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'Standard issue' worship songs and the lack of creativity

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  • 'Standard issue' worship songs and the lack of creativity

    The Gungor discussion sparked a question in me about the carbon-copy style worship songs that seem to be the norm.

    As a blues-based bass player, I quite frankly get bored with the plethora of eighth-note driven songs that seem to be everywhere. The 'standard' chords, guitar strummed on the eighth, bass playing root on the eighth, drummer has the kick drum on the quarter, snare on the half, and beating the snot out of his crash cymbals on the eighth- and way too loud in the mix.

    Then throw in the occasional short guitar riff or whatever buried in a bunch of effects over some mediocre lyrics- and I think "where has all the creativity gone? Are we really that unable to come up with anything more?"

    I understand the songs do resonate with a certain segment, and some are ok. But there seems to be this trend to move to a 'lowest common denominator' basic worship style, even by artists like Chris Tomlin. Is that what they need to produce to get radio time? It leaves me wanting more.

    I'm a pretty big blues fan, particularly because of the room for creativity by the musicians. Maybe that's part of the reason so much new Christian music seems bland.

    So what do you all feel about the issue, particularly as leaders and songwriters? Are these newer songs meaning less pressure because you don't have to practice as much and they fit nicely with other songs? Do you feel the need to do them in church because that's what's on the radio, so that's what people expect to hear? Are you writers influenced or biased to write your songs in this style because that's what sells?

    If we want to go places we haven't been, we will have to do things we haven't done.

  • #2
    low hanging fruit...

    I think the reason why so many songs are really simple is that the composers are shooting for a wide market share. Worship leaders are (i guess?) more likely to play a song that they can play easily than one they need to work at. More worship leaders are able to play a simple song than a complex one. If I want my youth band to be able to play a song I write - i can't add chords or riffs only I can play.

    i think that's part of the "problem".


    • #3
      Couldn't agree more

      Tomlin almost invented the lowest-common-denominator worship style. As a lifetime jazz player I'm in your camp. We do not use any of the standard arrangements...ever. 90% of the time, we don't even have an acoustic guitar on the platform. Nearly everything we do is heavily reharmonized, given a different rhythmic spin, and generally given any treatment we can think of while leaving the melody line more or less intact so it can still be sung to. We've been doing this for so long that my team will actually complain if the songs are too easy or repetitive.

      As far as writing goes, No, I do not feel pressured to write in the style of most modern worship. We do very few of my originals within the services. The primary reason for that is a bit different than style. I do not take into account "congregational range" when writing, and so a majority of the songs I write end up unusable for corporate worship. I don't feel this is a problem though - some people are called to write for the use of the local church, and some are not. It's that simple. I am not driven to write worship songs that will "sell". I am driven to write songs that glorify God using the abilities He has given, born of the experiences He has brought me through. If that doesn't shoehorn itself into the modern worship style, it doesn't worry me.


      • #4
        I don't want to sound like a jerk, but I'm tired of musicians complaining and/or criticizing about other musicians, other music styles, etc. I'm tired of musician A finding fault in musician B's character, passion, motivation, purpose, etc simply because musician B's music is too boring or bland. I'm tired of the assumption that radio time and record sales are the driving force of every musician who writes simple music, whether his/her music is being sung by millions or by a few.

        If you have a gripe about a song writer's theology, I'll listen. If you have factual evidence that a musician's character is corrupting his/her ability to glorify God, I'd like to hear it. But, if all you want to do is complain about what you perceive as a lack of creativity and criticize those who don't feed your own musical cravings, you are only adding to the problem, in my opinion.

        Practical Worship

        Please Pray For My Wife


        • #5
          :P at Copycat songs, production

          I agree - this is also the case with our Praise team. We reharmonize too. We serve a multicultural congregation, and I have seen their voices fade and their eyes glaze over at too much similar med-tempo solo-voiced CCM. But they know and gladly enter into worship on songs like Lamar Campbell's "More than Anything" and Munizzi's "Because of who You Are".

          I guess I have more of a problem with similarly-arranged production on Cd's. It may work on the album, but often is not practical live...


          • #6
            Having grown up in the era of hymns being sung to piano and organ, and songs being sung in four part harmonies; and now being a joyful participant in contemporary worship, I can attest to the truth that today's music has been (and continues to be) dumbed-down.

            Part of this is because guitars can't play the often complex and irregular chords that a piano can play.

            Another part is the disposable nature of today's music. The hymns endured for years upon years, partly because everyone sang from hymnals, but today's songs will be sung a half dozen times, then are abandoned for something new.

            And people like Tomlin are under immense pressure from the record companies to produce at least 2 albums per year, so the songs get churned out so fast they often are not as good as they could be under different circumstances.

