Musicians and "church" music

May 19, 2008

Today I met with one of the musicians who plays at Sunset, Randy Johnson.  Randy has played at Sunset for years.  He is an amazing piano player, who has a background in jazz, gospel and many other styles as well.  He has given an amazing amount of time and energy and love for this church.  His brain thinks on a higher plain than most musicians I know, his ear for substitute chords and progressions other than I, IV, V sometimes leave him a little bored and unchallenged playing a lot of the songs we sing. 

It is an interesting topic when it comes to music and the church.  There is a high priority in recent times on "singability", songs that  are "accessible" for the whole congregation to join in on.  Get too complicated particularly on a song where everyone is singing,  and the argument is that while you may engage some, particularly musicians, you can lose a lot of people at the same time who just want to identify with the melody and lyric and sing there heads off.  These songs still need excellent musicians, who can play in tune, in tempo, with dynamics, with passion, with excellence,  listening to one another etc.  Many of the current songs are built though and identified with reoccurring simple themes from the piano or electric guitar.  Again its not that these songs don’t need good musicians to play them and play them well.  When they are played with mediocre players, most people, even non musicians know something is "off".  But often times musicians who like to be challenged in music theory while they play, feel trapped and limited with the sound or simplicity of some current worship styles and songs. 

What do you think?  Do you think overall current music has been too dumbed down in the church and that it is hurting the church?  I personally don’t.  (obviously there are exceptions but on the whole I love the direction of where a lot of main stream music for the church is heading)  I think the challenge is for these awesome musicians, who the church needs desperately, including ones as amazing and smart as Randy, to find ways to take their musicianship and breadth of experience to bring as much life, energy and passion into some of this new music as they would playing a song that had 5 impromptu key changes or maj 7th chords with a sharp 11th around every corner.   What say you?

By the way, I just read this post to Allison.  Not only did I have to reread it to her because she zoned out as soon as I said I, IV,V, but when I was done, she let me know that this post was incredibly boring.  (I asked for the honest feedback) Hopefully not as boring as some current church music :).



  1. Babe, I love you and YOU are not boring. I mean really, check out your hair!

  2. she has a point. its like a light bulb went off in your brain for this post and it went straight to your hair.

  3. Great post Mac…
    I believe there is never too much of a good thing…

    I would place familiarity in the participatory portion of worship as a very high value. For me, i love the moment when my eyes are closed and my spirit is lifted in the heartfelt owning of a lyric of confession, brokenness, praise or adoration.
    “you stood before my failure, carried the cross for my shame, my sin weighed upon your shoulders… Bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it”

    But… there is also something SO sweet about a beautifully arranged song and few can add these sweet moments as much as Randy can. I have been known to sit under the piano when he’s playing because it’s sheer beauty to hear the intricacy that flows out of his fingers. So, maybe that’s what musical bridges are for?
    Brewster’s You are One is playing on my itunes right now and it’s pretty straightforward through the verses and chorus’ but the bridge is a ting of booty (that’s thing of beauty in Fraser speak).

    There’s a place for beautiful, even challenging music without lyric or maybe with Scripture on the screens or read, nature or dance that points to God.

    There’s beauty in seeing God’s creation give their offering back to God playing with abandon. I will never forget when Craig Mather played a rachmaninoff piece in church- it was an offering of worship that was engaging in another way.

    So, just reread this and I’m basically all over the place- love it all…

  4. 1.Nope it’s not dumbed down. I think some of the songs even sound similar to Coldplay…
    2. Yes! Perhaps even some Major dissonant 13th+ 11th suspended chords!!

  5. Personally, I’m in a slight quandry how to digest/react to this blog …along with Tyler’s blog entitled “In A Rut” written May 14 … all having to do with, and involving, musicians at Sunset Pres. I’m somewhat at a loss for understanding how to interpret these collective thoughts.

    That’s about all I can say right now in this public forum … though others have been brutally honest in their opinions.


  6. I think Alli thinks this is boring because this isn’t the world she lives in. For others of us… this is what we think about on a daily basis.

    My opinion: gotta find songs that can keep your musicians interested and challenged (though a few i, iv, v songs aren’t too bad… just when they’re ALL like that) but at the same time have a simple enough melody for an everyday non-musician.

    When songs are too difficult to follow/memorize, I’ve noticed worshipers tend to check out and just watch.

    In the same breath, we need to find moments for talented musicians like Randy to stretch their musical wings. Would this be in a prelude, a postlude, an offertory, a quiet worshipful moment.

    I guess it’s the difference between the church giving and offering of worship as a body and the church thanking God for the talents He’s blessed someone with. I believe there is a time for both… but not always at the same time.

    Great post, my friend. I like your pink face.

  7. Jay – our conversation today helped to clarify thoughts and opinions… so very helpful and much appreciated.


  8. Jay – I grew up in a traditional hymn-singing church. Dad and I would sing bass harmony, though as I got older, Dad switched to the tenor line just to show off his music reading kung fu. Often the organist would do a wild improv on the last verse which would make singing harmony totally impossible. Dad would usually get upset at this because he would be forced to sing the boring old melody.

    Both Dad and I were very involved in music (I directed a choir in college) but I suspect most non-musicians thought the improv was amazingly cool.

    I suspect 90% + who sing in church will be just fine with whatever the musicians do, so long as the melody remains something they can hear. This gives lots of opportunity in doing a break or last verse creativity.

    Now, when we talk about singability, let’s talk about pitching the melody where a baritone has some hope of hitting it… 🙂

    Love and kisses

  9. A great post and one that could go on and on and on.

    I was struck the other day as I watched an interview with Chris Tomlin. He was explaining how to play God of this City and he described the chorus as using “worship chords”. The concept of “worship chords” bothered me because I don’t believe for one second that God has any favorite chords progressions or voicings. All music is worship music in some form. It is a bit prideful to label formulaic light-rock as ‘worship music’ imho:-)

    As a musician I have not found any CCR that I would find as interesting as secular music. What is the ‘worship’ equivalent of Jazz for example? I would argue that Jazz is high form or worship. It is dynamic, nuanced, vibrant, full of surprise, … A lot like God.

  10. All I can say is, being a Fire Fighter is so much easier than being a Music Minister! In the process, serve with all your heart, never forgetting why it is you do what you do. And especially Who it is all about.
    I’m so proud of you Jay!

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