) is used incessantly, again with no regard to the natural declamation of the text. Indeed, the syncopation is so excessive that no single note in the entire song was written to be sung without syncopation. In fact, the first note of each phrase (each of which begins on weak beat four) is the only note per phrase that was even placed on a beat; all others rhythms are off-beats.
*The excessive syncopation and identical rhythm for each clause of text draws undue attention to the rhythmic aspect of the song. In Scripture, melody, not rhythm, is the dominant facet of the music that is addressed.
*There are three extremely similar structural pitch patterns for each the ten clauses of text. The distinctive leap of an ascending perfect fifth at the same pitch level is emphasized repeatedly in 8 of the 10 phrases, filled in with seconds. This means that over four verses, this rising and distinguishing leap (known as a melodic motive) is sung identically 32 times without development or variation. In the remaining two phrases, the interval of a fifth at the identical pitch level is again emphasized but by range rather than leap, providing the only momentary relief from what otherwise begins to sound like animal calling. (Try singing an ascending perfect fifth 32 times in a row to see what I mean!)
*The pitch pattern for the first four phrases of each verse is presented identically. Over four verses the congregation sings this identical pitch pattern 16 times. Though it is extremely repetitive, still, of melody, rhythm, and harmony, the melodic aspect of Roley’s composition provides the most variety. Charting the phrase structure looks like this:
verse a a a a b b
chorus c* c1* c c1
* note that there is internal repetition in each of the ‘c’ and ‘c1’ phrases
*There are two rudimentary chord progressions repeated for all ten clauses of text. Over four verses one of these chord progressions is sung 32 times (I – ii – IV – V). The repetitions occur with minimal relief; see the pattern of repetition below with ‘a’ representing the I – ii – IV – V chord progression:
vs. 1 with chorus a a a a b b a a a a
vs. 2 with chorus a a a a b b a a a a
vs. 3 with chorus a a a a b b a a a a
vs. 4 with chorus a a a a b b a a a a
*The extreme repetitiveness in melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic patterns results in a chant like effect similar to mantras used in some Eastern religions.
*While repetition is a necessary component of composition, and can be used for great beauty in the hands of a skillful composer, the excessive repetitions in so many musical facets of this tune are indicative of compositional minimalism, requiring little skill, thought, effort, or sacrifice on the part of the composer.
*The extreme repetitiveness in the categories of melody, harmony, and rhythm are indicative of the kind of music produced by the American pop/rock industry. Internal repetitions like those described above are used in this industry for the purposes of musical expediency, quick public acceptance, and sales. Extreme repetitiveness is also a large factor in the trendiness of pop music. The music wears thin quickly. As we adopt music in the church with these objective characteristics we leave the next generation of saints (our children!) the musical equivalent of bell-bottom pants and leisure suits in worship.
Congruency of the musical expression with the textual expression
*Of all the repetitions listed from among the various musical elements, the excessive use of syncopation is the most extreme and therefore most notable. This element thus emerges as the dominant expressive characteristic of the song and places the rhythmic element at the forefront of the song’s expression. The constant off-beat sensation is not only difficult for a congregation to do reasonably well without rehearsal, but even when done well, results in a musical character that expresses agitation. Agitation as a musical affect is not conducive to the character of the text, which expresses awe and wonder at our inclusion in Christ’s love. This is a direct violation of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation for all things in worship to be done in a “fitting” way ().
*The likeness of this music to the kind of music produced by the American pop/rock industry is undeniable. At best, compositions like this as well as the use of this kind of musical imitation of the culture for corporate worship cannot be considered obedience to God’s repeated commands to worship in the beauty of His holiness. At worst, adoptions of cultural musical practices such as this in Christian worship can be viewed as a kind of syncretism similar to that found in .
*The combined emphases on repetitive rhythm, syncopation, and simplistic, repetitive harmonies and melodic motives indelibly stamps this song with the sensual musical affect of the pop/rock dance music of the second half of the twentieth century. It is not obedient to the command to worship God in reverence and awe and therefore is not appropriate for corporate worship.
The objective musical characteristics described in this one song can be found in the vast majority of what is termed CCM and currently found in the worship of the church. It is these very characteristics in fact, that are endemic to the style. I hope you can see by this brief analysis of one song that the musical settings of these texts simply do not represent the musical first-fruits produced by the Christian church. This is certainly not what is intended by scriptural admonitions to offer the Lord a sacrifice of praise () or subdue the earth according to the Cultural Mandate ().
A skilled and trained composer (as Scripture described musicians in the church) would have been instructed in how to control these various elements of music (melody, harmony, rhythm, textual setting, repetition, variation, sequence, etc.) in order to set the text in a manner that most beautifully and expressively reflects its character. Scott Roley, the composer of this tune, does not demonstrate compositional skill or training in this song. Consequently, the music requires very little skill to play. This directly violates the Lord’s command to musicians to play skillfully ().
In contrast to the minimalist compositional craftsmanship we find in evidence in Roley’s setting of “And Can it Be?,” we are commanded in Scripture to subdue the earth (including music), worship in the beauty of His holiness, bring the Lord our first fruits, play skillfully, and offer a sacrifice of praise. Inasmuch as the leadership at evangelical churches makes decisions to choose music by criteria other than those described in Scripture, as a body of believers we dishonor the Lord with our worship. Rather than “reaching the lost,” and “reflecting the culture,” we should be re-evaluating the process by which we make our musical decisions in worship by abandoning the attempt at accommodating our depraved, slothful tastes and instead reforming ourselves to the Scriptures seeking the biblical principles by which music should be chosen for worship.