Cut Out the Lobotomy Choruses

Posted by on Jul 29, 2013
Cut Out the Lobotomy Choruses

As a lover of music and a worshipper in song, I see two trends in the world of praise music – one delightful, the other distressing. A growing number of new hymns engage our worship with both theological depth and musical richness. Noticeably, these songs center on melodies that balance complexity and singability. (I know. Singability is not a real word but I hope you see my point. Praise songs need to be basic enough for most people to sing and remember but complex enough to protect them from mental numbness).

New troubadours are composing songs that build up the body of Christ in ways that I find both refreshing and gratifying. I am profoundly thankful for the works of hymn-writers like Stuart Townend, Keith Getty, Bob Kauflin, and others.

The other trend moves in the opposite direction – both melodically and devotionally. Many new, popular praise songs have very little melodic variety. It is not too far to describe them as monotonous. I call them lobotomy choruses.

Not too long ago, some Christians complained that praise songs fit into a “7-11” pattern – Seven words repeated eleven (or more!) times. Rather than the verbal richness of a modern hymn like In Christ Alone, we sang endless choruses of I can sing of your love forever, I can sing of your love forever, I can sing of your love forever, I can sing of your love forever.”

But today, the problem goes beyond mere repetition of words. Now we repeat the very notes. Or, at least, we’re not straying far from one dominant note that pervades the melody, making for an experience more akin to a New Age mantra than a Christian hymn.

Try out this thought experiment. Just hum the melody of these two songs: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing and Our God.

In case you need prompting, here are some lyrics:

Come, thou Fount of every blessing,

tune my heart to sing thy grace;

streams of mercy, never ceasing,

call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,

mount of thy redeeming love.

 Vs.

Our God is greater,

Our God is stronger,

God you are higher than any other.

Our God is Healer,

Awesome in Power,

Our God! Our God!

Our God is greater,

Our God is stronger,

God you are higher than any other.

Our God is Healer,

Awesome in Power,

Our God! Our God!

Does one song have more melodic variety than the other?

Perhaps you know enough about musical notation to envision the notes of these two songs on a page. For the first hymn, your eyes would need to move up and down quite a bit. For the latter, you won’t need to move your eyes very far at all. And melodic fluctuation effects more than just our eyes and ears.

In his classic work, What to Listen for in Music, composer Aaron Copland offered these thoughts on what makes for a good melody. “A beautiful melody, like a piece of music in its entirety, should be of satisfying proportions. It must give us a sense of completion and of inevitability. To do that, the melodic line will generally be long and flowing, with low and high points of interest and a climactic moment usually near the end. Obviously, such a melody would tend to move about among a variety of notes, avoiding unnecessary repetitions.”

In his important work This is Your Brain on Music, Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin adds insight about how a good melody stimulates our brain. I have to wonder if he would claim that a monotonous melody does the opposite. The effect of music on the brain is a topic of growing interest as the discipline of neuroscience evolves. The field of psychology also chimes in with important findings (as discussed, for example, in Robert Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy).

A commitment to lobotomy choruses surfaces in the way some worship leaders reformulate older, melodically rich hymns. They insert mini-lobotomy choruses in between verses of otherwise engaging songs. So, for example, when singing the melodically complex When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, we mix in several lines of monotone “Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross…”

Recently I was in a Christian gathering where, after droning several monotonous praise songs, we began to sing Crown Him With Many Crowns, one of my favorite hymns. The contrast prompted hope in my lulled spirit. I wondered if we would sing all four of the verses, lauding God as the Lamb upon His throne, the Lord of Life, the Lord of love, and the Lord of heaven. No such luck. After singing just the first verse, we lapsed into a mantra-esque refrain of “Majesty, Lord of all” and many repetitions of the same. Then we sang the second verse of Crown Him with Many Crowns” and repeated the “Majesty” chorus NINE TIMES! (I counted). What had started as a melodically complex, theologically engaging time of worship devolved into a mind-numbing repetitious chant. And we never sang verses three and four of Crown Him with Many Crowns.

I hope you won’t dismiss my concerns as mere personal preference or the ranting of a crotchety nostalgia freak. There’s more at stake here. Music reflects and advances a worldview. Some music flows purposefully from a view that life is monotonous, moving nowhere, and best handled by minimizing or totally eliminating desires. Christian music, conversely, embodies a perspective that sees a point to life with a culmination on the horizon and diverse beauty along the way.

