March 13, 2011

Praise Choruses

I haven't done a song analysis in a while, and there are a couple of been thinking of doing. So, I'm going to be lazy and do the one that will take the least effort: Blessed Be Your Name by Matt Redman. There are two basic reasons: A) I thoroughly enjoy the elegant simplicity of the song and how fully utilizes its structure to communicate the song's meaning and B) I consider this song to epitomize the modern praise chorus, in the very best sense of the word. Therefore, I also want to use an analysis of this song as an apologetic of the modern praise chorus.

Praise Chorus V.S. Hymn FIGHT!

First of all, I find the worship wars of our time to be annoying, silly, and, quite frankly, embarrassing. I believe that hymns and praise choruses to be different in purpose and thus not mutually exclusive in use.

Most hymns were written during eras of theological strife and were written as theological primers. Some are better at it than others, but there is no doubt that the point was to teach. Praise choruses are being written in response to the spiritual stagnation and emotional disconnect that many have found in traditional churches. They are also most popular within low liturgical churches and, for many of these churches, constitutes the full extent of the participation of the laity during the service (except for the tithe of course ;-) ). Thus the purpose of the praise chorus is engagement (which is not the same thing is emotionalism BTW).

Many of the "hymn-only" exponents will of course reply, "But hymns engage too!" Yes, they do, but praise choruses also teach. The difference is a difference in emphasis, and we need to recognize that since both things are necessary within a church service, it is not unwise to utilize both the praise chorus and the hymn.

For instance in Blessed Be Your Name, there is actually a very clear lesson: praise God regardless of circumstances. This is not merely engaging in emotion, but a very clear attempt to teach a very important Christian message. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the song not only teaches, but trains by giving us something to say in praise in both the good times and the bad.


Despite its claims and reputation for being informal, the praise chorus has tended to have a very formal structure:

  1. Verse 1
  2. Pre-chorus
  3. Chorus
  4. Verse 2
  5. Pre-chorus
  6. Chorus
  7. Bridge
  8. Chorus (repetitions)

There are, of course, many examples of variation of this order (especially the absence of the pre-chorus), but the pieces tend to be the same, and the order tends to be what is above.

What is interesting is that these parts also tend to have rather specific relations to the song's theme. What most people remember most is the chorus (hence the name of the genre) for two reasons: the chorus is often repeated 9,000 times (and is designed for it), and because the chorus tends to be very simple and emotive. Indeed, the chorus tends to be the emotionalreaction to the theme, usually directed towards God. For instance, if you wanted to understand what the theme to Blessed Be Your Name is, you couldn't find it in the chorus. It just doesn't give enough data. Indeed, the chorus is much more an application of the point of the song (praising God regardless of circumstances) rather than an explanation of it.

The verses on the other hand tend to be a didactic or revisionary treatment of the theme. Indeed, the verses tend to be far less emotional, slower, and more articulate. It doesn't always directly explain the theme itself, but it does lay the mental foundation for the overall point. It is here that you are going to find the song's subtleties (if any), qualifications, and theological articulation. For instant, in Blessed Be Your Name, both verses are made up of two parts, one describing the good times and one describing the bad. In each case, the good times and the bad are enveloped with the declaration of "Blessed be Your name", implying that we bless God in both circumstances.

The prechorus is essentially there to transition from the verse to the chorus. Mostly this is because the verses and choruses are dramatically different in purpose and tempo for the majority praise choruses. The prechorus often does this by musical crescendo, and also by some kind of lyrical shift as well. Sometimes it summarizes the theme as we move to reaction; sometimes it contrasts the thoughts in the verses with the coming emotional response; but it also can use any number of other transitional devices. (Blessed Be Your Name uses summary by the way)

Finally, we come to the bridge. The basic point of the bridge, in my opinion, is a secondary thing to repeat in an effort to break up the monotony of repeating the chorus. Therefore the bridge tends to represent one's reaction to the theme. However, unlike the chorus, it doesn't tend to be purely emotional (though still rather emotional), but is instead usually more reflective. It is actually in the bridge that we usually find the resolution to the thoughts of the verses, rather than in the chorus. First instance, in Blessed Be Your Name you have an emotional response but articulated with a biblical verse (Job 1:21) so is therefore clearly focused on the theme.

To understand how these parts all relate to one another, it may be rather helpful to think of the praise chorus as a narrative. Theological musings or observations of life (verses) forces us into a kind of crisis of faith (theme of the song). This crisis brings us to an emotional revelation of God (chorus) that we then praise. Eventually, this leads us to reflection (bridge).

Therefore, back to my original thesis, praise choruses aren't bland, and they aren't pure emotion (though some can be). They are narratives that move us through a belief or idea so that we can integrate it into our lives practically, and that is something very beneficial for the church.


bethyada said...

Good post.

What I have also heard said is that people disparage choruses because there are a lot of fluffy and questionable ones. But not all the hymns ever written are classics, many are no longer used. Likewise, in time only the better choruses will remain.

And good song, I enjoy it and think it speaks good truths.

Kevin Jackson said...

Interesting read. Like Bethyada wrote, there are lots of new songs I like, and a few I don't care for.

Slightly off-topic, but one thing I would like to see is more contemporary songs about the blood of Jesus. Roger Olson mentioned this recently on his blog, and I think he's right.

SLW said...

What I like about modern songs is that engagement you mentioned. Many of them are written from the perspective of personal address to God (as are, incidentally, many of the Psalms). Hymns are almost always about God (rather than to God) and require a sort of inner translation within the worshipper to express them as worship. IMO something fails to reach the worship threshold if one ends up stumbling over and being fixated on content rather than in engagement with our awesome God.

Jc_Freak: said...

It is very true that modern songs are more addresses than traditional hymns, but hymns, like I said, were primarily designed to teach. I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing. There is a lack of theological understanding in the modern church, and we can certainly use such vehicles as hymns to correct this. My opinion is that both have their places, and we should seek balance rather than trusting in one or the other.

SLW said...

I think you are right. We try to do that very thing in our church services, not so much because of any didactic quality in the hymns, but because those which have stood the test of time are very meaningful expressions of praise to many in our congregation. It would be a shame not to pass on their heritage to the younger folk coming up (for instance, "It Is Well" or "Grace That Is Greater"). What's interesting is that folk still sing the SATB harmonies even without hymnbooks in their hands (we project all lyrics).

drwayman said...

It makes me wonder about how worship is portrayed today in many churches with a modern, hipster, style. Will this current movement still be active in 40 years with “sin”copated rhythm and pul”satan” drums and terrific guitar solos? I must confess, that there are many elements to this current style that I find encouraging and uplifting.

However, what will worship in churches look like in the future? Will we be stuck in the Hillsong, Jeremy Camp, Matt Redman, Delirious?, World Wide Message Tribe, generation of songs and complain that the new generation just doesn’t like the "traditional” music which drew us so close to God?

Maybe the old will become new again. Maybe hymns will become fashionable again, used again as theological primers.

Jc_Freak: said...


I would expect that Christian music will continue to shift and adapt to the musical needs of the congregation. Indeed there was an uproar when churches began to sing hymns instead of the traditional Gregorian chants. The pipe organ was originally considered vulgar. It would shock me if the current music doesn't become entrenched.