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What on earth are we singing? 


Author: Daniel Thornton
Music Category: ,

Posted August 5, 2014 by


he lyrics are profound, theologically rich, and personally moving… but if the music’s unpalatable, and nobody wants to sing/play it, what good is the song?  When it comes to contemporary congregational songs, three responses are common to this sort of statement.  The first, are those who decry the insipid and banal music of CCS, and popular music generally.  They argue that at best, it’s music at its most common and uninteresting, appealing only to the unrefined masses.  At worst they point to some profane or even demonic origin of such music and argue that it’s corrupting Christian worship!

On the other side of the fence, there are those who agree wholeheartedly with the statement.  Jesus used common analogies to communicate truth in ways people (who were open to it) could easily grasp, why would we not use the musical vernacular of our culture to communicate truth?  In fact, if we barricade ourselves behind ‘proper’ (however we define it) music for worship, aren’t we simply perpetuating the old practice of keeping the Word of God in the hands (musical language) of the elite?

Finally, there are those who want to sit on the fence, perhaps arguing that yes, CCS music is often un-innovative, aimed at quick mass consumption, but it’s not a bad thing, we should just be careful with its associations and with its wholesale adoption into corporate worship.  They might argue that we are educators of our congregations, ideally helping them to appreciate music of beauty and excellence worthy of God-worship.

Do you resonate with one of these positions?  All or none of them?  I say, let’s dismantle the fence.  Let’s have this conversation around a warm campfire; not on sides, but in community!  We are so profoundly attached to our musical preferences that often we can’t even see that we’ve taken up our defensive/offensive position and are ready for anyone who dares utter an alternative one!  The very best thing we can all do before proceeding is to admit we have deeply ingrained musical prejudices.  Come on… say it… “I have deeply ingrained musical prejudices!”  Now, don’t you feel better?  OK, so onto the musical content of CCS.

Most CCS are musically furnished with electric guitars, acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, and lead vocals/backing vocals.  Of course there are variations on this, and it’s often one of the few areas that individual artists/CCS producers/local churches can stamp with their own flavour; enter the string quartet, or the electronics, or the banjo.  All one can say about this use of instrumentation is that it is culturally consistent with more broadly produced popular music (albeit on the conservative side).  But don’t be too quick to cry uninventive imitation!  It’s not hard to combine instrumental forces that are unique (3 kazoos, a djembe, a tuba, and vocoder), but how does that help Christians worship?

Most CCS are in white-note major keys (commonly G, D, and B).  All CCS analysed contained chords I, IV, and V.  The majority of songs (19/25) also contained chord iv, and 13/25 contained chord ii.  16/25 songs used no more than four discrete chords.  As a classically trained musician and composer I love complex harmony… but for CCS, clearly these are the chords average musicians can play and average congregations can sing to.  Will that change over time?  Probably.  CCS of the 1970s often only had three chords I, IV, and V.  But that’s not a huge change, is it.

Ten songs finish on the tonic chord (I), but eight finish on the sub-dominant (IV) and five on the dominant (V).  That means most songs don’t end with a harmonic sense of finality, opening the way for section repetition, transitions to the next song, or spaces that might facilitate spontaneous/free worship.  21/25, the great majority, are in 4/4 time.  Boring? Sure, but functional.  Have you tried singing in 7/8?!?

The lowest note of any representative CCS is Ab below middle C (Beneath The Waters – I Will Rise) and the highest note is two octaves above that (Jesus At The Center)!  Of course many churches alter the keys to accommodate the more conservative vocal range of local congregations; although 11/25 songs have a melodic range of a major 9th or greater, making them hard to transpose and remain singable.  Individual song sections (Verse, Chorus, Bridge) never have a melodic range larger than an octave (Beneath the Waters being the only exception) and it’s often quite a bit smaller, around a perfect 5th.  Moreover, as song sections progress (Verse to Chorus to Bridge) they often each have a higher “pitch center of gravity”; also matched by progressively louder, denser musical accompaniment.  Basically, popular CCS are designed to musically build.

In summary, if you don’t resonate musically with CCS, it’s simply revealing it doesn’t fit your musical schema (preferences).  That schema has been shaped over your adolescence, through significant moments of your life, through parental and familial influence, through peer associations, and through education and experience.  It’s absurd to think there must be some musical style that everyone will (or should) resonate with for worship, there’s not.  There never will be (until heaven)!  Which makes the church all the more exceptional… that people of diverse cultures, backgrounds, education, and experience choose to come together and worship God in spite of their deeply held musical preferences.

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    Interesting article but one suggestion. When using initials to abbreviate, it is best to first indicate the full title and then in parenthesis use the initials – in this case CCS. As new to Worship Leading, I had trouble figuring out what CCS means.


    Thanks so much for these articles! Really interesting stuff. I’ll look forward to more.

    An exception to prove the rule: If I’m counting correctly, Matt Redman actually does have a very singable section in 7/8 in one of his songs – the part that starts about halfway through ‘Breathing the Breath’ on the album ‘Facedown’. I’d be interested to know how often that’s ever used in Sunday worship.

    An interesting additional study would be into the average level of guitar playing skill among regular Sunday worship leaders. If moving beyond 4/4 is going to put the song beyond the abilities of a significant proportion of the people who choose songs then anything else is never going to break into the CCLI charts.


    Hello Daniel, Thank you for your analytical work, clearly communicated in simple direct language, suitable for this arena of publication. I agree with you on most fronts. CCS is a utilitarian music and it is generally good at what it does with its ‘time and place’. That is why it works in its context.

    For myself personally, when choosing to listen to, or be involved in music which endeavours to convey notions of a metaphysical ontology, I go for highest art form I can get. I figure the divine is worth it. Most CCS lyrics do not convey the profundity or cognitive depth that I personally long for, but how to use linguistics to convey the ineffable? I also wish for the music to be intrinsically imbued with depth and thus I lean towards contrapuntal settings. All useless for the non-musician and general church-goer.

    If one wants the public to be involved, then one generally has to reduce the sophistication of the music and words to a level which enables them to be involved. Thus the tendency for puerile and banal lyrics and music structures. Composing CCS that is simple yet not banal, that distills theological discussions without making them trite is a very difficult and challenging thing to do, and very few achieve it. Making a simple harmonic progression profound is just as hard. However, it has been done before and it will be done again.

    In the end, time will tell. The best of the best will last; will continue to be used long after their ‘hit’ status has evaporated.

    Dr Robert W B Burrell


    My comment is a general one for worship in today’s church. Most songs use “I” and not “We”, so finding corporate worship songs that are contemporary is a difficult task. I love intimate worship but when you come together, Christian song writers should be sensitive to the need to song corporate with corporate words.



      Sure, 16/25 (top CCS as reported by CCLI) did use the personal singular pronouns rather than plural… but that still leaves a fair few songs to work with if this is representative of the field. Having said that… can’t “I/me” when sung in a communal context have a plural sense about it? meaning… if we all sing “I” together, it’s an acknowlegement of each of our decisions to join in the corporate worship. At least in a western culture, I’m not sure the use of the 1st person singular in lyrics is as significant an issue as people might propose. Just my 2 cents 🙂

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