Category Archives: musical styles

Web curations: Music-related (24 June)

Music Town


Andrew WK breaks the world record for longest drum session in a retail store – His facial expression in the article’s photo is priceless!

Spotify’s top anxiety-reducing tunes – Forget Philippians 4:6-8, here’s Spotify and anxiety psychologist Dr Becky Spelman’s 15-song playlist to calm the nerves (by being at 60 beats per minute, and “stimulating both sides of the brain”). Sure, listening to Adele could make you less anxious… unless you’re going through a breakup perhaps…

Why music makes your brain sing – Two neuroscientists share some of their insights into why music brings a unique pleasure to humans…

When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.

But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

The idea that reward is partly related to anticipation (or the prediction of a desired outcome) has a long history in neuroscience. Making good predictions about the outcome of one’s actions would seem to be essential in the context of survival, after all. And dopamine neurons, both in humans and other animals, play a role in recording which of our predictions turn out to be correct.

Singles define the modern music business – The album vs. singles argument used to dominate music industry discussions. But Jay Frank argues that in 2013, it’s pretty much singles that define today’s music business. He says:

The album still has a vital place in the overall diverse revenue stream for an artist. But its power has diminished so greatly that for most artists it is no longer relevant. When you look at usage patterns on radio, television, online and on portable devices, it’s clear that the pathway to the hearts, minds and wallets of music fans is thru the single.

Music, singing and emotions: what are the connections? – SMBC Lecturer Rob Smith has a very thorough paper published in Themelios, addressing the connections between music, singing and emotions. This is more a personal bookmark for me to read the entire article at some stage (Greg Strand sums it up here). I do like the concluding statement:

I think we can and must say this: if it is important enough to be said, then it could (and in the right manner, time and place should) also be sung. Why? Because singing helps us to process and express not only the cognitive dimensions of truth but also the emotive dimensions as well. Such are the God-ordained connections between music, singing and the emotions.


“Music has a secret and incredible power to move our hearts. When evil words are accompanied by music, they penetrate more deeply and the poison enters as wine through a funnel into a vat.”

– John Calvin

Leading a worship song I don’t personally like

10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman has been #1 on CCLI, on the Planning Centre weekly aggregates, and sung at nearly every conference I’ve been to, or listened to, or heard about recently. People have told me how blessed they have been singing this song in their private worship and other areas.

Now, I love singing Matt Redman’s songs (e.g. How Great Is Your Faithfulness, Blessed Be Your Name, Once Again).

But I’m OK to go on record saying that I don’t like 10,000 Reasons.

Sure, the musical hook is perfectly crafted, it’s loosely inspired by Psalm 103, and the theme of praising the Lord in all seasons is helpful (even “on that day when my strength is failing”).

My personal gripes are the use of the words “sing like never before” (how? why?), the absence of the gospel explicitly (though that shouldn’t be a problem in itself), the plodding feel of the song (even though it’s marketed as an “anthem”), feeling that other songs cover this topic better, the desire not to do a song “just because everyone is doing it”, and a feeling that the Body of Christ won’t be singing it in 50 years’ time.

But I don’t think my personal reservations break the song, and so (though Cheryl disagrees with me on this) on Sunday I introduced it at our home church for the first time. And it turned out fine: it fit the flow of the service (a time of thanksgiving after explaining and praying for the new missions initiative, for church family recovering from illness, for the opportunity to give financially), and the congregation sang it with immediate gusto.

Psalms Hymns Spiritual Songs

And I’ve also had to think through this when using other songs I don’t personally like (Shine Jesus Shine comes to mind).

But for leaders and service planners (and a reminder to myself in future), here’s a few reasons to occasionally use a worship song that we don’t like ourselves:

  • The words speak Truth that we should be singing to one another (e.g. the attributes and actions of God, our response to His revelation, the person and work of Jesus Christ)
  • The congregation can already sing it well (especially when both the high school student and the senior citizen get it!)
  • You might end up liking or appreciating the song.
  • No one died from singing an occasional song they didn’t like!
  • It’s good practice when we get to Heaven, where no one person’s musical preferences will be entirely catered for. I like this quote by Marva Dawn:

“If our churches are really going to reflect the diversity that makes up the body of Christ then everybody is going to have to sing songs they don’t like.”

