Note: This is a guest post from David van Mersbergen.
Coming from a musical family with a church organist parent and grandparent, David began musical training at the age of eight years old with piano lessons. He began vocal training and choral singing in high school and continued in college with several tours of major cites in North America. He has studied music theory and history. His study of aesthetics as a branch of philosophy had guided his efforts to seek out music and art worthy of study, analysis, and praise. He continues to pursue musical performance by participating in community and professional organizations.
The discovery was made when I performed “Hotel California,” a piece I had previously detested.
It had been sung very badly on many long bus rides to basketball games, track meets and field trips. Worse was that this piece had been singled out by many charismatic preachers in the late ‘70s to be about the church of Satan.
On playing it, however, the chord progressions were sound and made sense according to the rules of music theory. It should come as no surprise that the shock at how good this song was had context.
After playing Christian contemporary music with its three-chord variety for the last eight months, a song with eight distinct chords was welcome. How fun it was to play music that had intelligence to its chord progression.
I found it odd that music written about ‘materialism and excess’ was more musically deep and lyrically profound than most of the music written for praise and worship.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of pop music is trite, stupid and poorly written so as to appeal to the masses of musically illiterate consumers, but why is it that Christian contemporary music strives to emulate that kind of music?
What makes Christian contemporary music so horrible has been the subject of many posts on Facebook, as well as an episode of South Park.
Lyrics that are theologically untenable or fallacious, as well as overwhelmingly sentimental, provide little more than mind numbing ear candy for churchgoers.
Christian lyricists are not poets by any means. If a song about creation contains the word “trees,” there will be in the following line the word “breeze.” Sadly, too many lyricists are not familiar with basic theological principles.
Songs proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ come across as if the singer is in love with a matinee idol. Don’t think so? If a song actually names our Lord and Savior instead of just using “you,” substitute “Justin” or “Liam” for Jesus and see how one-dimensional this praise and worship song is.
Pop songs that come across as desperate and codependent are now fit to bring into church because it’s Jesus you’re singing about. They are insulated from literary criticism by virtue of their being “spirit-filled” or “anointed.”
The unfortunate implication is that lyrics are more important for working a crowd or congregation into an emotional high rather than for opening the mind to hear the law and gospel of God.
Why does CCM all sound the same or just plain awful? The limited number of keys that most CCM is written in explains a few things.
Sadly, the guitar has replaced the pipe organ as the instrument of choice for the church and music director. The keys of E, D, G, A and C are the most comfortable keys for the guitar player. This is true for many pop and country and western songs.
One humorous YouTube video (Editor’s note: Video contains brief profanity) claims that all country and western music is the same, splicing clips of different songs into one loop until it sounds like a regular song.
Why? Aside from topics (trucks, beer, women), the keys and chord progressions are the same. The I-V-IV and I-VI-IV-V chord progressions are the most commonly used progressions in popular music.
Any melody can be written over these three or four chords with hardly any effort at all. With no harmonic variety in the music, the songs end up fundamentally sounding the same.
Praise and Worship leaders with little education in Western music, whose only exposure to music has been radio, television, and movies, churn out songs that reflect that exposure to the three-chord harmonic progression.
The result is that second-rate lyrics and simple chord progressions that were once the bastion of pop music have become customary in the Christian contemporary music.
Taking their cue from pop culture’s standard of quality, pastors and worship leaders embrace the lowest common denominator and clean it up (or wash it in the blood of Christ) for church.
Christian contemporary music is bad because the popular music it copies from the world is bad. Lost is the idea of sacred music and the effort to produce it.
For most of the history of Western art in general, and music in particular, the Church, along with some of the aristocracy, was the major benefactor funding music for church worship services and ceremonial occasions.
Now the Church has become a consumer of popular music in its effort to reach a broader audience.
Pastors with little adherence to orthodoxy and practically no education in music or art now think the process of approaching God with humility, begging for forgiveness, receiving pardon for sins and resolving to lead a sanctified life should make way for a more palatable, seeker-friendly message.
Wanting to attract newcomers or those who are “turned off by traditional religion,” pastors and church leadership make the church service entertaining.
Congregations now confuse worship with entertainment, as if God needs a catchy tune get an audience. Such an objective can also be accomplished via a pole-dance.
Getting membership has become more important than proclaiming one’s sins can be and are forgiven, and that we are restored to a relationship with God.
Pastors have allowed the attention-seeking lead singer to educate the congregation on what music is.
Hymns with four-part harmony and theologically sound lyrics are replaced with karaoke-style sing-a-longs.
The cycle is complete when the young musician with mediocre talent decides to go to school to be a music leader, but has never read or sung a hymn, heard an oratorio, or seen an orchestra perform a symphony.
The church used to transform the culture, now it has become transformed by it.