This is a long post.
We have a lot of musical styles… actually, if you get into them a bit, we have a ton. When dealing with church music, we tend to think in two words: traditional and contemporary. If we were to associate two musical styles with each, we would likely associate the word classical with traditional and rock with contemporary.
To some extent, this is somewhat fair, at least from a music theory perspective (i.e., the chord progressions and musical forms). However, what we typically don’t consider is the music history behind the styles. Where’d rock come from? Where’d classical music come from? Where did the traditional hymn style come from?
I hope to be able to distill some of this into a relatively concise post that. Most of this information comes from A History of Western Music by Grout, Palisca, and Burkholder. Let’s start at the beginning of what we would more or less recognize as something sounding like western music: plainsong or plainchant
Not necessarily “Gregorian chant,” as there were lots of styles of plainchant. Between the 5th and 9th centuries, plainchant, which was monophonic and unaccompanied, was western church music, and it was primarily stepwise melodic motion (i.e., no interval jumps). Around 8th and 9th century, more intervalic jumps became prevalent in the melodic lines.
Notation came slowly. Plainsong was, of course, transmitted orally at first. The earliest notation came about in the 9th century and employed the use of little signs called neumes placed above the words. They were not separated by height; rather, the direction of the pitch was marked by the signs themselves. Typically, these marks did not convey the rhythm, but only pitch. The first height-separated and thus resembling something similar to our modern notation came about in the 11th century, though these still did not use staff lines. A rather famous guy in music history, Guido, is traditionally credited with adding one to four staff lines to clarify the actual relationship between pitches, as well as some sort of demarcation for one of the lines as to what note it actually referred to. Guido is also credited for solfege, a set of syllables that helped singers remember the pattern of pitches in what we might refer to as a “scale.” Except for the first, ut, these are similar: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. Later, ti was also added, and ut is usually changed to do. As a side note that’s interesting, there were these things called hexachords, which were groups of six notes; the very first note of the hexachord that started on G was called gamma …. and thus the first note of this hexachord was called gamma ut, from whence we get the term gammut.
There were a variety of techniques that used chant that began to develop, especially towards the 10th and 11th centuries. Interestingly, the church banned a variety of these (if you’re interested, look up trope and sequence).
While church music was generally unaccompanied (though organs were used in some churches), dance music in the Middle Ages was accompanied by both songs and instrumental music. In fact, accompanying instruments, we will see, did not come into the church for a while because they were associated with secular dance music. These included harps, vielles (prototype to the viol and subsequently the modern violin), organistrum (sort of like a hurdy-gurdy), psalteries, lutes, various wind instruments, and portable organs.
Polyphony – multiple vocal lines singing separate parts – came to the church slowly. Part of the reason for the introduction was notation; now, chants could be performed consistently. Composers could specifically add structure to chants, and music theory began to be much more standardized and develop much quicker.
Organum does not refer to a bunch of organs getting together, but refers to polyphonic chant. A few examples of polyphonic chant seem to exist in the 10th century; however, it really began to develop in the 11th century. Contrary (voices moving in opposite directions) and oblique (one voice stays on the same pitch while the other moves away) motion became prevalent. In other words, greater melodic independence and a more equal importance of the two voice began to develop. At this point, the 11th century, polyphony basically meant two voices.
As organum continued to develop (and we have terms for various types of organum), various techniques were used and more independent melodic lines were developed (examples of three voice works show up in the 13th century).
Another interesting development at this point is that of a rhythmic mode. Modes themselves – similar to our modern-day scales – were slowly developed and the history is actually fairly obscure. Rhythmic notation started gaining traction in the 12th century, and specific rhythms that were roughly correspondent to French and Latin poetic metrical feet were employed. It’s interesting to note that, in church music, it was always ternary; that is, similar to 6/8 or 9/8 in our modern time signatures.
By the 13th century, notation development, motets, and a couple musical techniques had developed. Because they were written, we know much more about them – and, because they were written, development became much more rapid.