Laying our preferences aside

Ultimately, a song I don’t like gives me an opportunity to show love and encouragement to brothers and sisters with different tastes to mine.

Just as Jesus laid his preferences aside in humbling himself to the point of death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11), we can likewise lay our preferences aside at times in order to bless each other.

Mike Cosper asks in his book “Rhythms of Grace”:

“I know many worship leaders who cringe at the thought of incorporating one of CCM’s big “hits” (I often cringe myself), but we need to think about who our church actually is. Do the people listen to those songs? If so, they’re ready to sing them in worship—they’ve been listening and preparing all week! Is it worth incorporating one or two of those songs in our gatherings to serve people who are encouraged and blessed by their style and substance?”

I’ll still have my own musical preferences, and in leading worship I’ll still pass on using unhelpful or untrue songs and texts. But I’m happy to hear, and join in, if we’re singing:

Whatever may pass
And whatever lies before me
Let me be singing
When the evening comes

Bless the Lord O my soul
O my soul
Worship His Holy name
Sing like never before
O my soul
I’ll worship Your Holy name!


History of Hymnody – free lecture series

Screencap of History of Hymnody page

I’ve recently been tuning in to this fantastic lecture series taught by Kevin Twit, held at by Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.

Kevin Twit is the founder of Indelible Grace (a group that re-tune hymns; we’ve sung a few of them before in our worship services). He presents a 9 lectures covering the rich heritage of hymns and its use in Christian worship. Here’s what he covers:

  1. Introduction, Definitions
  2. Why Hymns in a Postmodern World
  3. Musical Style and Hymns, Early Church Hymns (Augustine, Jerome, St. Hilary of Gaul)
  4. German Hymns (Martin Luther)
  5. German Hymns continued (Martin Rinkart, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf)
  6. Hymns in Geneva (John Calvin), English Hymnody (Isaac Watts)
  7. Christian Experience in the Hymns of Anne Steele
  8. More of Anne Steele, Hymns in the Great Awakening and Victorian Eras (John and Charles Wesley, William Williams, Augustus Toplady, Joseph Hart, John Newton, William Cowper)
  9. Hymns in the 19th century onwards: Oxford Movement, Victorian Hymns, Better Music Movement, Sacred Harp, Gospel Songs, African-American Hymns, Hymns Today.

Listening to these lectures fuel in me a greater appreciation about hymns in Christian worship (elsewhere Kevin Twit calls them “theology on fire!”). I had no idea that there could be universities where you can take classes like this! I definitely don’t know anything of the sort here in New Zealand. It’s also intellectually refreshing in a different sort of way to my school and uni days, where sometimes the things we were taught in class felt more like studying music for music’s sake (e.g. avant garde trends, Schenkerian analysis).

I do wish there were study guides/handouts available, as I’m finding lots of helpful quotes and book references I’m keen to explore further.

You can listen to the first two lectures straight away, and it only takes a free sign-up to listen to the rest.

Also, some of the many interesting resources cited:

I’d encourage you to check it out!

(HT: Matt Heerema)

an often remarkable and haunting beauty


I like this definition of a hymn:

Hymnologist Erik Routley once defined hymns as “songs for unmusical people to sing together . . . [and] such poetry as unliterary people can utter together.” At first, this might seem to exult in the lack of artistry. But Routley was actually writing to appreciate the remarkable skill of poets and musicians who accept the challenge to be both profound and accessible at the same time, which is a lot more difficult than simply being one or the other. While there is a kind of beauty in a carefully-honed studio recording, there is another kind of beauty -– an often remarkable and haunting beauty -– in the sound of a congregation of mostly unmusical people singing together.”