            Since I don't play any instrument, I can't claim frustration or boredom in playing, but I do agree that many songs have very similar instrumentation. A typical volunteer church band, made up of whoever is available, will develop a style where every song sounds nearly the same, because they are playing the way they know how to play. It takes a high level of expertise among the band members to come up with something different for each song. Perhaps that is part of the reason there is so much sameness in what is offered-- the songwriters write what the typical band can play.

            Just my thoughts, for what they are worth.


            • #7
              Good points brought up so far.

              Part of what drives my questions on the topic is a couple of things, one primarily being a study on maturity. Paul often wrote about his frustration with the church still needing 'milk' and not 'solid food' when they should be mature (1 Cor 3, 14, Eph 4, Heb 5). One area I see this manifest is in our music. What seems to get played on the radio is heavily weighted toward the 'infant' stage songs.

              Again, I don't have anything against those songs (I play blues- it doesn't get much simpler than that), because there are people at the early stages of their Christian walk that those songs minister to. And I expect those songs from younger bands/ groups. They are putting out good music in their own right. In fact, I really like the Josh Wilson song "I refuse". But, I look to more mature bands to put out more mature music. Not necessarily more complicated, but more insightful and deeper. I know they have it, it just doesn't get air time.

              Another part of it is the musical sense. I wasn't challenged in the worship music realm. I didn't grow much as a musician until I started playing blues- I had to learn scales to do walking lines and fills. I had to learn how to lock in with the band, particularly a drummer. In turn, I have brought these skills into the worship music realm and it's made me a much stronger contributor. But it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been challenged.

              Which brings me to another point- I feel it's our responsibility as worship teams to grow out of the 'milk' stage and challenge ourselves along with our congregations. It speaks volumes that I've grown musically outside the church more than inside. Somehow we've adopted this mentality that our volunteers and congregations aren't capable of growing or adapting. I have yet to see anyone support that with scripture- especially when Paul is chastising people that are infants that should be teachers. Granted we don't want to leave everyone behind, but we don't want to be enablers of laziness in our responsibilities to grow ourselves and each other, either.

              Anyway, we'll do what we do and glorify God with our gifts and talents, and lead people into the throne room.

              If we want to go places we haven't been, we will have to do things we haven't done.


              • #8

                To answer your questions posed to songwriters - I personally am not writing to a radio style. Instead I write to what I think are good melodies, good hooks, and good lyrics. Then I let the arrangers and producers do their work. I personally think a great song can transcend styles, as others have pointed out on this thread. Therefore it can be made 'radio friendly' and 'simple' or can have a lot of innovation in the arrangement.

                Where I think we need more solid food and less milk is definitely lyrics. Oddly enough, my belief is that by returning to the Word of God we can actually find inspiration for more creativity while at the same time offering up more solid food as worship song lyricists. If we took the time to get beyond being 'shallow' in our sentiments in worship songs, we could plumb many of the depths of truth in the Bible and craft some creative masterpieces that were also 'solid food'. That's my mission as a songwriter, in any case. I blogged about it here:



                • #9
                  That's a good blog post. The re-telling aspect is important, because that's one method Jesus used to communicate and convey the meanings of what was written. Re-telling in a way that preserves truth and isn't laden with cultural cliches and catch phrases is a key aspect of enduring worship songs.

                  I believe it was Baloche who was quoted once as saying a key element to songwriting and leading worship was giving songs room to breathe. To me, that stuck as a key element to creativity and depth. Looking back on some of our current praise anthems and enduring songs, even hymns, that room to breathe is one of the recurring elements. The songs can be done with different arrangements, keys, styles, and still tell the truth like they were meant to.

                  It's important to focus on lyrics, but the music is important too. The best way I heard it explained was by a very successful secular musician- he said that one of the keys to writing songs that withstand the test of time is the music must stand on its own before adding the extra weight of the lyrics. Meaning, the musical part of the song needs to have strong enough structure to support and reinforce the lyrical message. I think of Michael W Smith and Israel Houghton as people who are good at doing this.

                  If we want to go places we haven't been, we will have to do things we haven't done.


                  • #10
                    Thanks for reading it! You sound like Jeff McCullough our producer. When he went through our catalog to downselect for our 'Your Word' project he said he liked many of them, but he picked songs that were not too 'full of words'. His advice to songwriters/lyricists: leave room for the musicians to to their job. Say as much as you can in fewer, memorable words. This has been a big area of learning in my own songwriting journey.

                    Another aspect to what you say is to test whether you have a killer melody - sing it acapella and see if it holds up. And its perfectly OK to write the melody part with la-la-la or even garbage words (or words to another song that fit the meter) before changing it up with your lyrics. The hard thing there is sometimes the words and music go so closely together that just having music to start with can be difficult. This is why its an art, there is no foolproof formula!