14th to 16th Centuries: The Renaissance and Reformation
The next couple centuries saw a rapid expanse in music development. Styles based on areas (and characterized by famous composers) arose. Many different song forms , especially secular forms, became prevalent. Chromaticism became more common, to the extent that some highly chromatic works (for their time) actually sound rather odd to our ears.
Consonance and Dissonance
It is worth noting at this point that what was defined as a consonant interval (since, now that we have polyphony, we have clear harmony) was basically the perfect 5th. This primarily mattered at the beginning and ends of works (or at stopping points in the song, what we call a cadence). Striking dissonance occurred at times during the work, primarily because the lines were considered independent melodic lines. Vertical harmony was not thought about as much. Additionally, there was an avoided dissonant interval called the tritone (an augmented 4th or diminished 5th), which can be heard by playing an F and a B natural together. In some way, the “devil” was referred to as being present in music with this interval; to fix it, they would lower it to a perfect 4th.
Another interesting thing to note is that some considered certain composers, such as Heinrich Isaac and Josquin des Prez, to have attained vocal polyphonic perfection. Glareanus referred to Josquin’s music as ars perfecta: “a perfect art, to which nothing can be added, so nothing can be expected after it but deterioration of old age.”
Instrumental music rose significantly, especially between 1450 and 1550. Independent instrumental music was primarily from memory or improvised before, thus we have little record of it. Publications on instruments began to be printed – the advent of the printing press was a big deal in music! – and we know much more about instrumental music this time period.
At the beginning of the 16th century, instrumental music was closely associated with vocal music; i.e., similar style and performance. Instruments would double of replace voices in secular and sacred polyphonic compositions. During the 16th century, compositions were increasingly written directly for instruments.
Dance music was widespread and highly regarded in the Renaissance. The primary use of instrumental music was still dance music, but
You might notice that the 16th century was when the Reformation began in Germany. Music in the Lutheran Church in the 16th century was prominent and reflected Luther’s convictions (and affections; he was a singer, composer, admirer of polyphony, and a lutist). He altered words of the liturgy for use in his own church (though desired to keep it in Latin).
One distinctive innovation in music by the Lutheran Church was a strophic (repeating verses) congregational hymn called the Choral or Kirchenlied (church song), referred to as a chorale in English. These actually only consisted of a text and a tune and were not written originally as four-part hymns as we are used to today. However, it lent itself to harmonic enrichment (and counterpoint during the Baroque period of classical music) and much Lutheran church music grew out of this chorale style, similar to how music in the Catholic church grew out of plainchant. It is interesting to note that the chorale was intended to be sung as a congregation, and thus intentionally had simpler and more singable tunes that the typical sacred or church music.
Another interesting development in the Lutheran musical tradition was that of the contrafacta – existing melodies that were re-purposed (with new texts) for use in the church. At times, it was somewhat startling; for example, Bach set the tune from Hassler’s song My peace of mind is shattered [by a tender maiden’s charms] to the sacred words My heart is filled with longing (and, later, O Head, all bloody and wounded).
As in the Roman church, polyphony developed in Lutheran music as well, and composers specifically wrote polyphonic chorale settings, as well as other forms (e.g., the chorale motet).
The Council of Trent, aimed at purging the [Roman] church of abuses and laxities, addressed music as well. Some contended that basing the music on secular works profaned the Mass, or that complicated polyphony made it impossible to understand the words. Musicians were accused of using inappropriate instruments, being careless, having irreverent attitudes, etc. The point of me including this is to show that arguments about appropriate instruments or appropriate styles/arrangements and the idea of being separate from the “world” (not wanting to use secular tunes) is hardly new and goes back very far.
Additionally, though not noted earlier, the church resisted certain time signatures (those that were in duple feel) because it was a “mockery of the Trinity.” In fact, rhythms in triple feels were considered to be perfect (equivalent to our modern 3/4 time signature), whereas those in duple were imperfect (equivalent to our modern 2/4).