The complexity of a Bach hymn and the words he etched at the bottom of the page, soli deo gloria, are not coincidental.

7 Comments

  1. Kelvin Smith
    July 30, 2013

    I defer to no one in love of Bach, Townend, and Getty, among others, but I think there’s a place also for more quiet, simple songs. When it’s time for us to be still in God’s presence, complexity isn’t necessarily the best route to get there. (And older generations have understood that: “Alleluia” was a song my grandfather loved.) Of course, loud and simplistic doesn’t really accomplish that goal, either.

    I find myself wondering sometimes if the extra choruses tacked onto existing hymns, particularly the well-known hymns, are just a scheme to get a little extra copyright revenue through CCLI. I’m not sure I’d call “Oh, the wonderful cross” monotone, but IMHO neither the music nor the words really match up very well with, or add much to, the original hymn. (Then again, that’s happened in prior generations, too: see the history of “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed/At the Cross.”)

    The funny thing is that a composer can put interesting and dull music in a single song. Sovereign Grace is reviving numerous old hymn texts, but the writers sometimes stick in their own interludes, which are invariably less interesting both textually and melodically. (“Now Why This Fear,” using an Augustus Toplady primary text, is a perfect example.) I will admit, though, that those are the parts of the songs that my 5-year-old tends to gravitate to. Then again, that may prove the point about the level of intelligence it’s hitting. And don’t get me started on the number of songs they put out (mostly, I think, with modern texts) featuring long stepwise quarter-note runs.

    There’s a time to worship simply, at a child’s level, stilling the racing mind. But let’s not stay there forever.

    Reply
  2. Fred Cohrs
    July 30, 2013

    AMEN!

    Reply
  3. Dan M
    July 31, 2013

    The Gettys are my favorite musicians on the planet; I love the way they express important Biblical truth for our minds in moving music for our hearts. I love the musical richness, like the 5/4 time signature on ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for us’, and their use of orchestral instruments. Their music, and many traditional hymns, transports me well in worship.

    But musical tastes are very much culturally-bound. Before the Western church sang melodic hymns, many generations of Christians worshipped just as meaninfully in monotone chanting. Were they astray? A century ago, missionaries thought nothing of imposing a Western music scale and Western melodies on the church in other cultures. Today, ethnomusicologists help minority cultures discover how much richer their worship can be when it flows from their own musical fabric. Sometimes, that may sound monontonic or off-key to us Westerners. But every culture, every sub-culture, every community, needs its own songwriters and songs.

    Nor is simplicity or repetition of lyric inherently inferior. Sometimes, I need to repeat something to myself many times for it to really sink in. That’s actually the thing I love most about Psalm 136. -The repetition of “His love endures forever” in no way makes this psalm inferior or mindless. Different people at different times will have a different need/ability to soak in a thought. Get them all in a group, and the worship leader can’t possibly get it just right for everyone, which is why people who appreciate repetition more and those who appreciate it less tend to worship separately. But they don’t need to think poorly of each other for it.

    As for the insertion of a contemporary chorus or bridge into a traditional hymn, and/or changing the time-signature (as in ‘Amazing Grace / My Chains are Gone’), often this has been just what I needed to beautifully freshen a hymn for me. This tension between “traditional” and “popular” is the exact same issue as with the liturgy: It is so perfect for some people who revel in how it’s been refined and has endured through the ages, and yet to other people, it feels like a stale rut.

    I’ve had some wonderful times of worship with melodically-rich hymns that in three verses cover everything from creation to the cross to Christ’s return, and I’ve had some other wonderful times of worship with simple choruses that soak in just one line of Scripture, a single thought. There’s a time and place for each of those. (If I’m not careful, I may end up admitting that there’s even a time and place for Mandisa’s ‘Good Morning’ song for some people, but that’s a whole nother topic.)

    Every community needs its own songwriters, its own expressions of worship to draw hearts and minds to be captured by the glory of God. Those songs may be as different as the communities themselves are. If God is made great in their eyes, then the songs are just perfect.

    Reply
    • Randy Newman
      August 1, 2013

      Dan,

      Thanks for your gracious comments and gentle pushback about my blog. I appreciate your challenges to my views. If you’re saying that my concerns are only matters of taste and culture, I remain unconvinced. I do think there’s more to it than that. And I’m still concerned that some contemporary worship is unhealthy.