                    • #11
                      Great points thus far. Something that wasn't yet mentioned is the encouragement to the worship team to NOT sound like the recordings. Yes, the recordings may be simple (most are intentionally written that way so inexperienced musicians can easily pick it up and lead). Every team has a different dynamic. Our band has three incredibly talented keyboardists (one is in jazz fusion, one has a strong blues background, and the other is incredible with patches). The guitar players range from metal to jazz to classic rock. Our worship leader is pretty adamant to NOT sound like the recordings because she wants to stretch us as musicians. She wants our creativity to flow out of our worship (even during practice). Yeah, it's tough, but it is awesome!

                      So my two cents would be: once you find the songs that lyrically express the heart of the congregation (that includes the band), the sky is the limit as to how you present it musically. As long as the team maintains a posture of pure worship, the congregation will enjoy the fruit of the worship team's creativity. Blessings!
                      Melanie Siewert, Christ's Servant
                      BLOG: http://www.worshipvanguard.blogspot.com


                      • #12
                        This is something I have aimed for since I felt the call into full-time ministry: that our groups would not be copycats, and that there are no limits to what we can do as long as true worship is still front and center. We also have an unspoken goal of trying not to play most songs the same way twice - something the bands get a much greater kick out of than the vocalists.

                        One thing that saddens me is the idea that recordings are intentionally made simple. I have to say that if that is the goal from the very beginning, then the artists and producers are doing the church a great disservice. Paul Baloche's guitar talents are allegedly staggering (Gungor-like by some accounts), and yet his recorded music requires very little from the players.

                        It's been mentioned numberless times that music - in particular church music - has been consistently dumbed down over the last 25 years or so. Two of the most prevalent reasons are that church musicians are never challenged by the music available to them, and secondly, most church musicians nowadays are self-taught. As a long time teacher and music theorist, it is almost a musical law that self-taught musicians will typically only push themselves until they can play "average". If there is no one (such as a teacher) to push them, and if a vast majority of the music available does not challenge beyond basics, most musicians will not find a reason to push themselves out of their comfort levels. And the church doesn't ask them to. Israel or Gungor too difficult? Why bother when there are 200 other artists who are churning out music that doesn't require practice.

                        This isn't meant to be an insult, I want it to be a challenge: aim higher! Don't just practice until you can play the songs that are out there right now; practice until they are child's play. Practice until the guys you sit in awe of right now are easily attainable. You'll be doing a service to yourself, your worship teams, your church and you will also be honoring the God who gave the talent to play by doing something with that talent and not just burying it in the ground when it's "good enough".


                        • #13
                          It doesnt have to be that way...

                          One thing that saddens me is the idea that recordings are intentionally made simple. I have to say that if that is the goal from the very beginning, then the artists and producers are doing the church a great disservice. Paul Baloche's guitar talents are allegedly staggering (Gungor-like by some accounts), and yet his recorded music requires very little from the players.
                          Thats an interesting one. The idea of having a simplified arrangement is a function of how the music industry operates to deliver worship music to us - ie, via recordings intended for mass sale. So the recordings are made such that churches will pick up the songs (simple), which creates the 'dumbed down' effect you describe.

                          When we released our album we actually solved it this way - we enabled the musicians to 'go to town' with some cool guitar and keyboard work (two of our songs feature some cool slide guitar work by Nick Maybury (ex Future of Forestry guitarist). At the same time, we had the producer make 'simplified' arrangements illustrating the song played with just a piano or a guitar with a simple and straightforward rhythm. In this way we showed what creative musicians unleashed could do, while at the same time keeping the song accessible in the simplest of settings. We actually wrote and selected songs with these two goals in mind. Since we are following an indie model for our project, we can take such liberties, and we have both arrangements readily available for all comers to use.
                          Last edited by MarkSnyder; 08-12-2011, 05:15 PM.


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by improvise88 View Post
                            One thing that saddens me is the idea that recordings are intentionally made simple. I have to say that if that is the goal from the very beginning, then the artists and producers are doing the church a great disservice. Paul Baloche's guitar talents are allegedly staggering (Gungor-like by some accounts), and yet his recorded music requires very little from the players.
                            I read somewhere an article by Paul Baloche, and he said that if you want your worship music to sell, it needs to be playable by your average joe-mediocre praise band. . .he said, something like, "We don't care if you've studied jazz progressions for years, if you want sellable music, it needs to be playable," or something like that. I can't remember the specifics. heh...but it is rather sad... I V VI IV gets boring...


                            • #15
                              I agree

                              I've seen this production decision before, and I really like it. There's some series of books out there committed to this very idea of taking the deeper side of the repertoire and republishing it in simplified form simultaneous with the regular recording. I love the option this gives, the advanced players have music they can sink their teeth into, and the beginner to intermediate players do not have to simply forgo the music they like to listen to, but simply cannot achieve. It also gives them something to aim for - play the easy version now, work to play the originals. I applaud you for making that decision.

                              via recordings intended for mass sale
                              And this is the problem I'm referring to: since it's all about selling albums, even in the worship realm, creativity is frequently sacrificed so as not scare off anyone who isn't interested in buying something they cannot play. There's a side of me that hopes the artists are being forced into this bland corner