Some Thoughts On Musical Style As It Relates
To Worship And Hymns (Revised)

Rev. Kevin Twit, November, 2002

1. There is long history of doing worship music in indigenous and folk styles.

For example,

  • Foote writes in “Three Centuries Of American Hymnody (Harvard Press 1940) about the tune “Old Hundreth” (known to most as the doxology tune) that it was “given shape by Louis Bourgeois, although the first line is taken from a secular chanson. When it was taken over in the English Psalter the notation of the last line was slightly altered from the Genevan form. It immediately became popular and our forefathers liked it because it was a “jocound and lively” air! We think of it as solemn and stately, rather than as lively, because we are familiar with the form in which it emerged in the 18th century usage. When sung, however, in the early form and in fairly quick time it reveals the almost gay character which made it a fitting setting for the words… It was the vigor and liveliness of a number of these Genevan Psalm tunes that led critics to dub them “Geneva jigs.” …To a writer of a century ago it seemed “strange, indeed, that the very tunes that send us to sleep caused our forefathers to dance.” But he was unaware that between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 19th century the Psalm tunes were deliberately lengthened out by giving their notes equal length, and singing was slowed down in the supposed interest of solemnity.” (pg. 15)

  • Foote also says “There is a striking similarity between the ballad-like character of the English metrical psalms and the literary form of the earliest surviving hymns of the Roman church, by St. Ambrose and his followers in the 4th and 5th centuries. The Ambrosian hymns broke away from the old classical meters, and were written in the simpler form of prosody based on accent rather than on quantity, which had long been in use in the songs of the people. Ambrose thus established the form of Latin liturgical hymnody after the model of current folk songs, very much as the metrical psalms of the 16th century followed the pattern of the popular folk ballads. Our familiar long meter is practically that of the Ambrosian hymn, in English dress.” (he cites C.S. Philips “Hymnody Past And Present” NY 1937 pg. 53-55)

  • Speaking of the tunes used in the Methodist movement in the 18th century, Adam Fox declares “And then as to the tunes. The most important fact about them is that they did not differ much from the popular tunes of the day.” (English Hymns & Hymnwriters pg. 29)

  • In an important but rare work “The Music of The French Psalter of 1562” (Columbia Univ. Press 1939), Waldo Pratt writes about Protestant Reformation music, both French and German, that “The plan of structure of both verse and music was largely derived from that found in the popular songs of the period.” (pg. 6)


2. The dichotomy between high art and pop art is, at best, both unhelpful and musically and historically rather naïve.

Actually the historical basis of this is a rather racist argument. This distinction is really only about 150 years old, emerges during the 19th century as people try to separate themselves from the massive influx of Eastern European immigrants, and falls prey to a classic logical fallacy: just because something is popular does not mean it is of inferior quality! It may mean that it is of great quality and has connected with a large number of people for really good reasons! In addition, the attempt to make a big distinction between folk art and pop art fails to understand how popular art functions. (see William Romanowski’s recent book “Eyes Wide Open” pg. 72-75 for a wonderful discussion of this issue! Or if you want to study this even more in depth, track down Lawrence Levine’s “Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence Of Cultural Hierarchy In America”)


3. There is no Biblical argument to be made that Western classical music is inherently better than styles like folk, rock, jazz, and blues.

Attempts to argue for an absolute music aesthetic derived ala natural theology from the natural harmonic series (like that of Leonard Payton) are absurd. What sounds “in tune” to our ears is a result of cultural conditioning. The “blue note” can’t be found on a piano keyboard yet it is part of the natural harmonic series. Furthermore, our pianos are not really “in tune” in a scientific sense, rather we follow “tempered tuning” which is a compromise so that a piano is sort of in tune for all keys. The music to which the Psalms were originally set, would in all probability sound very strange to our ears. Even a minor key doesn’t sound sad in all cultures (for example, much joyful Israeli folk music is in a minor key!)


4. In particular attempt to commend jazz as a high culture form while denouncing rock, (its first cousin since both derive from the blues), makes no sense to people who actually play these styles.

I find that the attempt to delineate between jazz, rock, folk, and pop is doomed to failure because these styles are all so inter-related. It may make sense in theory to some who are really only superficially aware of these styles but to those who actually study the music the real differences are very slight, musically speaking. The argument that the rock beat is evil in any form is preposterous. No studies have conclusively proven that a certain beat can affect you independently of the cultural baggage surrounding that music. The beat itself is neither good or bad, to believe otherwise is to fall prey to the heresy of Manicheism. (See William Edgar’s article “The Message Of Rock Music” in Dean and Porter’s “Art In Question” or his review of Ken Myers’ “All God’s Children And Blue Suede Shoes” in the Westminster Theological Journal)


5. Style is not neutral, all styles have cultural baggage because music derives its meaning as a cultural symbol.

But there is no pure style, and there is no style that is irredeemable! Anything made by humans after the Fall is flawed and nothing made by even by fallen humans can avoid reflecting God’s image as creator. Music is one way that we extract all of the God-glorifying potential out of the creation, it is a way that we take dominion over the creation and till the Garden.


6. So, rather than get bogged down in arguments pitting one style versus another, let us look to commend what we can in all types of music.

