The problem with “modern” music

This topic would probably take several thousand words to delve into deeply, but this picture takes care of a thousand or so.

“Modern” certainly means “more modern than Handel”, but for many people, Woody Guthrie is just as culturally foreign as Josquin des Prez. I don’t know where the stylistic cutoff line is, but seven rounds of verse/chorus probably falls on the wrong side.

If “Turn Turn Turn” had a bridge, for example, it would work better stylistically for today’s listeners. But – admit it – the song drags on interminably, and if you don’t have a chimey 12-string adding sparkle, it’s no better than droning “A Mighty Fortress”. (Actually, I have an electric 12-string, and still couldn’t bring it alive.)

Don’t think a song will work just because it was written after 1960. It ain’t necessarily so.

Boomers seem to be in charge in many congregations, so Boomers beware! Your tastes are not universal!This applies equally to any generation, of course. We have to really listen to the music and try to separate our emotional responses, personal history with the song, etc. from its intrinsic interest and its applicability to worship.

The corollary to this is that we should be listening to music we’re not automatically comfortable with with open ears, ready to hear something that works, even if it’s not something we’d listen to ourseslves. Reggae, hip-hop, metal, emo, Christian pop – all these genres have songs that will speak to someone in a deep way, though we might change stations if they came on the car radio. Sometimes suffering through a half hour of crap on the radio will yield a gem for your worship.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are some times when “Big Yellow Taxi” or “Turn Turn Turn” are just what’s needed. But if they turn into inviolable traditions in their own rights, then we have just replicated the problem we’re trying to solve.



About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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4 Responses to The problem with “modern” music

  1. cindy says:

    I’ve been enjoying your new blog!

    Boomers seem to be in charge in many congregations, so Boomers beware! Your tastes are not universal!

    I’d like to add to this–I needed to learn not to assume that I know what kind of music someone likes, just because of their age. At my small church, I’ve been surprised that the people who enjoy it when we do “modern” music are often folks in their 60s and 70s, and those who like classical are sometimes the folks in their 20s.

  2. Paul Oakley says:

    I, of course, am part of what you might think is the problem here. I love the majestic Anglican and Lutheran hymns (don’t care much for the Wesleyan stuff). “A Mighty Fortress” is right down my alley – even though its theology isn’t. And I just love a man who can play a big organ. So naturally, I don’t think worship needs to convert to “modern” music.

    That said, I enjoy music from the contemporary buffet as much as the next person and use eclectic styles in services I put together. Gregorian chant, World Music, Taizé chant, Country-Western, Folk, Singing the Living Tradition, Singing the Journey, mass choir, metal, gospel, Buddhist chant, modern classical, kirtan, Jewish a cappella, even Baroque… But whatever it is, the most important thing is that its style, sound, beat, lyrics, and general effect all work together with the service as a whole. Its relative modernity is not at issue, IMO.

    Nevertheless, Christians have been applying contemporary style to music and worship for a long time now. In addition to the artists who reinterpret the Christian classic hymns to contemporary styles (Chris Rice’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” among them) and the often lyrically shallow but quite emotive praise music of some fellowships, there are Christian bands of every imaginable style creating a constant stream of brand new stuff. In my small town, the largest ultrafundamentalist church has early traditional style worship and later contemporary worship with a live rock band. If people who refuse knowingly to allow their theology to budge for generations on end can make musical accommodations to current preferences, the rest of us surely can.

    However, it seems to me that whatever we do with our worship music, we don’t want very much of it that is generationally specific. A little here and there of one generation sharing its music with other generations makes good sense. But over all music used in worship needs to find a way to transcend generation, whether it is old or new, appealing to the mix of generations present. Lady Gaga is too specific for general use, it seems to me, unless you plan on segregated worship.

  3. But over all music used in worship needs to find a way to transcend generation, whether it is old or new, appealing to the mix of generations present.

    That’s exactly what I was going on about! The “problem”, such as it is, is not you, but rather services where the only source of music/liturgy is the same old stuff rooted in the 1950s, or earlier. That strikes a large number of people (and probably a higher proportion of visitors than regulars) as belonging to a long-past generation, not theirs. That’s not outreach, then, but tending to tradition for its own sake.

    We were asked to do “Wake Now, My Senses” for an ordination last month. We started out with a traditional piano introduction, then piano playing the melody only for the first verse, then full piano accomp. on second verse, then add bass/guitar/drums on third verse, then add Hammond B-3 on fourth verse, then add brass (fff!) on the last verse. It was a combination of traditional and arena-rock styles, which got raves from those in attendance. Even “traditional” music can be brought into the 21st century with some arrangement tricks. (And, conversely, uninspiring arrangement can kill modern songs.)

    If your services include 17th-century organ voluntaries in the same proportions as the other genres you mentioned, they will come across as fresh and attention-getting. If the services are mostly Baroque organ, with the odd novelty reggae song once a year, what’s the generational message the music sends to a newcomer?

  4. Doug says:

    Worship, and the music that supports it, is a culture, specific to your church. The trick is to broaden this culture and make it attractive to more people. Our church has evolved a culture of variety in music. We use both hymnals, our choir sings a variety of styles and we have a variety of special music. We try to have music that fits the service, both in mood and content. We try to have enough variety to add interest, but not so much as to lose that indefinable sense of it being us, and not somebody else. As a vocal soloist, I have performed selections from Haydn, Handel, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Crash Test Dummies, but not all in the same service.

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