I’m sure there’s a scientific study out there about music and emotion. And even without reading that study anyone could reason from their own observations that music has an intense emotional effect on us. It seems that often we depend on emotional effects from certain art rather than intrinsic value or artist intent.
Specifically with regards to Christian music, there is an epidemic in which driven, poetic, didactic lyricism coupled with strong melody and musical symbolism has been traded for musical tropes and clichés that merely evoke emotion.
Musical taste is somewhat subjective, but there is inescapably a concrete objectivism to musical merit. Hymns, for example, draw upon specific biblical or theological truths. With the specific motif they select, hymns, like Psalms, use poetry and well thought structure to compose a song with purpose—they teach us about God and humans, and our inexorable relationship.
Hymns also go a step further to reflect the meaning of the words in the melodies and harmonies of the song. Think of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” written by Reginald Heuber. The first three notes of the song ascend as you sing the word “Holy.” Your mind is directed towards the Divine and His attributes, and so literally is your voice. This subtle nuance has a powerful effect, the likes of which are seen in many other hymns (think of the tempo change in “Lo in the Grave He Lay,” or the shift from a minor to a major key in “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say”).
I must, for the sake of the argument, take responsibility for my biases here. I grew up in the PCA and have been in a traditional worship setting since my youth. Thus, I certainly have a tendency to enjoy the organ more than the guitar when it comes to worship. My criticism, however, does not come from my upbringing, but rather from a love of music. I cannot profess to be proficient in any capacity of music theory; however, I have learned from some excellent teachers to recognize and appreciate good music and elements of music which enhance pieces beyond the mundane.
That being said, I believe there is a troubling trend in worship music to depend on certain clichés. There is, in a sense, an intertextuality in these songs of patterns and topics. For example, the amount of self deprecation (at an almost hyperbolic level) seems lazy. Indeed we are sinners, and the focal point is Jesus. But observing this and expressing this relationship well in song requires a certain level of theological and self awareness.
Furthermore, these songs tend to flutter on the surface of theology. We can be specific and deep in our music without subtracting from the truth. Specificity provokes penance and pensivity on a deeper level than dwelling on the surface of “me” and how much I suck but how much God doesn’t suck. The Bible has a whole lot more to say.
Let us create music that laments, prays, ponders and reflects upon the Scriptures. Let us take time to study Scripture and the writings of theologians, poets and essayists. And finally let us wrestle with the music we make, slowly but faithfully creating music that calls us to things above.