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Worship Composition: Looking Back, Looking Forward

By June 1, 2006 No Comments

Today’s worship is riddled with polarities. “Traditional” is set against “contemporary.”1 Hymn is set against praise song. The wisdom of professional musicians is juxtaposed with the will of the untrained people in the pews. Some champion aesthetic quality of worship music, while others promote utility.2 Does this “either/or” mentality discourage us from exploring creative new forms of congregational song? Perhaps we have become like the barmaid in the Blues Brothers movie: “We have both kinds of music here: Country and Western!”

In the midst of these tensions, is there a way to build (or rebuild) bridges between conservatory-trained composers and the church?3 The answer calls for rigorous collaboration among composers, theologians, and church musicians.

The first step in charting new territory in church music is to understand the past. Looking back at the history of church music, we find an array of compositional possibilities that can be applied to future worship compositions. The following sections analyze various aspects of these historical worship musics to provide insight for fresh application to modern church compositions.

Head/Heart Continuum

Throughout the Church’s history, the pendulum has swung between “head” faith and “heart” faith, sometimes expressed as immanence and transcendence. For example, Western Medieval faith was broadly of a mystical nature. Medieval Christians believed in a transcendent God, and therefore worshiped in other-worldly cathedrals with priests and choirs who acted on their behalf. The Reformation reacted against the almost magical aura that pervaded Medieval worship, emphasizing a God who drew near to believers through faith. The Reformation’s focus on God’s immanence and a theology emphasizing the priesthood of all believers led to an explosion in hymnody that placed worship music back into the mouths of the people in the pews. The Reformation also brought a new emphasis on reason that has persisted until the middle of the 20th century.

With the postmodern culture of today comes a new desire for the mystery and transcendence that has been missing from worship for so many centuries.4 It seems that today’s Christians, especially youth, are marked by a desire to experience as well as hear the Word. Perhaps this dual approach to worship could be called “reasoned mystery.” This shift from reason to experience, from print to multimedia, from hearing to doing, signals a window of opportunity for composers to think outside of the box, discovering new forms of congregational song for this new worship environment.

Word/Music Continuum

Joseph Gelineau observes that church music history is marked by a variety of approaches to the balance between words and music. He diagrams it this way:5


Ordinary speech is at the extreme end of the “word” approach, having no music at all. Next is proclamation, which is only musical in the sense that it is heightened speech; cantillation, the intoned speaking of scripture that was commonly used in the early Church and is still used in Islamic scripture reading is an example of proclamation. Meditation is a further step toward the “music” end of the spectrum. This is still primarily word-based, yet it is musical enough to allow for rumination. Psalm singing, especially antiphonal or responsorial Psalm singing, is an example of this. The words still dominate the form, yet time and pitch are stretched well beyond everyday speech, creating an artistic window into the words.

Balancing the demands of words and music is chant. The natural inflection of the words is retained, yet the music is truly melodic. We hear this in Gregorian chant, which not coincidentally, forms the basis for melody and scale in Western music.

Tipping the balance toward “music” is hymn. Hymn, as it is broadly defined by Gelineau, is a worship song that is driven by the music rather than the words. We see this in most modern Protestant congregational song–the text may be important, but it fits the requirements of the music rather than vice versa. Even more music-focused is acclamation. Phrases such as “Alleluia,” “Amen,” or “Gloria in excelsis Deo” are clearly emotional, rather than informational, in nature. Therefore, the most flowery, melismatic music is used, because it is more important that the text is felt rather than understood. Finally, vocalization/instrumental worship music dispenses with words entirely and enters the realm of pure musical emotion. Gelineau maintains that instrumental music is best seen as an extension to the human voice. Vocalization is wordless singing, and is reserved for the most ecstatic worship moments. Two prominent examples of vocalization are the jubilus that developed in the Middle Ages and Spirit-singing in Pentecostal traditions.

The broad range of expressions on the word/music continuum drives home the point that most congregational music in non-liturgical churches focuses on the narrow band that Gelineau defines as hymn. Energy is spent arguing the merits of either hymns or praise songs, yet neither form embraces the full range of historical word/music expressions.

People/Professional Continuum

Music intended for congregation must be simple. Groups of untrained, unrehearsed people simply can’t join in the same range of musical techniques that professional music ensembles can. We see a clear example of this principle in the development of polyphony in the early Church. Monophonic chant was accessible to worshipers, but as chant developed into organum and eventually complex polyphony, it moved away from the abilities of the congregation and into the domain of highly trained church musicians.

If music is to remain congregational, some technical sacrifices must be made. In general, an increase of complexity in one area (rhythm, for instance) requires a decrease in another (harmony or melody). We see an example of this in the music of the early Lutheran Church. Lutheran hymns were originally energetic unison melodies that frequently used mixed meters. For example, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” began its life with an asymmetrical mixture of duple and triple meter.6 But as more complex homophonic vocal textures came to dominate church song in later centuries, the rhythm of “A Mighty Fortress” was simplified into the sturdy 4/4 meter we use today.

Below are diagrams that map the relative difficulty of various scales, textures and forms. It is overly simplistic, but begins to suggest points at which specific compositional techniques move from the abilities of the congregation into the realm of professionals. The cumulative effect of these techniques is more important than any technique used singly.



