Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Redefining Traditional Music

Maybe I'm just not educated enough on what constitutes "traditional" church music, but it seems to me that somewhere along the way "traditional" became predominately either 1) songs written since 1850 or 2)songs from hymnals published not less than 20 nor more than 50 years ago (unless the hymnal is published by fundamentalists). I wonder whether we're not missing out on a vast and rich hymnody when we fail to mine the depths of the hymns written a bit further back. Sure, some of the tunes aren't catchy, and some of them aren't quite as bouncy or dramatic as those professing traditionalists prefer these days. But some are just downright beautiful and wholly appropriate to the theological message. Of course, if you like experiential stuff, well, you might night find so much of that.

Here are a couple scans of the hymns we sang in church Sunday night. I suppose this is a bit of an anomaly, but not much. If you can read the fine print, check out the dates when the authors and composers were alive.


Frank Sansone said...

I am not sure I see your point, Ben. Every church that I know of that sings "traditional" music sings songs written in the same time periods - and by some of the same authors - Newton, Wesley, etc. "Abide with Me" (which you have included here) is a staple in every Fundamental church I have ever attended - and is probably in all the hymnals that most Fundamental churches use.

Perhaps your understanding of traditional is different than mine.

In Christ,

Pastor Frank Sansone

g-harmony said...


That may be- but usually, the "old songs" are more often heavier on the songs of Crosby and Bliss and "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In The Garden" than they are the hymns of Newton (which usually is "Amazing Grace" with the good verses left out) and Wesley (which is usually "And Can It Be" and some Christmas and Easter hymns).

Ben said...


I surely didn't mean this to be anything controversial. Let me try it another way. Sometimes we think that our music is traditional because it was written before the advent of the CCM of the Jesus Movement and contemporary evangelical profiteering in the 70s or 80s. Perhaps I contributed to the confusion by omitting the intended "but before 1950" after the "since 1850."

To develop that thought a little, I'll argue that the we were already on the fast track to what we have today long before the 1970s. We just didn't know it yet.

Anyway, I hope the point doesn't get lost as badly as so many terrific hymns have. Folks might have to research old hymnals and buy a few of them, but the great thing is that the music is all public domain.

Anonymous said...

you should go back further than that. come back when you're singing hymns from those 3 digit years like this one:

Frank Sansone said...


I understand you a little bit better now.

For the overall point - yes, we are losing out on some good old hymns. Although, I would also say that many of those are also being rediscovered due to the sources such as the internet.

The part of your comment that I don't agree with is that "traditional" = songs written since 1850. I think "traditional" would include your other end of this (songs written before 1950, to use your date), but I don't think the after a certain date part of it holds. For many, "traditional" means - "what we sang when I was growing up". Just like when we talk about the good ole days of the NBA, we may be talking about Michael or Magic or Chamberlain or Mikan, etc. depending on when we grew up.

Your comment about being on the fast track in the 1970s to where we are today sounds a lot like Scott.

I inherited Scott's favorite hymn book :) when I got here (I think you know the one I mean) and we don't have the money for something different at this time and I have not yet had the time or inclination to replace it with a "homemade" hymnal like JG over at SI.

However, even in that hymnal, once you remove the songs from the publisher's family, the authors/composers index lists the most songs from Fanny Crosby (15) followed by Charles Wesley (13) and Isaac Watts (12), hardly a slamming of the door against the older guys.

Anyway, at least we agree that there are a lot of good hymns that have fallen out of use. I have thought about adding some additional songs in the back of the hymnal, but so far the only one I have added was "We gather to remember" by Scott Anoil (which we regularly use as part of our communion service).

In Christ,

Pastor Frank Sansone

Scott Aniol said...


Right on.

Michael C said...

Ben, I would say that you and I pretty much agree on music. For a long time I've said that a lot of CCM and a lot of gospel songs are inappropriate vehicles for the messages they carry. They're different manifestations of the same problem.

