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Songwriting Workshop 3: Rules To Break, Rules To Keep

We have probably all heard this about songwriting: There are lots of rules, but the rules are there to be broken.

This might lead us into thinking rules don't matter, and we can ignore them. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is necessary to know the 'rules' in order to break some of them - exactly the right ones at the right time - very carefully, deliberately and selectively.

Remember we are hoping that our audience will be challenged by the words of our song. We don't want to overload them by challenging them too much musically or stylistically, while of course always avoiding the 'B' word. (No, we're not actually going to say 'boring' again.)

We have been deliberately talking about 'conventions' and 'expectations' rather than 'rules'. Musical conventions can, and should, be broken on occasion. One key to our songwriting is learning these conventions and experimenting with what we should break and when. That's just plain work, and there are lots of references on composition and songwriting we can use to help us learn musical conventions, and when and how to break them.

But there are some true 'rules' that apply to specifically Christian music. Many of these true rules should only rarely be broken, and perhaps some should never be broken. In some circumstances, that might prevent us from conforming to all the expectations of the audience God has asked us to reach. However, we know that the end never justifies the means. God is always perfect and holy, and it would never be his will that we would sin even in order to do something that looked 'good'.

So how can we tell what is a 'convention' we can break, and a 'rule' that we must not?

This turns out to be a surprisingly complex question for Christian music. There are many sincerely held views amongst Christians, and they are not all compatible. But we'll see that there is a pretty straightforward answer that will work for us most of the time.

The Troublesome Tritone

If you know what a tritone is, perhaps you already know the trouble it has caused.

A tritone is the interval that separates an octave exactly in half. It has six semitones, and may be known as an augmented fourth or diminished fifth.

The history of Christian music is inextricably interwoven with the history of music generally. Musical convention - what sounds good to most ears - is constantly changing. Over the past thousand years, western ears have become much more used to dissonance - intervals, chords or melodic progressions that sound 'uneasy'. Yet music that does not have some of these relationships may sound simplistic and uninteresting to a current western ear.

More than one thousand years ago, this interval was already considered to be a musically unstable. It was considered so impossibly inappropriate for worship music that it came to be known as diabolis in musica, or devil in music, and was accordingly banned from church music. Whether because of its inherent nature, or just the conditioning of western ears, even today it is sometimes described as a 'scary' interval, and as recently as the 1980s, some churches have reiterated that the ban should remain.

We don't have time to delve too far into the history, but how we as listeners and as the church have reacted to this interval at various times is fascinating.

Much more importantly, it raises a very important question for Christian music: What music, if any, is simply wrong?

And it is not just a question of intervals. Tempos, keys, chords, and instruments are all subjects of great debate. Go online and see how worked up some of us Christians get about too much music that uses minor keys, or too little using minor keys. And if we get started on the question of style, and 'hymns' versus 'choruses', we could be here all night. It certainly appears that some of the time, what we are seeing is personal preference, and perhaps in some cases, limited experience. But does that explain all the debate?

There are individuals and churches that have considered many of these matters in the light of scripture most seriously, prayerfully seeking the Lord's will and guidance. They have often reached dramatically different conclusions: One church concludes that hymns are most worshipful, another that choruses are best, yet another that singing should not be accompanied by any kind of musical instruments at all. One set of Christian parents is thankful to see their children playing rock in a worship band, another set of Christian parents won't permit their children to attend a Christian youth conference because the music cannot be Christian if it is in a rock style.

Real Rules of Christian Music

We can't attempt to resolve more than a thousand years of debate in a few minutes, yet whether we realize it or not, these questions obviously have a huge impact on our music. We are dealing with 'real' rules here, not just musical convention or personal preference.

When the God of the universe speaks about what should and should not be in our music, we need to listen. We also need to make sure our lack of understanding or pride is not creating false barriers in employing God's gifts for us, or for others.

It would obviously be wrong for us to compose or play something that was truly wrong. It could be quite wrong to compose or play something that was only unwise, or just inadvisable. (And we'll see in a moment that anything against our conscience is wrong for us, even if it is not necessarily wrong for all others.)

We must remember that if we speak, write or record something that other Christians believe to be wrong, God will also hold us to account if we cause our weaker brother or sister to stumble. And we haven't even sung a word yet - this is just about the notes!

Music & Scripture

At any time of uncertainty concerning God's will for us, we always need to turn to scripture.

Music is no different: We must search God's word, and with the help of his Holy Spirit, make sure we conform ourselves to what God's standards. We need to recognize that steeped in our culture as we are, we may think our current beliefs to be perfectly 'normal' even though they may actually be miles away from what God requires.

We might think it helpful if God had included musical and rhythmic notation in scripture. If there were tempos that are wrong, we might like him to have been specific about that too. Yet if we truly required any of this specific information to love, honour and serve him, we know he would have given it to us. So everything we truly need to know on these topics is indeed right there for us. And he must have decided it must be better for us to reason and wrestle with it, or he would have made it explicit.

The Bible mentions music quite a bit, but not at the level of rhythm, tempo, scales, style and intervals. God does provide us with lots of examples of how to deal with differences in practice and belief. Paul's letter to the Romans is one place to start: The whole fourteenth chapter is great. One person will consider that a certain day is more important than other days, while another may believe that all days are the same. One will eat meat, another will abstain. Whatever we do, we must do to the Lord, giving thanks to God. We are told not pass judgment on disputable matters, and we are instructed not to look down on someone that believes other than we do in these matters, nor are we to undermine them.

So many things are disputable, and many things are not. Another reason for us all to know God's word well. One thing that is not disputable: If one of us has doubts about doing something, it is definitely wrong for him or her to do it. As Romans points out, everything that does not come from faith is sin. So if you or I have an honest belief that using a particular musical interval is wrong, or a particular rhythm is wrong, or rock music is wrong, or musical accompaniment to worship is wrong, we must not use it.

We can investigate our belief, and talk to other Christians who have reached different conclusions based on scripture, but it will remain wrong for us unless and until we are honestly convinced otherwise.

Note that what is right or wrong for you or for me may have nothing to do with what we like. Temptation being what it is, it's more likely we may have to forego something that is musically attractive to us. And we must guard against the opposite temptation, which is to label something 'wrong', when in fact it is only something that we don't like.

Preferences, Conventions & Rules in a Nutshell

We've looked at a lot of detail, but our way forward in most cases is actually very simple and clear. We need to be conscious that 'preferences', 'conventions' and 'rules' are three different things.

We need to decide which is which, and make sure we are treating each one as God would will.

  • As a servant to God's people, we need to be prepared to set aside our own preferences.
  • As a creative musician, we need to understand and follow relevant conventions most of the time, and know when to stretch or break them.
  • And as a follower of Christ, we must inform our conscience with scripture, and not sin by doing anything against it.

Of course these distinctions are not only important in making our music, but also in how we speak, how we choose to live, how we dress, and just about every other aspect of our lives. It's no surprise that we need God's help, guidance and wisdom in songwriting. Another great reason to make our prayerful conversations with God the focus of our songwriting!

Coming up next...

Next month we'll be looking more directly at song structure. This is a great time to take your workshop song, review who the audience is for your song, and think about the preferences, conventions and rules that should apply. That will give us the foundation to let us jump right into dividing up our lyrical ideas into verses, choruses, bridges and the other building blocks we need.

As always, as you think of suggestions for additional workshop material, corrections or improvements, please get in touch.

May God continue to bless your songwriting as you seek to bring glory to him, and his light to the world around you. See you next time!

Because some things aren't meant to be broken.

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