Music appeals first to our emotions. And if it has a great beat, it appeals to some primal drive in us all. Music can also appeal to the intellect, but that mostly happens to music nerds, who have spent decades studying the intricacies of music theory and form. And there are no nerds quite like music nerds.
Music Nerd #1 to Music Nerd #2: “Hey, did you catch that crazy modulation after the bridge going into the final chorus? And what about that bass line in the channel leading from the verses to the chorus? Wild stuff, huh?”
Lyrics, on the other hand, appeal to the emotions and the intellect, depending on the song and its purpose. For the last century, the words to popular (secular) music have largely appealed to emotion, with “romance” being the chief target. Even the protest songs of the 1960s, serious as they were, reached us with metaphor and emotion more than facts and philosophies. And since contemporary Church Music has largely followed trends set in the secular world (for good or for ill), much of it has relied on its emotional appeal, more than its theological substance.
Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
It depends. It depends on the song’s purpose.
The majority of the Christian songs I’ve written in my 40+ years of songwriting were certainly aimed first at the emotions. That is not to say I didn’t make every attempt to make those songs theologically sound. I did. But most of those songs were written for solo artists or choirs to perform, and not for congregational singing.
And there is a difference.
A song performed for a listener needs to reach the listener quickly and leave her with something memorable to ponder. The challenge for the Christian songwriter is to artfully put Biblical truth in the song that will seep in to the listener’s mind, set to music that will touch the listener’s heart. Further, a song performed by an artist (or even a choir) often intends to make a personal connection by saying, “This is my experience. Perhaps it is yours, as well.”
On the other hand, corporate worship is not a performance. We all sing together, professing a Holy God, affirming the faith, and reinforcing Biblical Truth. Songs with this purpose are burdened with an intellectual responsibility. In my genuinely humble opinion, corporate worship is not the place so much for songs about “how I feel about Jesus.” Rather, the chief purpose of corporate singing is to affirm what we know (by virtue of what the Scripture teaches) versus what we feel.
Consider these opening hymn lines: Immortal, invisible, God only wise/In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. In two short phrases we sing four powerful attributes of an unchanging God. These are things we know about God, not what we feel about Him. The hymn text is literally teaching the singer good theology.
By comparison, many modern worship songs are long on “I feel” and weak on “I know.” They are filled with references to “I” and “me,” another telltale sign of a personal appeal to emotions, rather than to the intellect.
So here’s an observation that is sure to upset some folks:
A great many contemporary worship songs are really artist songs being foisted on congregations as corporate worship music.
1. Their intent is to make the listener feel rather than to think.
2. Musically, they are best suited for individuals to sing.
3. Lyrically, they teach very little.
4. They come from a “personal experience” point-of-view.
There is nothing wrong per se with any of those things, so long as we are talking about artist-oriented songs for performance. But if we are talking about corporate singing in worship, all of those things are largely wrong.
But maybe that’s just how I feel about it. What about you?