I'm wondering, though, if your swipe at "experiential stuff" is legit. Isn't biblical hymnody full of experiential content: much of the Psalms, the Magnificant, Ephesians 1, etc.? Certainly there is plenty of experiential "stuff" in enduring hymnody: And Can It Be, My Faith Has Found a Resting Place, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, etc.

I'll readily admit that some of the very worst hymnody has been introspective mamby-pamby. The problem, though, is not that it is experiential. (Admittedly, it would be harder to write a really lousy song about the attributes of God, but even there people have missed pretty badly.) Maybe I'm thinking of experiential in different terms than you.

My church uses an admirable sampling of really old hymns. The texts are in the order of worship, and we sing them to familiar hymn tunes a la psalter. Even so, I sometimes wonder if our liturgy is incomprehensible to those who haven't grown up in the church. There is a sense in which the church does educate newcomers in its vocabulary (e.g., imputation), but sometimes we go beyond the use of needful vocabulary into lingo. This is where I think texts like "Before the Throne" or "And Can It Be" are excellent in their theological depth and simple language.

Scott Aniol said...

Michael, the issue is not with songs of personal testimony or piety. The question is where the focus is. Is the focus on me and my experience and feelings or on the One to whom the expression is supposed to be directed. Is there doctrinal content in the hymn to back up the personal expression.

It's the difference between "Jesus Loves Even Me" and "Jesus Loves Me." The first is about me. The seconds is about how the Bible ("the Bible tells me so") reveals truth about Jesus' relationship to me.

Ben said...


If you can trust the internet, Watts wrote several hundred hymns, and Wesley wrote several thousand. Justs 12-13 of those in comparison with all the drivel that's included is more than disappointing, but this post wasn't intended to slam a hymnal.

Oh, and I realize some pre-1850s hymns are in the "traditional" repertoire, but any traditional modern hymnal I've seen--and I do mean ANY--skews pretty badly to the last 150 years.

Ben said...


I'm not suggesting we throw out all experiential songs. You and certainly Scott have thought about this stuff far more than I, so I'll let you two duke this one out. You both make sense to me.

My point is simply that for whatever mysterious reason, I haven't personally encountered nearly as much of the experiential stuff among the really old hymns. And I have a hard time thinking that's a bad thing.

Bruce said...

From what you've noted, we're all really more "contemporary" than some of us would like to admit. Both the hard-core traditionalists and the chomping-at-the-bit contemporary advocates need to acknowledge this.

Why do some mediocre songs/hymns become old stand-bys, while other good pieces are lost? Let's face it, they are victims in some instances of publishers, but perhaps more often of The People, who like what they like. As long as there are shepherds who do their job to weed out the doctrinally weak songs, I guess I'm okay with the reality that, for a piece to stand the test of time, it will have to be both objectively superior (content and form) as well as subjectively appealing (catchy, memorable, affective).

This also means that we don't have to be overly picky in trying to find new classics. Sing new songs that are good, and time will do the sorting.

As far as old hymns that are lost to us, I don't know that we have to feel too guilty for not singing them anymore. There is the simple limitation of a manageable repertoire for a congregation. Think for a moment about how many songs you sing each week as a congregation, and unless you have a very strong Sunday night service, we're basically talking about Sunday morning here. Multiply that by the number of weeks in the year (less those that are given to a different repertoire, such as Christmas music), then subtract that by the number of times you will likely repeat songs. For us, it's hard to keep a repertoire of any more than 200 songs, with some of those being sung only once a year(!).

As you might imagine, each year we add new songs, and each year we drop some others off the repertoire, both older hymns and more contemporary songs. The fact that we drop more contemporary songs is due to some extent to the fact that, yes, they are more disposable, but it is also simply a fact of the winnowing process. I'm pretty confident that the early Methodists did not sing all of C. Wesley's hymns regularly, or for very long.

We are committed to including new music and old in our services, but it is no easy task to keep things fresh and maintain our heritage.

Ben said...


I think you're dead on, except for one little point. I think you're right about shepherds, but I'll argue that shepherds ought not only to be sifting out the inferior, but also to be persistently and deliberately developing a congregation's taste for great music that might not be immediately attractive or appealing.

