In a recent post, I referred to three basic guidelines when looking at the worthiness of music in worship (from T. David Gordon). These three guidelines are:
1) Are the words orthodox? That is, are they biblical, true, and lacking heretical statements?
2) Are the words significant? Just because the words are true doesn’t mean they are fit for praising God. Dr. Gordon uses the example of a little diddy that goes something like “There was a wedding in Cana/There was a wedding in Cana/There was a wedding in Cana/Where Jesus turned water into wine.” True, but not significant for worship. Also, poorly written but true lyrics would fall under this category.
3) Is the song suitable for the context of corporate worship? Overly individualistic lyrics, words that don’t match the tune, and a tune not suited for congregational singing are three examples of songs that would violate this guideline.
Similarly, Donald Williams, in the latest issue of Modern Reformation, provides five criteria “derived from biblical teaching about the nature of worship and an understanding of the nature of music.” I thought I’d briefly describe these five here. They are “the marks of excellence for worship music in any age, but only knowledge of the Bible and musical history can tell us this.”
1) Biblical truth. Whether its psalms, biblical texts, or hymn lyrics set to music, the words must be right and true. “Often (in the past) hymns were printed with the biblical references appended to every verse that justified their content.” Can you imagine each verse of new and old songs having accompanying verses?
2) Theological profundity. “Even simple folk praised a majestically transcendent God with a graciously incarnated Son who saved them by grace through faith.” Now it seems that the majority of songs are about ourselves, our piety, and our experiences while only briefly and sloppily mentioning God.
3) Poetic richness. “Little touches that make a text more intellectually suggestive or emotionally powerful without making it unnecessarily difficult will show up in hymns that survive the test of time, while texts that are just rhymed prose with tunes attached are more forgettable.”
4) Musical beauty. There are objective ways to create musical beauty – it is not only in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. “There are contours, structures, and cadences that make for a singable melody and harmonic felicities that can make that melody more memorable or even haunting.”
5) A good fit between words and musical setting. This, unfortunately, is a frequent violation not only in contemporary songs but in many hymn collections as well. For example, repentant, contemplative, or somber texts should not be accompanied by snappy diddies with jumpy rhythms. Likewise, rejoicing, victorious, or majestic texts don’t go well with more plodding, somber music.