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Groovin' in the Bag with Sound Theology
By Jon Nicol - 08/28/2002 - 06:17 PM EDT

© 2002 Jon Nicol

As any good musician and songwriter will tell you, there are rules for music that one must learn--and then learn to break. As a student at Music Tech in Minneapolis, one of my instructors, Terry Burns—bassist extraordinaire—had three home-brewed rules of playing that he deemed "unbreakable." No matter the style, no matter the instrument, this instructor proclaimed these rules supreme. We were to examine everything we played by these three rules phrased as questions:
1. Is it sonically correct? (pitch, rhythm, etc.)
2. Does it fit the bag? (stylistically appropriate to the genre and the gig)
3. Does it groove? (played with feeling, evoking the desired emotion)

Terry repeated this like a mantra to us mid-90s, wannabe rock stars, but few of us heeded his advice until we got the proverbial "(tail)-kicking" onstage a few dozen times. OK, it took more than that--but I finally got it. As I ventured into songwriting, I began to see how these rules applied to the craft. And as I delved into writing for church and worship, I adapted the rules/questions slightly to guide how I write.

The only rule I changed completely is #1. "Is it sonically correct?" I’m going on the assumption that most songwriters are able to distinguish musical "correctness." If they can’t, they’ve probably developed a co-writing relationship with someone who can.

So the first rule/question for writing praise and worship music has been changed to, "Is it theologically sound?" "Theological soundness" is a fancy way to say that the lyrics jive with the beliefs of the particular congregation or religious group for which you are writing. George Harrison’s "My Sweet Lord" might be embraced by an inter-faith gathering, but you probably wouldn’t hear it sung in too many Southern Baptist churches. This rule predominately applies to the lyrics of a song; however, some churches’ theology and doctrine spill over into dictating the music itself. But, for the most part, if you’re writing an instrumental piece, this rule probably won’t apply.

Rule/question two remains unchanged: "Does it fit the bag?" Here are two important questions to help determine "the bag" for which you are writing.

1. Is this song going to be performed by a soloist, choir or the congregation?

This will determine the complexity of the song. Typically, a song sung by the congregation has less complex lyrics, melody, and format than one performed by a soloist or a choir. Songs sung by the congregation are often shorter and more predictable, hence easier to learn.

2. What is the predominant musical culture of the church? Churches are all over the musical spectrum today: adult contemporary, traditional, gospel, high liturgical, Gen-X/postmodern, etc.

This will determine not only the style of music, but the lyrics as well. A person who is writing for a church that uses the King James Version of the Bible exclusively will have no problem singing a song riddled with "thee" and "thou." Another church may want to avoid that kind of language like the ten plagues. They might be trying to minister to people with no church background to whom such language would be nearly foreign.

Finally rule three: "Does it groove?" Let’s face it, my music teacher was a child of the sixties, so his terminology may be a bit foreign to some. But "groove" sums up the purpose for all music, regardless of style or setting. In order to communicate, music must hold the attention of the listener or the singing congregation. Groove goes beyond style, and lyrical content. It’s the emotion that it evokes from the listener. If someone goes to church and reacts to the music with nothing other than indifference or boredom, then what’s the point? Music, when taken beyond the mechanics of notes and theory, has direct link to one’s soul. Out of all three rules, "Does it groove?" is the least tangible. But once the other two questions have been answered affirmatively, this is the key to truly connecting your song with your target audience.

We’ll dive into each of these questions in more detail in later articles. Until next time then, use these rules/questions as a guide to make your worship songs purposeful, relevant, and groovin’.

Further up and further in!

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