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This is the kind of music geekery I'll write more of on the new site, which will have a blog dedicated to music and musicians.

I biggest difference I hear at the moment between the mainstream music my ears gravitate toward and the "contemporary" music in so many U.S. churches could be described as a tonal one. Here's what I mean in geeky theory terms. (I have a degree in theory/composition so I guess this is where I get to use those four years.)

A chord is at least three notes separated by thirds. An "A major" chord, for example, would be spelled A-C#-E. In church you'd likely hear all three notes. To the audience, the chord is heard as obviously an "A" chord and obviously "major" even if the listener doesn't know to call it that.

By contrast, when Snow Patrol, for instance, plays an "A" chord in their song Chasing Cars, it's at best A-ish. They leave out the third (the second note of chord), which is the C#. One musician is bouncing between the notes "A" and "E" and another between "E" and the "A" an octave (eight notes) higher and the bass is pulsing out a steady stream of eighth notes on "A." Listen to this stripped down version of the song:

So? Well, the third, the C#, is what makes the chord sound major and not minor. Major feels very different to a listener than minor. It invokes a different mood and even a different meaning to the lyric. That third is very important. Leaving it out seems dangerous. But the sung melody uses the C# - sparingly, but it does occur - just often enough to signal to tell the listener's brian what it wonders: Is this major or minor? And the right emotion is triggered.

You don't have to tell us everything. You can paint dots and not details.

It's realism versus pointilism. Rembrandt gave us all the information about a human face, every wrinkle on every cheek, every hair it's own precise color. Beautiful. Especially in a day ruled by logic and to an audience infatuated with precision. Seurat, by contrast, gave us millions of dots. Each dot a single color. A canvas full of dots lacked the detail of a Rembrandt canvas but told us enough to get the point across. The brain filled in the gaps. Beautiful. Especially in a day ruled by romanticism and to an audience infatuated with ambiguity and relativity and new to the science of light.

Would your audience like dots or details? I know what I prefer.


Anonymous Chris Hubbs said...

If you want to be real music geek about it, the fact that it's in a major key is also indicated by the F# that you hear regularly when they're playing the IV chord (D in this case). If it were a minor key you'd get a iv chord with an F natural. :-)

The type of chord structure you're talking about here also leaves the listener feeling a bit... well, unresolved? Or feeling like it's not quite complete and over. I guess musically we would be accurate to describe an A-B-E chord (A2no3) as unresolved.

In the church music setting, I think there's a place for both. I wouldn't want a song whose lyrics spoke of our confidence in Christ's work on the cross to leave the listener musically hanging. However, in a more meditative, introspective song, that chord structure would seem more appropriate.

As an aside, a lot of worship bands just aren't set up to do subtlety. You give 'em chord charts and everybody plays loud. It takes more practice and sophistication to give the spare, open sound so ably demonstrated by Snow Patrol in the video.

Blogger Shaun Groves said...

I was speaking about just the A chord, not the entire song, but yes you're right.

And good point about the tonality needing to fit the intent of the lyric.

I'd argue though, and I think you'd agree, that when singing about or from a faith built as much on mystery as certainty there's plenty of room for ambiguity and unresolved feelings.

Yet another example I guess of how the method carries a message of it's own with it.

Blogger Matt Deane said...

That post made my head hurt.

Anonymous Chris Hubbs said...

I'd argue though, and I think you'd agree, that when singing about or from a faith built as much on mystery as certainty there's plenty of room for ambiguity and unresolved feelings.

Yeah, I agree. I think in the church we often forget to leave room for those ambiguous and unresolved thoughts and songs.... which is our loss. I'm just all for making the music fit the lyrics.

A quick great example in that regard: Jeremy Casella's version of Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. The hymnal version is very straight-ahead, bombastic, here-I-come-to-save-the-day type music. But the lyrics are much more plaintive, searching, lost. Jeremy captures that sooo well in his version.

Well, enough for this comment. :-)

Blogger cruz-control said...

uh, oh...

i actually caught all of that.

i guess all those theory and composition classes i took at baylor have affected me too.


Blogger Davidge said...

Never had a proper music class(besides band) in my life, but I caught it!
It's amazing what you can learn just from surfing the internet, isn't it Shaun?
like the Migration patterns of Sea Turtles?

Blogger benstewart said...

it's like being back in college. i likey.

i'll look forward to more music geekiness (or is it geekey-ness?).

Anonymous elijah said...

Can you recommend any good books on music theory? I understood that (thanks, Shaun), and I want to understand more. They don't teach us much about tonality in the college of agricultural and life sciences.

Blogger Shaun Groves said...

I'll blog it for you instead.

Anonymous elijah said...

That will be awesome. Thanks.

Anonymous Andy Crouch said...

Don't you think an equally crucial part of this song is the way the melody of the A part sits on the major 7th--the most dissonant note you can find except the tritone?

Then that's echoed by the use of the dominant 3rd--the C#--as the B part (I think it's the B part--I only listened to this once so maybe I missed a bridge or something) progresses through I, V, IV, becoming more dissonant with each chord change until it's the major 7th of IV.

By the time they get to the repeated B sections toward the end of the song, they are playing full chords, by the way--so that they use the contrast between the open tonality of the beginning (and at the end in the tag) to great effect. And at that point the C#, far from being used sparingly, is the focal point of the melody.

Great post, though--we need lots more of this kind of thinking about music in the church.



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