The most important composer during the Counter-Reformation period was Palestrina (1525 or 1526 to 1594). He has been called the Prince of Music and his works the “absolute perfection” of church style. His music captured the essence of the sober, conservative aspect of the Counter-Reformation. Even not long after he died, it became common to speak of the “style of Palestrina” and students were taught to emulate it.
Moving into the 17th and 18th centuries, the music of Europe had become a fairly consistent “language,” and it was dominantly Italian. In fact, even Bach, who was very influenced by the German music tradition, owed much to the Italy, as did Handel, whose work is as Italian as German, according to A History of Western Music (6th edition, page 253). The term baroque itself actually means abnormal, bizarre, exaggerated, grotesque, or in bad taste. It was originally used to refer to art and architecture of this same time period, but was later applied to the music as well, as historians saw the same sort of stylistic ideas in the music as in the visual arts.
Early baroque music exhibited a lot of experimentation, but by the middle of the 17th century, it had coalesced into a firm musical vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Idiomatic writing – writing for specific instruments using techniques or ideas that were peculiar to the instrument – became much more prevalent. Composers specifically wrote music with the aim of expressing or arousing affections (rage, excitement, grandeur, heroism, contemplation, wonder, exaltation).
Rhythm changed significantly in the Baroque period. The Renaissance period saw even rhythmic flows, whereas the Baroque period saw both very regular and very free rhythmic flows. It was not until the 17th century that measures wast most commonly used, using barlines to denote patterns of strong and weak beats. Composers even used irregular and flexible rhythms to contrast regular rhythms – such as a recitative contrasted with an aria, or a prelude and fugue.
Texture and Harmony
The texture of a piece shifted by the time we get to the Baroque period. In the Renaissance, the typical texture was a polyphony of independent voices, each with their own melodic line. In the Baroque, this shifted to a bass line, a florid treble, and an unobtrusive harmony. The idea of a single line being accompanied by the others was not particularly new; however, the emphasis on the bass and treble voices was new.
Because the chordal structure became to be articulated so clearly, dissonance became to be thought of less as a simple interval between two voices (e.g., a 2nd, or a tritone) than as an individual tone that did not fit into that particular chord. Greater variety of dissonance was then tolerated, though certain conventions tended to govern when they could occur.
Chromaticism was experimented as well, and some highly chromatic works survive. Later composers submitted chromaticism to tonal harmony. The traditional major and minor sort of tonal harmony that we are so familiar with and use extensively today also came about during the Baroque period.
Influences on Church Music
Two big forms of music also became popular, the opera and the oratorio; these have bearing on how we understand the history of church music. Why? Because the oratorio was essentially an opera without the drama. In other words, the musical styles of each were very similar.
Another interesting point is that most of the innovations in Baroque music appeared outside the church, and the church was affected by the music. The Roman Catholic Church resisted the new styles and never really completely abandoned the Palestrina style. In fact, two styles became prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church; the stile antico and the stile moderno.
It is worth mentioning here some interesting coincidences of history. The Baroque period is typically dated from 1600-1750 (Bach’s dates are 1685-1750). In addition to America being colonized and beginning to not like England so much (towards the end of the Baroque period; 1776 is only 26 years after 1750!), some names you might have heard of that lived at this time Isaac Watts, Jonathan Edwards, Anne Bradstreet, William Bradford, and Samuel Sewall, Basically, most of the famous puritans were active during the Baroque period.
Protestant Church Music in the Baroque Period
At this point, for my purposes, I will stop covering the development of music in the Roman Catholic Church, instead focusing on the Protestant churches. Prior to the Baroque period, in 6th century, a number of conflicting views on music came up. Calvin did not allow anything but voices singing from the Psalter. Luther was very supportive of music (and one of the most famous and greatest composers to have lived, J. S. Bach, wrote in this legacy), including instrumental, as well as singing “human” songs – i.e., hymns not based on the Psalms. Part of Calvin’s position appears to have come from a strong reaction against anything the “Papists” did. These two opposing views form the primary musical conflict in the Protestant church for several centuries after the Reformation (and, in some small ways, even through today). They are:
- We should only have vocal music (no instruments)
- We should only sing Psalms (no human-written songs)
For example, Isaac Watts, during the Baroque period, met up with fierce opposition as he began writing his hymns (even if they were based on the Psalms at times). The “vocal music only” view was passed on to the Puritans, who avoided all use of instruments in church, though apparently enjoying them outside of the church context.
