Objective Standards - Musical development
on September 14, 2009
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In the last post I wrote on this topic, I stated that there is no objective standard that music must be measured by. There have been great composers and great periods of musical development. Over the years, best practices for composition have developed. But there is absolutely no reason why all music has to follow those best practices.
In fact, creating an atmosphere where it is considered wrong to break the rules of the past is a sure way to stifle innovation. And we would be arrogant indeed to think that we know everything we need to know about music and no longer need innovation.
Here is an example of what I am saying. For close to 1500 years, music in the Western world was tightly controlled by the Roman Catholic church which imposed all kinds of ridiculous rules on musical composition and performance. While development happened during that time, it was very slow. Only when the church lost control of music did rapid development occur (practically the entire Common Practice Period).
While what I am about to say is controversial, I firmly believe it to be true. Within conservative circles of the church, the same phenomenon has occurred over the past century.
Want proof? Study the church music that was composed and performed during the first 70 years of the Twentieth Century and compare it to Broadway show tunes. There is no comparison in terms of musical quality. Compare "A Shelter in the Time of Storm" to the hit "But Beautiful." These songs were both written in the 1940's and I like both of them. But one of those songs is brilliantly written and the other one is musically bland. You know which one is which. And you could make those kind of comparisons all day.
What is the difference? The secular world was still breaking the rules and improving music, especially in the area of harmony. But the church decided not to go along with that development.
Pick up a Christian piano arrangement book from the 1950's and compare it to what the great jazz pianists were playing at the same time. If you didn't know better, you would never guess that there could be that much difference in the quality within the same period. After all, both were playing popular (or folk) music. The jazz pianists were playing Broadway tunes while the church pianists were playing gospel songs written at the same time.
I studied for a few years with John Innes, Billy Graham Crusades pianist for
decades and one of those arrangers who was publishing music that long
ago. I remember asking him about his music from that period and he told me he was embarrassed by it. By the way, his music today is extremely good--in fact, I think he is one of the best pianists in Christian music. And the reason why is because he learned to embrace Twentieth Century musical development in harmony.
Now how this phenomenon happened is complicated and I am not sure I really understand it. I would guess that the church decided that the new harmony was worldly. They may have rejected jazz development because of association. And they very well may have rejected some music because of racial issues.
But reject it they did. And the results have been devastating. Today, our music is still way behind in areas where there has been good, healthy development within the rest of the musical world.
Is there a problem with the church rejecting music because of worldliness? Absolutely not, but adopting a position that stifles honest development is something that cannot be taken lightly.