Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Worship, Songwriting and Context

I recently listened to the audiobook How Music Works by David Byrne (former lead singer of Talking Heads). He offered an interesting insight into an aspect of songwriting that most folks don’t pay much attention to on a conscious level - context. He noted that for hundreds of years music in the west was confined to major types of scales because the music was predominately played in the context of Cathedrals with reverb times of 4+ seconds. Major scales would ensure that there would be no dissonance, no clashing notes. As a result we in the west have come to associate certain types of music that follow that type of approach as sounding “spiritual”, though for those in Africa or Asia “spiritual” sounding music would sound very different (there would be no sentimentality towards major scales with reverb). Byrne notes how when the Talking Heads first started making music in the mid seventies their regular gig was at CBGB’s, New York City. The club had a much tighter acoustics which in turn influenced how the band both played and wrote songs (early Talking Heads music was very tight and uncluttered sonically).   

I think David Byrne is on to something here. As I reflect on my own journey of songwriting I can see how I have both written songs from and for a certain context and how I have also written songs for an imagined context. The first Delirious album that really moved me in a powerful way was Live and In the Can. I remember watching videos of the band from that era playing in front of thousands in Wimbly Stadium, London. It was like a full on stadium rock concert but it was worship! I remember how that influenced the way I had been writing songs a bit, though at the time I was unaware on a conscious level. I began writing songs with more driving beats and bigger choruses (the kinds that thousands could sing in unison like at a U2 concert). I could imagine thousands of people singing these choruses in unison and it was glorious (at least in my mind). I think what I was experiencing was actually pretty common among worship leaders and songwriters at the time.

Though I have only been a part of the Vineyard (at least attending Vineyard churches) since 2002 I can see how context has been a part of the songwriting process since the beginning. I suspect that one of the reasons Vineyard was on the forefront of worship led on acoustic guitars had to do with the contexts of home groups, coffee houses, and small churches in the mid to late 70s. Then as Wimber began doing many more conferences the sound of Vineyard worship music began to get bigger to match the venues. The rise of megachurches and huge conferences across the country has had a major influence on the types of songs written and sung in churches for the last 20 years. I figure that most of the top worship songs today are probably written for a context of thousands singing in a large venue. While there is nothing wrong with writing songs with large venues in mind, I have, on occasion, experienced the frustration of doing anthemic rock worship songs in an early morning service of 20 people and seen them go over like a turd in a punch bowl. 

The church I pastor recently began having two Sunday gatherings which meant that our crowd of 100-140 adults has been roughly split in half (actually we have had a drop in overall attendance since we went to 2 services). The energy in the room has been noticeably lower which effects not only crowd participation but even the energy of the band a bit. So in thinking through these concepts a bit I emailed the worship team the other day saying that for the next month (at least) we will try and lead worship that takes our current context into consideration a bit more. For the next month we will be doing songs on mainly acoustic instruments (no electric guitars, keyboards or drum sets). This will force us towards simpler arrangements and less dynamics in the sound but will also connect in what I envision as a more intimate way of worship for our more intimate context. I think this could be a way of incarnation ministry, stepping into the community to serve folks where they are rather than imposing something that doesn’t quite fit. I am looking forward to how we can sing and write songs with our new context in mind so as to engage the community in a fresher way. I will update everyone on how this goes in a few weeks.

A couple of questions:
How have you experienced leading songs that didn’t fit the context of the space/community you were leading in worship?

For those who are songwriters, how do you think context has influenced the songs you have written?

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