Classical (1750-1830) and Romantic (1830-1900) Periods
The next few centuries (1750 through about 1900) of classical music appears to have affected the church, at least with respect to congregational music, relatively little. Non-participatory church music did continue to evolve with the movements in classical music – which at this point were developed outside of the church. For example, oratorios and small chamber group music continued to be written for the church in the style of the day; e.g., Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The Psalter and hymns were continued to be used, and more and more hymns were written. John Newton spanned the end of the Baroque and beginning of the Classical period; the Wesleys were active in the early 19th century; many others were active in the 19th century, such as Havergal, Bliss, Crosby, Doane, Dix, Gabriel, Hastings, Kirkpatrick, Lowry, Mason, Neale, Sankey, Smart, Stebbins, Sweney, and many lesser known hymn writers.
In the 19th century, the primary development in hymnody was what we know of as a refrain or chorus. Strictly speaking, a hymn did not have a refrain; gospel songs had refrains and spread quickly during the 19th century.
One other interesting development that did appear to occur during the 19th century is that hymns became a little more in the style of folk music. For example, compare O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, an old chorale, to something like A Shelter in the Time of Storm. The music to the latter is remarkably more simple and more “folky” than the former. It’s interesting to note that the music style of new hymn tunes appeared to begin to take much more from folk music rather than classical music.
What About Rock?
At this point, the history “classically” influenced music of the church – primarily from the Lutheran tradition, which actually was somewhat of a mix of folk/popular music of the day and church polyphony – is up to date. Little has changed in terms of musical style since the 19th century with respect to a traditional hymn style of music.
So what about contemporary music, where did that come from? For the most part, popular music forms are highly influenced by folk music. Folk music simply refers to the common music of the working class; the non-academic, non-church music. Contemporary Christian music is essentially a branch of rock and roll music, which emerged as a style in the 1950s. It derived most directly from another style called rhythm and blues, which itself was influenced by a number of styles; blues, boogie woogie, jazz, swing music, gospel, country and western, and traditional folk music. Much early rock can more distinctly be heard as emerging from these influences (e.g., some of Elvis’ works are much more recognizably influenced by country, blues, or boogie; other artists can clearly be heard to be more influenced by country/western music). A related style to rock that came out of “hillbilly” music was termed rockabilly. It is very recognizably influenced by western music, a sort of combination of rhythm and blues with bluegrass or western music.
I also wanted to briefly address a few common criticisms that I’ve found related to contemporary (or “rock”) music.
I’ve frequently read criticisms of any music with a backbeat. What’s a backbeat? An emphasis on a beat in a measure that is typically not emphasized, at least not in classical music (for example, 2 and 4 rather than 1 and 3). Just a few comments.
- This is all over jazz, not just rock music.
- Assuming that emphasizing beats 1 and 3 in 4/4 time is good and 2 and 4 is bad seems to be entirely unfounded. I have never read anything that has stated why beats 1 and 3 are good. We cannot simply assume our position is right and argue against another position from that assumption. Typically, arguments take this form: a backbeat emphasizes the unnatural beats of 2 and 4. Unnatural? According to whom? This appears to be entirely a cultural upbringing issue.
- What about contemporary music that does emphasize beats 1 and 3? Or is in 3/4 or 6/8? For example, what about something like … Celtic rock?
Another frequent argument I have read is that rock music (and highly rhythmic music) makes you want to dance. The assumption is that it makes you want to dance immorally. I would reject this with two simple propositions.
First, dancing itself is not immoral, so music making you want to move is not, by itself, wrong. Bluegrass makes me want to move (tap my foot, clap, snap, squaredance, whatever).
