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Welcome to my blog, MB's Theological Thoughts. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, feel free to ask, either in a comment or an email. If it's a legitimate question, I'll do my best to answer it. Might take some thinking and some time, but again, I'll do my best.

05 January, 2011

Modern-day Tropes: dredging up ancient history

It was the ninth century AD before Gregorian Chant was standardized in the Catholic Church. But the addition of new feast days and other occasions called for the addition of new music to the repertoire. Old texts and melodies were reworked and expanded, forming tropes. New sacred but nonbiblical texts were added to the liturgy, and melodies were written for them, making what are called sequences. Dramatic retellings of stories and allegories used melody to form liturgical dramas. All of these are ways to take the existing liturgical music and make it new and fresh. All of these are things we could use to revitalize music in the Adventist Church.

No, I'm not saying we should rewrite all the hymns in the book or throw some out (though some of them we might as well since nobody ever sings them). I'm saying that if the more traditional half of the Church--and I absolutely hate to think of our denomination as divided--would accept a reboot, if you will, of some of the classic hymns, things won't be so uninteresting (I'm going to address lack of interest and why interest matters in a future article).


The "Praise and Worship" repertoire in modern Christian music consists of original songs by artists such as Delirious?, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Hillsong United and many others. Many of the songs are less recent, traveling all the way back to the founding of CCM and before. Still others trace their roots to Christian hymnody, but they all share a characteristic style and instrumental color. Many of them have been simplified to remove pesky things like syncopation, much to the detriment of the song itself. (If there is one thing I hate about amateur and hobbyist praise teams, it's when they take syncopation out of songs that must be syncopated.) It seems, though, that much of the CCM Praise and Worship repertoire is standard, and the number of songs is small compared to something as encompassing as the SDA Hymnal.

This repertoire is so small, in fact, that many of our younger churchgoers have hardly ever used a hymnal. I grew up singing out of the hymnal. It taught me an invaluable skill, sight-singing. And it taught me songs that I remember to this day, songs that are well written and have fantastic lyrical content. Without singing from the hymnal, or at least singing hymns, the old ones will die, replaced my the simpler, more--dare I say it--trite hymns of modern Christian hymnody. Just a little housekeeping: I call contemporary songs hymns because they are used as hymns; many Adventists distinguish hymns in our hymnal from more contemporary music and I feel it improper to do so. All of them praise God, so why not call them what they are? (Hymn, being defined by the Greek hymnos, and by Thomas Aquinas as a song of praise to God.)

So this brings us to a the ultimate question regarding repertoire: should we abandon traditional hymns for modern style and compositional methods, or should we abandon modern music to save the only divinely ordained manner of singing? An affirmative answer to either option is, in my personal yet educated opinion, completely and utterly wrong. Not only is calling traditional hymnody the only divinely ordained form of song, as the Catholic Church did in their following of Greek music theory, but modern compositions deserve as much status as hymns as the older compositions do. On top of this, calling the older hymns hackneyed and stale is using the same prejudice that is used to justify alienating and condemning newer compositions.

The answer to the question is simple to say the least: instead of alienating one genre of hymn in favor of the other, we should take both and use both. We should teach the older hymns to those who don't know them, and teach the new ones likewise. They are all viable songs. They are all songs to God. The only difference is in the style of composition and performance. To merge the styles, we have to rely on something that sounds easy but is far from: arranging.


Arrangement is an art. It's not something you can sit down and do. In order to do so, you have to have enough command of your internal ear that you can hear in your head what you put down on paper. On top of that, you have to have a broad enough knowledge of music theory and arranging techniques that you can know what chord progressions to stay away from, what functions the original chords have, what implied harmony may be present in a monophonic, unaccompanied piece, and so on and so forth. Only after you are competent in these things can you use more unorthodox methods; only an extremely gifted composer can throw notes at a page and create gold.

Fortunately for the average musician, arranging isn't quite rocket science. All it takes is a basic knowledge of music theory and a good ear to take a song and spice it up. For instance, if your ear tells you to put in a few color chords or a different progression, as long as you can communicate that on paper, you're good. But it usually boils down to a glorified transcription that oftentimes doesn't quite match the original song. Sometimes the "avant-garde" arrangement is stylistically opposite of the original song and does more harm than good. Other times still, it's just a bland take on an otherwise great song.

Successful arrangements are impossible without practice and patience. Nobody is going to arrange something overnight (unless it's Gioachino Rossini; he wrote the entire opera The Barber of Seville in only 12 days, or so he claimed). And the lack of talented arrangers in today's age (and throughout history) has led us back to our traditional roots of singing and playing verbatim from the hymnal. While many of the arrangements in there are great, the Lutheran style just lacks some of the modern colors we're used to. Rarely do hymns in our hymnal use anything but the standard major, minor, dominant and leading-tone chords. Great is Thy Faithfulness is an excellent example of "non-standard" arranging: it uses numerous predominants, a IV/ii, and even an emb: a #ii°7/I. They add a certain amount of intrigue, making the song not just another well-worn melody; they instead make it an unforgettable gem of Christian hymnody. These techniques and others are as important of tools in the arsenal of the arranger as an armada of brushes and paints in the hands of a painter. And without the skills to use them properly, all the color chords in the universe aren't going to do a lick of good.


Unfortunately, a perfect arrangement is an idealistic fantasy that is far from possible, except in the Divine courts. But we can get something that sounds good enough to be interesting, yet isn't so dolled up that it's unlistenable. Again we come to a balance between the old and the new, a synergy of artistry and liturgy. That, my friends, is how it should be done. Instead of our traditional hymnody being a bitter pill for some and a sweet elixir for others, or the same with more contemporary hymns, we should be using the entire repertoire. It's saddened me that in my experience, it's been one extreme or the other. Either a congregation refuses the contemporary style in favor of the Church Hymnal, or the old one is thrown out for a new set of hymns that have themselves become trite. This ecumenical division will kill our Church if we let it. And that is something that we simply cannot do.

Your Brother in Christ,

*This is the fifth and final of a series of articles about music in the SDA Church and other denominations.*

All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the New King James Version, © Thomas Nelson, Inc. 

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