Sunday, June 06, 2010

3-Chord Ditties

Over the years, in various situations from discussions of popular music with friends to debates with my theory professors in college about country music, I have heard and even used the criticism of the modern reliance (sometimes absolute) on three-chord harmony that is typical of the past 50 years of musical development. Many of you have heard modern worship music characterized as "three-chord ditties" (not an entirely inaccurate characterization in many cases). Although I understand the heart of the criticism, I am not sure this is the best way to make the argument against the tide of shallow worship music that has swept over the evangelical church.

 As I was playing the well-known Psalm setting "The Ends of All the Earth Shall Hear" this morning during worship, I was struck by how the entire hymn relies on only three chords: D, G, and A. These three chords represent the I, IV, and V (Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant) tones in the D-major scale. Incidentally, the three most common chords used in popular music are the I, IV, and V chords (of the key the song is written in, not necessarily D-major). This hymn is not an isolated example by any means.

The deficiency of much modern worship/praise music does not primarily lie in the fact that the harmony is basically simple. Simple can be incredibly beautiful and effective. But simple should not mistaken for simplistic, especially when it comes to the lyrical content of worship music.

Something to think about before leveling the "3-chord ditty" criticism...