Secondly, what kind of dance you associate with music is not inherent in the music. We learn to dance certain ways to certain music. Some people swing dance to rock music. Some people waltz in a classical-ish waltzy style, and some people waltz by just holding on to each other and swaying. Depending on which they’re accustomed to – either by doing it or by watching it – that’s what they’ll probably think of when they feel like dancing to a specific music style.
So the conclusion, for me? We do need to be careful with associations; that is, if it’s dance music, what kind of dancing is associated? However, music making you want to move is not inherently bad. Scriptural evidence? Miriam and her dancers. I have a hard time imagining her calling to the other women to come grab their “timbrels “(which were actually frame drums, similar to a bodhran) and dance to music that was not dance-ish. Same with David’s dancing. I’m sure the music was dance music.
One other issue is that people assume if it makes you want to move, it is appealing to your flesh. I don’t think this is the case … same reason as above, and again, much music makes us want to move and we think nothing of it (bluegrass music, western music, waltzes, a lot of folk music, Irish music, etc.) Either we have to be consistent and apply it everywhere, including music we like, or we don’t apply it anywhere.
Emphasis on Rhythm
Another argument I have heard is that contemporary music emphasizes rhythm too much. I would here like to make a distinction between style and volume. I agree that drums can be too loud … i.e., painfully sort of too loud. I’m not talking about something being too loud, though, but rather on the style of music emphasizing rhythm too much.
Typically, the argument takes the verse about making melody in your hearts and says that therefore, God likes melody. By extension, God likes harmony (because harmony is just another melody). Rhythm is just there enough to make sure the music works out.
I’ve seen all kinds of really bad arguments here. Some try to say that melody speaks to your heart, harmony to your soul, and rhythm to your body. Some try to say that since God doesn’t mention instruments here, that instruments shouldn’t be used in the church. Some try to say that this means music must be “melodious” and “sound nice”/”pleasing.”
All of these are reading in our opinions into the text. Here’s my basic idea: singing requires melody. If you sing without a melody, you’re not singing, you’re … chanting (not referring to plainsong). So, when Paul says to sing, of course he’d use the word “melody.”
Here’s where I think we need to be careful. I would venture to guess that the melodies Paul sang were very, very different from our melodies. They did not have western music theory. In fact, it may not have sounded very melodious to us at all. So, the idea that it needs to sound nice? That’s a cultural thing. That will vary. The idea that harmony and/or rhythm aren’t mentioned? Well, you don’t sing rhythm – unless you’re in sight-singing class 😉 And, lastly, taking this one verse and drawing conclusions about what kind of music God likes seems remarkably unfaithful to the text. There’s no mention of music style. Paul’s talking about singing. Not music style.
Secular vs. Sacred
I’ve also read that contemporary music is a religious text in a secular style. I will simply say this: all music is inherently secular. We might call it “sacred” music … but if you take away the words, is it sacred? If you set good words to secular classical music, is it still secular? What about an oratorio (such as The Messiah) which was written in the secular opera style, minus the drama? Is that sacred or secular? What about something like the hymn Be Still My Soul, the tune of which we commonly now use comes from a symphony entitled Finlandia? Secular art form (a symphony).
At this point, some might try to attempt to show how western classical music was influenced by the church and is therefore basically sacred. I disagree strongly. At best, it came from the Roman Catholic church… but as you can see from the music history above, that basically stopped before the Baroque period. After the Reformation, starting with the Baroque, music began to be developed entirely in the secular realm, with the church merely being a patron of the arts. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Handel, Haydn … did they write for a/the church? Yes. Did they write exclusively for the church? No. One does not typically write piano sonatas for churches. 😉
Breathiness, scooping, sliding… basically, non-classical-style of singing. Is this wrong?
First, scooping is not inherently bad. Scooping is not evil. Scooping is not by itself sensual. I think you would be hard-pressed to show me how it is. Can a singing style be sensual? Yes. However, I don’t think these three automatically make it so. To say that it does would require a lot of study, and I simply have not seen that study. For me, I can pick up on a sensual style of singing, but it typically has nothing to do with these… it’s typically their tone of voice and suggestive lyrics.