Pentatonic scales are found in folk musics throughout the world. Blues, Celtic, Asian and African music all use some form of the pentatonic scale, evidently because the large intervals are simple enough for all levels of music-makers to perform. Conversely, atonal or highly chromatic music is rarely heard in any context but that of trained musicians. Observing the progression from pentatonic to atonal scales on the continuum, we also see the historical progression of scale in Western music.





Texture follows a similar pattern, with the top line of the chart displaying the development of texture in the Medieval period and the bottom line showing other common textures in the worship context.





Composers may use a variety of forms, but some–sonata form, for example–are far too complex for congregational use. Instead, simpler forms are the norm. Some, such as direct repetition or stanzas, are so simple as to allow the congregation to lead themselves. Others, such as lining out, call and response, and antiphons, require interaction between the congregation and a leader. Less clearly defined are improvised forms. In contexts such as African or African American music, some level of improvisation is expected of all worship participants; in other contexts it is the exclusive role of the music leadership. Similar to improvisation are the aleatoric, or indeterminate, effects that are common in 20th century art music. “Aleatory” is the use of repeated patterns for which some of the musical parameters are determined by the performer. For example, the composer may give the performer a short musical phrase for a specific period but at an undetermined tempo, allowing the performer to improvise with the tempo. Similarly, a set of pitches may be provided but it is up to the performer in what sequence and rhythm in which to play them.



Looking Forward

New music will continue to be composed in existing musical genres, but I believe that more exciting terrain lies beyond our view. Perhaps we can mix and match musical elements from the continuums outlined above to create entirely new genres for modern worship. For example, combine a sustained drone to invoke a sense of holy mystery, an antiphonal melody to distribute musical complexity between music leaders and congregation, and simple aleatoric motives that can be improvised by more adventurous members of the congregation. The possibilities are endless.

This is not innovation for innovation’s sake. Instead, it grows from a passion to reflect the biblical and historic roots of our faith and the creative nature of our God. It is a vision for liturgical composition that moves beyond historic worship models and existing art music models with a desire to be a “peculiar people” who are “in the world, but not of it.” Yet, what if church musicians–steeped as they are in existing categories such as hymn, praise song, choral anthem and organ prelude–reject these exciting new genres of congregational song?

Composers will certainly face resistance to worship innovations, but they will have a better chance of finding acceptance and making a positive impact on modern congregational song if they put the needs of the congregation above their own.7 Composers must be willing to meet the church half way. This compromise will necessarily include taming some musical techniques to a level simple enough for non-musical church members, perhaps assigning more difficult musical materials to the trained worship leaders.

Is This a Realistic Vision?

The Taize community of France gives me hope that there are, indeed, new songs still to be sung. Taize is an ecumenical community that was formed in the 1940s as a place of refuge for displaced Europeans. Their worship developed along unique lines due to their shared spiritual lives, monastic influences, and the need for a common language to bind together the many tongues that their community represented. Over time, they gravitated toward short songs that could be repeated over and over meditatively. The songs, often in Latin, harkened back to the pure melodic arches of chant, yet used simple modal harmonies. However, these “songlets” are only a starting point for Taize songs. While the assembled group repeats the song in unison or parts, instrumentalists add layer upon layer of descants and canons to create a rich polyphonic texture. A cantor chants Psalm verses on top of these lines.

Taize worship has become immensely popular and meaningful to worshipers throughout Europe and America–especially to youth–with thousands flocking to the community each year. After evening prayer is finished, hundreds of worshipers remain in the sanctuary and continue to sing–sometimes for several hours. Taize has also had an enormous impact on worship outside of France. Its influence is especially strong within the Roman Catholic Church (Taize is published by a Catholic publisher GIA in America), but even Protestant congregations host Taize services and include the songs of Taize in their hymnals.

Taize is an example of an original genre that has made inroads into mainstream worship. It gives an example of music that is born in community, that has roots in history, and that reaches boldly into the future. Another example is theologian/musician Jeremy Begbie’s scripture performances, in which musicians improvise on their instruments after reflecting together on a scripture passage. (However, this is done in the context of a musicians’ fellowship rather than a typical congregation.) Some of composer Scott Robinson’s work creatively combines chanted acclamations, antiphons, drones, and rhythmic ostinato in a way that maximizes everyone’s musical contribution. Perhaps the reason that Robinson’s music so effectively distributes the musical material between leaders and participants is because he draws heavily on non-Western traditions. Could it be that non-Western music suggests an antidote to the separation between performers and audience (and leaders and congregation) we experience in the West?

How can we begin to apply these ideas to our own worship contexts? First, the composer and congregation must be in authentic community. Launching out into uncharted territory requires the trust and respect that is built in relationship. Second, the church must be eager to experiment with creative new genres of congregational song, and even be willing to fail. Third, the composer must become a student of worship and liturgy. If the composer can only draw on concert music paradigms, any collaboration is bound to result in an uneasy relationship between music and liturgy. Finally, the situation calls for mutual submission. It is no accident that the apostle Paul follows his discussion of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” with the admonition to “submit to one another in love.” Church music, especially that which seeks to forge a creative new path, requires that both composers and congregation place each other’s needs first.

May God bless our efforts to sing a truly new song!