– John Witvliet, For the Beauty of the Church


Book review: Rhythms of Grace

Rhythms of Grace: How The Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel

by Mike Cosper

Rhythms of Grace - Mike Cosper

Genre: Christian ministry / worship

Size: 223 pages. Just 10 chapters and 3 Appendices. I read through the whole thing in 2 days, and again more slowly over the course of several weeks.

What’s the big idea: The gospel is all about worship – once broken by sin – restored in Jesus. Worship, whether scattered or gathered, is all about rehearsing the gospel story, and being shaped by it.

Amazingly Mike starts not by defining worship. Instead, for the first 4 chapters he walks the reader through how the Bible describes worship – from Eden, the wilderness, in Israel, and then in Jesus (biblical theology).

Chapter 5 is the clincher where Mike unpacks the “Worship 1-2-3” paradigm he uses to summarise what worship means for the local church (first described in this interview). Basically, worship has one object (the Triune God), two contexts (gathered and scattered), and three audiences (God himself, the gathered church, and the watching world). With this paradigm, Mike shows how many of our disagreements about worship comes from overemphasising one of these aspects. For example:

You’ll find that many of the heated battles of the worship wars erupt when these categories get confused. For instance, the well-intentioned seeker-sensitive movement seems to have lost sight of the church as an audience in worship (and a crucial one). Those who would rather lie in bed and watch The Masters on Sunday have lost sight of the call to gather with God’s church. Those who compartmentalize their “church” life from their hellish “secular” life forget that they are living sacrifices, and all of life is an act of worship. (p.86)

Chapters 6-8 focuses more on defining and fleshing out gathered worship as spiritual formation, as historically rooted in the story of the church, as an opportunity to rehearse the gospel story (he terms it “rhythms of grace”, hence the title). Chapters 9-10 address singing as worship, and the pastoral responsibility of planning and leading worship.

The appendices are also helpful as they include sample service orders from a few different churches, a list of recommended resources, and a discussion about audio/sound engineering in gathered worship (with a rocket of an anecdote in it!).

Easy to read? Yes for me. Mike writes creatively, and spins wonderful prose throughout the book to describe and explain the nature of true worship, and to answer questions about it.

If you’re not a worship leader or church musician some of the terms and references may be a bit new, as Mike assumes the reader is aware of things like “worship wars” and other in-house concepts. But he does try to explain each new term as it comes up, and his storytelling style is definitely easier to digest than the more academic styles of Bryan Chappell, DA Carson and David Peterson.

What I appreciated: I finished this book loving Jesus – our true worship leader – more, and inspired to press on in retelling the gospel story when we gather as a church.

Reading the first four chapters of the book is biblical theology at its breathtaking best, imaginatively told and left me (numerous times) grateful for God’s redemptive plan throughout history. If that’s where the book ended, it would already have been a worthwhile read!

When tackling more contentious issues of musical style, sound, vision etc. Mike has a gracious tone coupled with a rapier wit that leaves you embarrassed to disagree with him, and appreciative of the wisdom he’s curated from many helpful thinkers. I particularly appreciated:

  • his great explanation of John 4:24’s worship in Spirit and in Truth”
  • his critique of the Temple Model of worship planning (leading people into the throne room of God in music)
  • his appeal for worship planning and leading to be seen as a pastoral task.
  • his appeal for repetition and using non-singing elements in gathered worship (e.g. prayers, creeds, readings)

Most churches lack any real theology for worship, and most church leaders don’t know why the church is gathering, and what the goal is. Mike gives a concise yet thorough primer, rooted in Scripture and history, to answer all this. He doesn’t answer every question in-depth, and you don’t get a stand-alone, one-sentence definition of worship. But after reading this book you’ll definitely understand worship from a more biblical, gospel-centred, historically-rooted and theologically grounded perspective.

Who I’d recommend it to: Anyone remotely interested in what we should do when we gather as Christians, especially worship leaders. This is one of those 10 out of 10 books that I wish I had read when I first started out serving in music ministry. I’d rate it even higher than books like Worship Matters and Worship by the Book, just because I think it’s a more accessible read and is so gospel-saturated.