Secondly, I’d like to point out that the “crooners” had a ton of sliding, scooping, etc., just not the breathy/airy tone. I personally don’t really like breathy/airy tones… however, I would have a hard time finding someone to agree that Bing Crosby singing White Christmas is being sensual and sexually provocative because he’s sliding and scooping into notes.
You’ll have to define addiction. I’m addicted to music. I love it. I play it all the time. Does this mean it’s hard to go without it? Well, I know people who would hate to have to go cold turkey without any music for a week. Does this mean that it’s hard to break the habit of listening to a style once you find out it’s bad? That implies you find out it’s bad. This second meaning seems to be what the arguments are referring to, but it’s assuming the style is bad.
Picking quotes from rock musicians… well, Ill just say two things. First, it’s not fair to pick quotes from people like Metallica or Nirvana to disprove all music that emphasizes beats 2 and 4 instead of 1 and 3. Second, was Liszt really any better than Mick Jagger? Was Beethoven? Schubert? These people were not Christians. They were likely deists in that they in some way believed in God, but they did not really recognize Him. Does someone believing in monotheism automatically mean their music is good?
By the way, that first point, about the lack of realization that there are many, many styles of contemporary music; I think this is an important one. Just because someone listens to certain CCM or does contemporary music in their church doesn’t automatically mean they approve of all other related styles and all CCM artists. It’s the same with classical music. Listening to Bach doesn’t mean you automatically approve of all classical music, whether it’s Ave Maria or some wacky immoral opera from the 19th century. It wouldn’t be fair to assume the latter; it’s not fair to assume the former. By listening to, say, Sovereign Grace Music CDs, I’m not saying that I approve of listening to Metallica just because they share a few common rhythms and perhaps some other stylistic ideas.
The real topper to this, for me, is Wagner. Some people like his music. The traditional wedding march (“Here Comes the Bride”) comes from one of his operas. Wagner was anti-semitic, he specifically wrote his music to glorify man (and especially the German). His music was Hitler’s favorite for the same reasons. So, if we want to say that we can’t listen to rock music because of certain rock music composers or performers, then we can’t listen to classical music, either, because of Wagner. Lastly, I can find people who said the opposite things about rock/CCM. So we get into a quote-shouting-match. Not very helpful. Maybe sticking to biblical principles is better than taking fallen, depraved human being’s word for it.
Some also like to point to specific CCM artists. Well, I would like to point out that there are a lot of preachers who have fallen into sexual sin. Preachers, therefore, are inherently bad, and we should not have them. Silly, I know, but I hope it shows the logical point: pointing to a CCM artist as though this discredits the music style is … well, kinda silly. Furthermore, I can find good CCM artists who live the life they sing about, and who sing and write great words.
And, incidentally, there are many, many, many, many bad secular performers of classical music, but this does not reflect on the classical music style. This reflects that humans are depraved, regardless of music style.
There are probably other arguments I could mention, but I guess for now I’ll stop, I’m almost at 5000 words, hehe.
We need to be careful how we argue about music. We need to make sure we have our music history and music theory right. We need to make sure we know where contemporary music comes from and where hymn music comes from and treat them consistently in our arguments. We need to make sure we don’t read into the Bible. We need to make sure we don’t make logical fallacies when arguing about music. And, lastly, we need to make sure we guard against pointing to music as though it is responsible for what human depravity is responsible for. The fact that many “rebellious young people” like rock probably isn’t so much that rock music is so inherently bad in comparison to other music styles, but that rock music is the popular style. I would imagine that 200 years ago, rebellious young people listened to the popular music of their day, too.
My bottom line for music: look at the lyrics. I have found that much of the lyrics that the “weak” or “ecumenical” or “hypocritical” CCM artists sing are not that great. Also, don’t judge a style by performers; after all, we’re not having the performer in our church, nor does playing in one style automatically assume that we are approving of any given artist who also happens to play in that style (or some related style).