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What on earth are we singing? Part 3

What on earth are we singing? Part 3

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Have you ever considered what might define the contemporary congregational song (CCS) genre?  Of course every song is unique (although some may feel that CCS all sound the same!), but what are the music and extra-musical parameters that make CCS, CCS.  Are they just pop songs with Christian lyrics?  These are just some of the questions I’ve been pursuing answers to through my PhD research, overflowing into this series of articles.  If you’re only just joining the conversation, please check out the first two parts (Part 1, Part 2) so you’ve got the context of what I’m about to reveal…

But, before we go any further, I thought it might be helpful to outline what I intend to cover over the coming months:

  • Summary of the genre analysis (this article)
  • More in-depth CCS Lyric analysis
  • More in-depth CCS Music analysis
  • Secular musical influences
  • Industry in the driving seat (platforms for CCS)
  • Songwriters’ perspectives
  • Average believers and the songs we make them sing
  • Perceptions of engagement
  • A framework for effective contemporary congregational songs

Having analysed 25 representative CCS that are popularly sung across numerous countries, scores of denominations, thousands of churches, and are highly viewed on YouTube, the following is a summary of the genre.  Yes, it’s reductionist, and you may like (or not like) some of the findings, but they are what they are.  You will be able to find exceptions; some of those exceptions are what makes the individual songs stand out among the sea of over 300,000 English-language worship songs represented by CCLI.

Contemporary congregational songs we sing are predominantly written/co-written since 2009 by male singer-songwriters, mostly with a strong local church expression.  They are recorded by artists who have a significant platform (including financial backing and marketing) with which to gain the initial momentum required to seed the songs across enough churches for them to begin registering on CCLI charts.  Effectively, they are either extensively on tour or front the worship of large cross-denominational conferences.

They will be recorded in a live or pseudo-live worship context, probably with Electric Guitar(s), Acoustic Guitar(s), Keyboard(s), Bass, Drums and Lead vocal/Backing vocals.  They will of course be commercially available and registered with CCLI.  Many of them will also be recorded on video.  All of them will have this version, or a fan created lyrics-with-background-pictures version uploaded to YouTube.

They are in white-note-Major-keys and always contain chords I, IV and V with one or two extra chords added, often vi or ii.  They are on average 6’16” long, predominantly slower in tempo (below 80bpm), and in simple quadruple time (4/4), rarely in complex duple (6/8).  They are likely to have more than one Verse, a Chorus and either a Bridge and/or an Instrumental section.  They will on average use 123 words, although it could be half or double that amount.  And yes, for the record, female songwriters on average use more words (138) in their songs than male songwriters (106).  CCS will likely have a primary focus of Praise/Thanksgiving, but possibly Prophetic/Statement and less likely Worship or Petition (definitions can be found in Part 2).

They are likely to be written from an individual point of view (I, me, my), but are often a combination of individual/plural points of view (I, me, my, we, us, our).  They will address God more than they acknowledge the singer.  They will generally focus on the second person of the Trinity, sometimes referencing God or the Spirit, but almost never Father or Holy Spirit, and they will generally not address the Godhead with more than four titles in the one song (e.g. Lord, Saviour, Redeemer, Jesus).  They will also address God directly through the 2nd person pronoun (You), or through a combination of 2nd and 3rd person pronouns (You, He).  If there is any level of intimacy in the lyrics they will virtually only ever be directed to Jesus, or the undefined divine “You”.

They will contain some Scriptural references, often in isolation and re-expressed, as well as acknowledging one or more of God’s attributes.  The most likely attributes to be acknowledged are God’s; love, name, mercy/grace, light, goodness, and greatness/strength/omnipotence. They are likely to have a melodic range of a perfect octave somewhere between D4 and E5, with a “pitch center of gravity” of B5, at least in their recorded versions.  The overwhelming majority of intervallic movement in the melodies is the unison (repeated notes) and the Major second, similar to the statistics for nursery rhyme melodies.  Of course, they will be comparatively rhythmically more complex.  Finally, they will contain some easily identifiable lyric hook or instrumental riff which is reoccurring.

This summary may at first appear facetious, but it’s not.  It is not prescriptive, but descriptive of the genre.  There is no value judgement made of the findings, although you may feel particularly passionate that some of these musical/lyrical elements should change.  Great!  Encourage your songwriters to write songs according to your convictions.  Alternatively, choose songs for your church that address your concerns.  Alternatively, you may feel that this quite adequately endorses the majority of songs you sing/lead.  The more interesting question is why does this accurately summarise the genre?  What are the limitations that congregational songs must adhere to, if they are to remain congregational?  I open the floor…

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