There will always be something to commend and things to critique. There is a lot of great music around the world, (even people and cultures who have rejected the true God can make great music) and we should beware of the idea that all the great music is found in the Western classical genre. Attempts to compare Bach with say Jimi Hendrix are rather pointless. There are lots of great things about Bach’s music. But there is a lot that he did not explore, like groove and how to bring interest and tension and release within the limits of a 12 bar blues form. Too often we take a set of criteria derived from examining Western classical music, trying to discover how it works, and then apply that criteria to other types of music that work very differently. This is really unfair and culturally elitist. Having worked in recording studios with pop musicians I have seen how much care and thought goes into the hundreds and thousands of decisions needed to produce a 4 minute song. It takes great skill to do something fresh within a genre that has such tight limits as to song length and form and those who do this well should be commended.


7. The purpose of art is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. There are lots of ways that this can be done which we can call sub-purposes.

For example, art can tell the truth, it can show beauty, but it can also (and must if it is to tell the truth after the Fall) speak of great ugliness. Art can communicate and it can entertain. Art can make us remember and mourn for the past and it can help us imagine a still unseen future. And all of these are ways to glorify God! The problem with most Christian books on the arts is that they try to make one of these sub-purposes the over-arching purpose and thus leave out a lot of great work that should be seen as art.


8. The idea that art must be received rather than merely used (C.S. Lewis, Ken Myers) seems to reflect a Platonic view that art is only helpful as a springboard to “spiritual” thoughts.

Remember, the purpose of art is to glorify God and the Book of Ecclesiastes (from which the phrase “the chief end of man is to glorify God” comes), insists that we are to find joy even in our frustrating lives in the ordinary things of life. This creation, including art, is not merely a catalyst for more “spiritual” thought.


9. We should encourage people to praise God in their own culturally honest way.

The days are long past when people are trying to do worship music in a rock style just to reach the masses. The issue in our day is should musicians adopt a foreign musical style in which to praise God? Is there a “Holy Ghost” musical style (like people used to think of Koine Greek as a unique “Holy Ghost Greek”? Of course not! Calvin seems to have attempted to invent a particular church style of music but in fact the music of the Genevan Psalter reflected the popular styles of the 16th century because you can’t make music in a cultural vacuum. Nor should we even try! At the end of Revelation we see the kings of the earth bringing their splendor, the fruit of their culture, to the Lord as an act of worship. This is what we should be doing now! If the church is made up of every race, tribe, and tongue then shouldn’t our worship (including our music) reflect this? We should do music that is culturally honest to who we are.


10. But, we must also do music that reflects that the Church is bigger than just our own narrow demographic.

The church is multi-cultural and extends through the ages and our music should reflect this! I love Marva Dawn’s comment that if the church is truly the church and includes greater variety than just me and other people like me, then everyone is going to have to sing some songs they don’t like! The older people should invite the young to teach their own music and the young should be respectful and learn the music enjoyed by the older people, all for God’s glory!


11. Just because we shouldn’t make absolute statements about one genre being inherently better than another, does not mean we can make no judgments about particular pieces of music and their appropriateness.

But each piece should be evaluated by how well it “fits” the words and by how it measures up to other songs within the same genre. In other words, is this song trite within this genre or is it a creative use of this form. Remember, all styles have baggage, and some are more easily used to convey words of substance than others. Folk music for instance, which is what we consider the style of the Indelible Grace recordings, has a long history of conveying words of substance and power.


12. Don’t let superficial differences fool you in making judgments about music.

Musically, a melody like the one Sandra McCracken wrote for “Thy Mercy My God” is no different than the melody for “Immortal Invisible.” The difference in sound has more to do with the block chord harmonization we are used to hearing when “Immortal Invisible” is played “hymn style.” But analyzed as far as melody, rhythm, and harmony is concerned and they are very similar.


13. Indelible Grace Music is not out to deconstruct church music!

Actually hymnals, with their metrical index, are designed for us to try alternate tunes for the hymns! We are trying to encourage musicians to use their gifts to set the great hymns of the faith to music that is authentic to who we are culturally, and which will help us hear and feel the deep emotion of the text. (For further discussion of these issues see my “Criteria For Judging Rock Music” at )


14. Controversy over setting new tunes to older texts is nothing new!

Consider the objections to new tunes catalogued by Thomas Symmes in 1723 (writing in New England responding to those who objected to singing the psalms to new tunes).

1. It is a new way, an unknown tongue.
2. It is not so melodious as the usual way.
3. There are so many new tunes, we shall never have done learning them.
4. The practice creates disturbances and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly.
5. It is Quakerish and Popish and introductive of instrumental music.
6. The names given to the notes are bawdy, even blasphemous.
7. It is a needless way, since our fathers got to heaven without it.
8. It is a contrivance to get money.
9. People spend too much time learning it, they tarry out nights’ disorderly.
10. They are a company of young upstarts that fall in with this way, and some of them are lewd and loose persons.


15. Why not set words written for the poor to music invented by the poor?

Many hymnwriters (Watts, Cowper, Newton for example) deliberately wrote words for the poorer classes – condescending to their level of education. The musical style of Indelible Grace is rooted in the musical styles of the poor (blues, jazz, folk, bluegrass.) Seems fitting to put words written for poor people to music invented by poor people. John Newton wouldn’t let Handel’s Messiah be sung in his church because he thought it too worldly (though he did preach a sermon series on the text!)