In Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

Image 11This past week, I enjoyed thoughtful conversations with two music educators. Both are Believers teaching at Christian universities. Both are accomplished musicians and arrangers. Both are preparing students to enter the Church Music world as worship leaders. And both are concerned with their students’ lack of critical listening skills, particularly as they pertain to contemporary Praise & Worship music.

The problem is this: The students are not always so discerning of what makes a song popular versus what makes a song well-written.

Now, let’s stipulate up front: These are college students. If they in any way resemble me and/or the kids I attended school with decades ago, I can safely assert these students don’t know much about anything. But that is normal. Who among us was fully informed when we were twenty years-old? Not me, for sure. That didn’t prevent Twenty Year-Old College Me from being supremely confident in my opinions. But in fact, College Me was wrong about all sorts of things. Ironically, the more I learned the better I came to understand just how little I really knew.

Back to critical listening: As I chatted with one of my professor-friends, it dawned on me that one cannot listen critically unless one can think critically. And one cannot think critically unless one understands deeply the subject at hand. Deep understanding of music comes from study of form and history, mastery of craft and style, and after much practice and application. All those things take time. Years, in fact. So, I suppose my generation could cut the kids today a little slack. Yes, they are clueless. But so were we all at that age.

Allow me, if you will, to offer a few insights to you students in the hot pursuit of music. If you want to become a better critical listener, here are seven things to ponder:

1. You don’t know as much as you think you know. (And your parents are smarter than you think.)

2. Without solid craftsmanship and sound theology, worship music is chaff in the wind.

3. Don’t assume that because a song is popular that it is a well-written song. (Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.)

4. Study the great hymns of the church. There is good reason those words have lasted 200+ years.

5. Learn more songs that don’t rely so heavily on the word “I” and its variants – me, my, mine.

6. Expand your harmonic universe. (There is a world of harmony beyond the I, IV, V and vi minor chords.)

7. Spend more time in the practice room. (There is nothing inauthentic about being really good at what you do.)

Becoming a better critical listener goes hand-in-hand with becoming a better musician.  The better you play, sing, or write, the more clearly you will hear. But becoming a better critical listener comes with a price. You will start to see flaws in songs you previously thought were perfect. And it also comes with a reward: As a better critical listener, you will appreciate a well-crafted and deeply meaningful song more than ever before.

In the meantime – You kids get off my lawn!

Showing 13 comments
  • Deborah Craig-Claar

    “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we can hear twice as much as we say.”
    (No one is too sure who said this first…but it seems to become more true the older I get.)

    • Chris Titko

      “The more I learn the less I know.” Learning to listen at a deep level is at the heart of finding God’s true intentions for us. It is one way we can unearth hidden truths and find connections between our earthly journey and getting closer to the Divine.

    • rsterling

      Agreed, Chris. Similarly, the closer I grow to the Lord, the more clearly I understand how far away from His righteousness I am.

    • rsterling

      I always thought my Dad came up with that. 🙂 Maybe not: But i know my dad sure got smarter as I got older.

  • Patrick F. Ham

    Thank you for this… I’m trying to think of a less passive-aggressive (is that the right usage?) way to copy-paste this link to worship leader and song-writer friends of mine. Haha!!

    “…not always so discerning of what makes a song popular versus what makes a song well-written.”

    This is all-too-common. I feel sometimes that Christian music labels are run by execs that fit this description too well.

    Anyways… don’t wanna stay too negative too long. There are SO many new songs that are a gift, but sadly, we worship leaders (who are musicians) have to sift through AND PAST “the top 40” to find well-written songs that our congregations should learn.

    Thanks again for this!

    • rsterling

      And thank you for your response. I know that we all have our opinions – and we don’t all like the same kinds of music. So – there will never be a uniform line of thought. But still – it will never hurt us to more carefully consider the theological soundness and the musical integrity of what we sing in church. Generations ago, hymns were used to teach theological principles to a largely illiterate congregation. In a way, we live in a post-literate society: We’ve exchanged reading for watching. So maybe we need to consider once again the need for the songs & hymns we sing in church to act as teaching tools for the congregation.

  • Christie

    Wonderful! Way too many “I, me, my, mine” lyrics; far too few rich harmonies.

    • rsterling

      Thx for responding , Christie. The good news is – this is a topic of conversation with almost every Christian musician I know. Maybe we will begin to take some “small steps” toward richer music.

  • Stephanie Taylor

    Part of the problem with the lack of discernment may stem from the music the students have grown up on. Many (most?) parents have not been very influential in their child’s choice of music. They have not developed much of a discernment themselves; thus: “Turn on the Christian station!” The music sounds much like any other station available, but they believe songs with Christian phrases makes it good music. The music is the driving force, not the lyrics. So the problem has been passed on.

    Youth (even parents) can be taught how to look at lyrics. They can learn to translate what is being said or not said. They can begin to critically dissect and reason why a set of lyrics is good or not so good. Hopefully, the same for music will follow.

    But, it takes time.

    How many church music leaders have taken the time to learn the same?

    • rsterling

      I would not be at all surprised to find a strong correlation between an adult’s musical sophistication (for lack of a better way of putting it) and a healthy appreciation (and even education) of music in the childhood home.

    • your shortest sister

      Rob, we can thank Mom for teaching us that the most important part of a song are the words. Important for the songwriter, lyricist, performer, and listener. If the listener can’t understand the words (singer doesn’t enunciate, the theology is wrong, or the lyricist didn’t do his/her job well) the song is worthless, particularly from a Christian music perspective.

      BTW, I’ve been sharing some of your blogs on Twitter. Even though your blogs are almost always music related, quite a few of them have been applicable to areas and people not associated with music. So far, I’ve gotten good response on all of them.

      Love you always. Give Cindy a hug from me.

  • your shortest sister

    Rob, on your list of seven things to ponder, my favorite is #4. I’ve always loved hymns, even more now than I did when I was younger. Sometimes, it’s the melody, occasionally, the harmony, but more often than not it’s the lyrics. They will speak to me in ways I never could have imagined. This happens particularly when I find out the story BEHIND the hymns. Poems that are so beautiful, so strong, so full of truth that it is “inevitable” that they be put to music so that the whole world can sing them and learn of God’s goodness, mercy, and love. Songs like “It Is Well” and “The Star Spangled Banner” come to mind.

    Note the reference to one of your prior (and one of my favorites) blogs. Each of your blogs points out all the hard work and attention to detail that is required in what you do. And I love that. Attention to detail is required in what I do – bookkeeping and taxes – but I find no joy in those details. Who can find joy and satisfaction in telling people how much they owe in taxes or how badly their company is doing financially? Sigh. Gotta find me a new line of work.

  • Bruce Cokeroft

    Yes, and God gave us two eyes and one mouth so that we could (should) observe and learn more than we use our mouth!

    Great stuff as always, Rob!

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