The Difference Between Repetition and Refrain in Contemporary Christian Music (Musical Musings #8)

I think I’ve mentioned this once before on this blog, but I grew up in a Christian home and have been a practicing Christian for my entire life. Even now, I’m attending a Christian college, and as such, I hear alot of Christian music being played constantly (even as I’m writing this in my dorm room, someone’s strumming a guitar and singing Christian music right now). However, I’m also a musician, and being aware of what makes up music, I’ve been openly critical of most forms of contemporary Christian music. The biggest issue, musically speaking (meaning, all spiritual problems aside), most of what I don’t like is the extreme repetition of the lyrics. But I love hymns, and they all have repeating choruses. So how can I be two-sided about this? That’s what I’m going to answer.

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re either a listener of contemporary Christian music yourself, and so you know who all the artists are for the songs I’ll mention, or you just don’t care, so I won’t be listing artist names for every song brought up here.

Contemporary Christian music (or, as I like to more appropriately call it, Christian pop) usually consists of two kinds of songs: those for performance (like “Cinderella”, “Diving In”, or “Slow Fade”) and those for actual worship sessions (like “Blessed Be Your Name”, “Good Good Father”, “My Chains Are Gone” and so on). The ones written for worship sessions are written using an extremely simple formula, for one very obvious reason to any musician: if you write a simple song, any guy who’s played guitar for a couple of weeks can get up and sing the songs to any congregation, whether that be Elevation church in Charlotte, North Carolina and Saddleback in California (two enormous megachurches), or whether that be a small house church plant of eight people who meet down the road.

Most of the popular songs nowadays have repeating lyrics, repeating verses, and very short verses in order to get to the chorus more quickly, which will obviously be repeated. The music usually consists of a four-chord pattern, repeated over and over again through verses, choruses, and the occasional bridge, which makes the song as easy to play as it does to sing. The repetitive lyrics and melody attract young people who don’t want to focus on the words very much and would rather repeat the same phrases in order to focus mentally more on worship. So every sensible worship leader uses these popular tunes, which means that both the megachurch worship pastor and the house church volunteer will buy the music on an album and will also purchase chord charts to play off of, and boom, your average Christian pop artist is raking it in.

Now, if you could’t tell from that backhanded explanation, I’m really not a fan of Christian pop. I love hymns, however, because aside from the theological richness that is largely missing from the conceptual, emotional songs that make up the contemporary genre, hymns are just better-written music. I’m honestly a bit miffed that songs like “The Solid Rock”, “Amazing Grace”, and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” have had four-line choruses added to them by Christian pop artists and resold as new pieces of music. But that’s a whole different story. Hymns often have refrains, which are alot like choruses, and are typically repeated after every verse (or sometimes used as the last phrase in every verse, like “Hallelujah, What a Saviour”). So how can I praise “The Solid Rock” for it’s refrain (which occurs four times in the piece) but condemn “Set a Fire” or “Good Good Father”?

While I’m fine with choruses in contemporary pieces (“Shine, Jesus, Shine”, “Blessed Be Your Name”, “Revelation Song”, “How Great Is Our God”, etc), repeating lyrics within verses is what makes me unhappy, particularly when it’s a significant portion of the song. For instance, “Good Good Father” has a chorus that says “You’re a good good father: it’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are. And I’m loved by you: it’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am”. The bridge of this song reads, “You are perfect in all of your ways, you are perfect in all of your ways, you are perfect in all of your ways to us”. And in both cases, the repeating lyrics use the same melody, also repeated. Similarly, “Set A Fire” starts out by saying, “No place I’d rather be, no place I’d rather be, no place I’d rather be than here in your love, here in your love”. And no, the artist does not have a stuttering problem. Again, every time a phrase in this song is repeated, so is the melody. And besides that, in both of these pieces, I can’t find any meaning in these lyrics that wouldn’t be a stretch at best.

Now let’s turn to “The Solid Rock”, since it’s been my primary hymn example. The refrain (or chorus, if you will), reads, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand”. Hypocrite warning! I just condemned the songs above for repeating lyrics, but this hymn does it as well! Yes, but it’s only once, not twice, and the melody doesn’t repeat. The first “all other ground” line is not the same melody as the second one. But still, it comes at the end of every verse, making it repetitive by definition. But the hymn is carefully constructed so that the verses detail why Christ is the solid rock and why we’re safe standing on him. This means that every time the refrain is sung, the congregation has another reason to sing it, giving the refrain new meaning each time it is sung. This method is also used in “Hallelujah, What a Saviour”, in which each verse ends with those words, but only because the verses outline why he’s such a saviour and worthy of praise (“Hallelujah” means “praise God”). This method can also be seen in “Blessed Assurance”, “I Exalt Thee”, “The Old Rugged Cross”, and most other hymns.

In the end, you can call me cynical or old-fashioned for being fine with hymns and by-and-large disliking Christian pop. But I think there’s something to be said for using repetition to enhance meaning, like the hymns do, rather than just using it to make it easier to sing. In conclusion, compare the two pieces below, with the last verse and chorus written out. The first one is from “The Solid Rock”, and the second is from “Good Good Father”. Which seems more meaningful or better written to you?

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne!
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

 All other ground is sinking sand.

 

Oh, it’s love so undeniable
I, I can hardly speak
Peace so unexplainable
I, I can hardly think
As you call me deeper still
As you call me deeper still
As you call me deeper still
Into love, love, love
You’re a good good father
It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am
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