Bruce said...

No arguments here. As one who picks the music for our church, I can say that I am careful about what I introduce and do try to be intentional about making those songs contribute to a healthy faith, which must include not only adoration and love of God, but also reverent fear; not only joyful celebration of the gospel, but also sober conviction and resolve to see it go forth in spite of any personal cost.

It is an ongoing uphill battle to introduce fiber into the diet of those who regularly feed on the cotton candy of Christian radio. Yes, we try to teach people to be discerning, but without making rules against Christian contemporary music, which we would not do (being both simplistic and futile), it is hard to overcome the immediate appeal of pop styles. Thankfully, there are some nutritious new songs that have a more contemporary feel, but it is still a constant challenge. I guess that's just a part of being a leader.

Here's a question for you... Do you think it's easier for a church like Capitol Hill Baptist Church or, closer to my neck of the woods, College Church (until recently, pastored by Kent Hughes) to maintain more formal/traditional modes of worship because they have 1) a more educated, "refined" congregation and 2) a larger population from which to draw those who like that kind of worship. In other words, (and this is the sticky part) is it really because those churches have developed a mature body of believers, or have they just attracted people that like that kind of worship? If so, then is it just a different end of the spectrum of American Christians choosing their taste preference in the church marketplace?

In our small town with its rural setting and aging population, we are shielded somewhat from having to compete with other bigger and more contemporary churches, which allows us to be more traditional than we might otherwise tend to be, but (and this may seem to be contradictory) I also feel some need to connect with a wider variety of music just because we really do need to minister to a diverse body of believers, not a niche audience.

This is perhaps moving away from the topic of content to form, but your examples were all old hymns, and while I see the value there (we do sing at least one of those you cited), I guess I'm just saying that I believe there is a need to find quality in some more contemporary songs as well. It just takes more diligence in sifting through debris of what's being published out there.

Ben said...

Bruce wrote:

"Thankfully, there are some nutritious new songs that have a more contemporary feel, but it is still a constant challenge."

I agree with you completely. And by the hymns I posted I don't mean to imply that's all we ever sing. During just about any service there's a mix. Neither all of the old nor all of the new always suit my preferences. I think the theology is always true (unlike what would happen if you sang through just about any hymnal), and the message is usually pretty compatible with the music.

When it comes to form, we're less "traditional" than we are "simple." We regularly incorporate songs from the Gettys and Sovereign Grace, just in a radically more simple form than they'd be sung elsewhere. My point isn't to say haha, we're more traditional than everybody else, but that folks who think they're really traditional usually aren't as much as they think they are.

I'm sure there's a certain type of person that's drawn to the musical forms we employ (I'm one), but I think if you asked a lot of people, they would say our particular approach isn't their preference. People are coming for different reasons, and maybe (or maybe not) developing a taste along the way.

I do think that illustrates the advantage of a simple or "mere" form. You don't have to go to great lengths to blend a service or to cater to a wide variety of forms to make all the potential demographic groups happy. The form simply isn't the driving element of the music. I think that's healthy.

Do you think that's plausible, or do I have my head in the sand?

Bruce said...

I think we're probably pretty close to one another in practice, though we probably don't introduce "new" old hymns as much. It's hard enough to keep the ones we're using in rotation, so to speak.

I often describe my goal regarding style in our worship as "simple" rather than the loaded terms "traditional" or "contemporary." Sadly, one can sing plenty of songs written in the last ten to twenty years in a worship service, but if you're not using a band, to many people it's not "contemporary."

I'm actually not at all opposed to using a band, just like I'm not opposed to a pipe organ, symphony orchestra, or choir (I've enjoyed worshiping in a church like that before), but I do think it's best to employ these on special occasions, not necessarily every week. There are times and places for pulling out all the stops, but there is also great value in keeping our worship very clearly and simply the worship offerings of the congregation, not a production crew. It's less technology-dependent, cheaper, easier to reproduce, more broadly participatory, more likely connected to local culture rather than developed by the entertainment industry, and thus more authentic for just about all of the above reasons. I could go on.