Notable quotes: So many to choose from (I’ve highlighted over 100 and counting…). Here’s some of my favourites:

The story of worship as told in the Bible defines worship in a radically different and surprising way. It’s a story that surprises us because we discover that it doesn’t primarily feature us. The star of the story is God, who is at the center of all worship but is also at its origins in history and its origins in our hearts. The story of worship (like the story of the gospel) is all about God.

The story of God and Israel is the story of God and us. The bleary hope sung by the patriarchs became a tearful slave song in Egypt, and in the deserts on the other side of the Red Sea another movement of the song began. “God lives with Israel” was the title of the movement. Its rhythms were carved into the flesh of lambs and goats, punctuated by a river of blood flowing out of the temple and shouts of “glory, hallelujah” as the divine presence filled the tabernacle.

Just wonderful phrases there.

Like the beautiful movement of Psalm 22, the longing of the patriarchs, the weary blues of the wilderness, and the tear-filled lament of the exiles find themselves resolving into a glorious celebration hymn in the life, work, and song of Jesus. That’s the story of worship: God creates, sin corrupts, but Christ redeems. And all of us get to sing along.

On gathered worship:

Harold Best puts it like this: “We do not go to church to worship. But as continuing worshipers, we gather ourselves together to continue our worship but now in the company of brothers and sisters.”

“Speaking the truth in love” is not so much about interpersonal boldness as it is about a community that shares a confession, a unified expression of faith in the God who saved them. The gathered body teaches the Word and proclaims it together; we speak the truth in love as we sing, read the Scriptures, and remember the gospel together.

…the gathering is unique not as an encounter with God (it is that, though God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian); rather it’s unique because it is an encounter with the people of God, filled with the Spirit of God, spurring one another along in the mission of God. Christ in me meets Christ in you.

We gather because we have work to do. Ekklēsia emphasizes the work of the people. We gather to do our work, which is to say, we gather to remember, to encourage, and to spur one another on.

On musical styles and preferences:

So let’s all acknowledge this fact: for better or worse, our worship, regardless of our tradition or musical style or culture, is shaping the hearts and minds of our congregations. We are always teaching, shaping, and painting a picture of what the Christian life looks like. It’s in this light that we should evaluate our gatherings. What are we saying about “normal” Christianity? How do our services reflect the way the gospel changes our perspective on the world? What are we saying to those who suffer? To the poor? The rich? Those who are like us? Those who are unlike us?

My friend Isaac Wardell… asks whether we think of gathered worship as being more like a concert hall or a banquet hall. If it’s a concert hall, we show up as passive observers and critics, eager to have the itches of our preferences and felt needs scratched. A banquet hall, by contrast, is a communal gathering. We come hungry and in community, ready to participate and share the experience with one another.

On worship wars:

Whoever dubbed the debate over musical style a “worship war” failed to realize that worship is always a war. The declaration that there is one God, that his name is Jesus, and that he has died, has risen, and will come again is an all-out assault on the saviors extended at every level of culture around us.

Every hymn of praise is a little anti-idolatry campaign. . . . When we sing “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,” we are also saying “Down with the gods from whom no blessings flow.”

Today, when many worship services are reduced to preaching and music, it becomes very easy to equate music with worship—and that’s a dangerous slope to park your car on. If music is worship, then when you mess with someone’s musical preferences, you threaten their access to God. No wonder the debates become so heated.

We need to remember that the hymn tradition, with its strict melodies and unity of voice, is but one stream of congregational song. There are other cultural traditions and other ways of participating in singing with the church.

The rock ensemble is part and parcel of our culture. It’s how people celebrate, and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. So go ahead and use it, but don’t let it rule the gathering. Pull the band out for a song or two, leave choruses open so that voices can be heard. Train your musicians to restrain, restrain, restrain. If your church isn’t singing, you’re doing it wrong.

Verdict: Must read for pastors, worship leaders, musicians, anyone involved on Sunday morning. Good to read for all Christians.

Click here to grab a copy.