      Yes, I agree that sometimes we are in need of repeating things in song to help us “get it.” But, at some point, perhaps after the 10th or 11th repetition, it devolves into a kind of practice that is closer to pagan than Christian. Jesus warned us against “babbling like pagans” in Matt. 6:7 and I think we need to consider that as a real danger. I believe that behind some contemporary worship styles lies a very different view of sanctification – one that is far more focused on the current sensation of singing a song (or other experiences) than on the finished work of the cross or the settled word of God.

      I appreciate your mentioning of Psalm 136. But there is a significant difference in the way that Psalm repeats a refrain (“His love endures forever”) as a balance to other lines of text and the way contemporary songs only repeat one phrase incessantly.

      And while I also appreciate the insertion of a “bridge” chorus in between verses of a traditional hymn to “freshen” it (as you say), my experience in some worship settings is that the “bridge” actually eclipses the verses of the original hymn. When you’ve spent only 2 minutes singing the melodically rich, lyrically deep verses but another 6 or 7 minutes repeating just a few words of a “bridge,” the experience becomes a lot less “refreshing.”

      Reply
      • Dan M
        August 1, 2013

        Thanks, Randy. We’ll probably have to agree to disagree on some of these points. I’m finding the discussion helpful, though, for coming to grips in my own mind with what constitutes a universal truth about worship as opposed to a personal preference (as crucial as that may be to the individual). Actually, “preference” is probably not strong enough; “individual need” may be more like it.

        It seems to me that the universal truths about worship music across all cultures and generations have more to do with a song’s function than its form. For example: A good worship song needs to engage both the heart and the mind. (Note: Different people are engaged differently.) A worship song is effective to the extent that it causes God’s glory to be great in our eyes. (Again, note that what that means will depend on whose eyes we’re talking about.)

        Some forms/expressions of worship that are absolutely perfect for one person bore/distract/irritate another. For you, Chris Tomlin’s Our God, is an example of melodic poverty; to me, it’s a wonderful masterpiece of musical richness, especially the original release with the orchestral strings structuring their riffs around the “ands” (the eighth notes that are between the quarter notes), and the soaring effect in the bridge when all the eighth notes are pounded hard except the down-beat itself, which is a total rest! If it doesn’t have that same grabbing and soaring effect on you (and maybe even has an uncomfortable effect instead?), it would not be surprising if it’s not very effective for you as a worship song. It’s a perfect fit for some, but certainly not for all. And even a song/chorus that is perfect for me right now won’t be if I repeat it too many times, as then it looses its power to engage me (perhaps until it’s freshened again).

        Jesus’ earth-shaking point in the sermon on the mount was that it’s all about what goes on in the heart (the function), not the externals (the form). This is exactly what he was getting at in condemning “babbling like pagans” who express a form of worship but with heart and mind detached. Yes, for many people, this happens easily if the song is too simple, and worship leaders need to be sensitive to that. But it’s equally true that for other people, singing the same old hymn that no longer engages them can become a babbling like pagans, with heart and mind disengaged. Regardless of the details of the external form that is most effective for a particular individual, what worship music needs to do is to fully engage that person so that God’s glory is made great in their eyes.

        I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to think through these matters and chew on them with you. As I said, I expect we’ll have to agree to disagree on some of our conclusions. I only hope I haven’t been disagreeable in the process. We serve an amazing God who has created incredible diversity, and I’m glad we can celebrate Him together.

        Thank you again!

        Reply
        • Randy Newman
          August 1, 2013

          Dan,

          You have not been disagreeable even though we disagree. Your tone has been gracious and I appreciate that.

          One thing I’m sure we do agree on is that music is a unique, powerful, and delightful gift from God. To Him we lift our voices in praise.

          Reply
  4. Betty
    August 28, 2017

    Dan and Randy – reading your discussion about music was much like watching a Chip and Dale cartoon. Refreshing that it didn’t get ugly. I’m with Randy on this one – continuous repetition of a phrase begins to feel like we are getting ourselves all worked up rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to come and touch our hearts during the worship. It does remind me of paganism. I don’t like getting stuck on one phrase and the worship leader standing up there making the sign with his finger twirling around to indicated keep on singing it over and over (accompanied by a pained look on his face). It doesn’t feel like true worship to me. As you can probably tell, I’m not a music major, just an observation from a person in the congregation.

    Reply

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