What Are We Singing and Why? Pt 2

In Part One we discussed theology, creativity and the meaning of “contemporary”. Part Two picks up with a conversation on the emotions and the more visceral aspects of our memorable worship songs.

Does a song have to have a spine-tingling quality, or can people engage with a song on an intellectual level through the words even if they aren’t moved by the melody?

I’m sure they can, but the bottom line is musical preferences are held very very deeply in human beings, and there is a lot of research out there that looks at this, not just in a Christian context, but generally. One particular guy, Daniel Levitin talks about this “schema.” this place where we resonate with music, and basically he says that’s often formed somewhere around our adolescence, our early adulthood, especially through crucial moments in our lives; our first love, those initial achievements. Basically we end up creating our own personal musical schema, so that anything that is too simple or too predictable, we don’t have any interest in, and anything that is too complex or too outside of our world, we don’t resonate with.

Of course this can change over time but clearly those preferences are where music is going to have the most impact for us personally. The great challenge in a church setting is that we’ve got the 99 year old and the nine-month old; you’ve got generations who have significantly different schemas…

And that’s just one church…as the church, we are as eclectic a body as we could be.

Exactly, yet in church we all lay down these preferences, because there’s actually a bigger picture for us. We’re engaging with the body and God is more important than the song, and so I think every Sunday there are countless people laying down musical preferences to engage in worship and doing so quite happily. You can never find the perfect music that resonates with everyone because it’s an impossible task, it’s always going to be too loud for some, too soft for some, too much guitar for some, too little for others.

So you hope these findings will be of value to songwriters, worship leaders and churches. When do you hope to publish your findings and where can we go to find out what you’ve discovered?

Certainly by this time next year I’ll be planning to have the results in a digestible form, a book. It might take a bit longer. In the meantime I’ve written a lot of articles for Worship Leader Magazine on my ongoing findings which you can find online. (Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5)

I’d like to ask you a little bit more about your background. You’re classically trained in a number of instruments, you’ve composed all kinds of different types of music, you’re also a worship songwriter in your own right. How has that background influenced the way you write songs and the way you approach worship music?

I think it’s interesting that so many of those whose songs are popular in the churches don’t have a particularly high degree of musical training. I think one of the dangers of classical training isthat schema – where your musical preferences are. I can love everything, I can love extremes, I can find interest in anything you give me that you call music. That becomes a bit of a problem because to write a congregational song you have to have something very similar to the musical schema your congregation has. I love juicy harmony and creative instrumentation but the bottom line is that most people can’t sing to it!

So are you saying that when you write worship songs, and especially in the context of being a worship pastor when you have a responsibility to lead songs for a specific group of people in a church, that you’re not necessarily free to just follow your heart in that process – that you perhaps have to be a bit more scientific?

That’s a really interesting tension, and I guess where there are guys who already share the same musical preferences they may never have to think about it. They write what they love and everyone else likes it. But for someone who actually has very different musical preferences, yes, it’s not about me. Hopefully I can add some of me into that, and it’s not about trying to be something that I’m not, but I do have to think about why I’m writing these songs – it’s about helping people to engage with their faith in that profound way that worship does. So yes, I’m going to try and do that musically and lyrically in a way that’s meaningful to them and not just to me.

You teach a nationally accredited course in music at Alphacrucis College which includes lots of aspects of performing and songwriting, but it also looks at the music industry and issues related to publishing and copyright. Why is it important to include those?

I serve on the advisory council for CCLI in the Asia Pacific region and it fascinates me to see how CCLI has developed. The whole music industry has been changing in the last 20 years and nowadays, any songwriter or artist needs to have some understanding of copyright and the music industry because the vast majority of them will be self-published.

Given your research and your background, are you excited by where things are heading in worship music?

Whenever I talk to people who have been involved in worship music for a long time they often lament the time when songs were more “singable”. But I’ve found in my research that the current generation isn’t saying that – they’re happy to sing them. I think the greatest challenge facing the ‘industry’ is maintaining (the right) heart and integrity. Something I’ve loved about talking to songwriters in the UK is that there does seem to be a community that is not just looking for the next hit. I think that’s really healthy. As a musician I realise that we’re stuck in very small worlds – we use four or five chords and they’re the same four or five chords for the top 25 songs…

So how do we keep it interesting?

Well I think technology is one of the ways, so looking for those fresh sounds that we can get through the advancement of technology is useful. I think that each generation carries a message so we’re going to see culture reflected in our songs, so as culture changes our songs will change. That could be both a blessing and a curse, but I think the best is yet to come. For me this PhD is just the beginning. Five or ten years down the track we’re going to need to look at the data and compare it to where we are now and try to understand the journey that’s happening in contemporary congregational songs.

Read Part One here.

Daniel Thornton was talking to CCLI’s Rich Burrough.

What On Earth Are We Singing Part 1
What On Earth Are We Singing Part 2
What On Earth Are We Singing Part 3
What On Earth Are We Singing Part 4
What On Earth Are We Singing Part 5


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