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In Defense of Modern Worship Style

A headline from a recent article proclaims “There is a reason every hit worship song sounds the same.” The article goes on to quote a study in which the authors say, “if you have ever felt like most worship music sounds the same, it may be because the worship music you are likely to hear in many churches is written by just a handful of songwriters from a handful of churches.” While I would generally agree with this statement, I’m not sure that this quote justifies the headline that every hit worship song sounds the same. Even the authors note in the quote above that “it may be” the group of select songwriters are writing the songs, resulting in the songs sounding “the same.”

While many worship songs sound similar, I believe that this is a byproduct of having a modern worship style. Style by design means that a particular body of music sounds alike and unique from other styles. In “A History of Music and Musical Style” Ulrich and Pisk note:

…the organization of material proceeds along different lines: that music in turn develops characteristics which make it distinguishable from other music–earlier, later, and even music of the same period written under different conditions–and which allows it to be considered separately.
In this way the concept of style arises. Musical style may be thought of as the set of elements which on the one hand gives a piece of music its identity and on the other allows it to be related to something outside itself: to a particular period of time, to a particular country of origin, to a type, to a function, to a composer, or to another piece of music. Elements of style may include the principles of tonal organization, ways of certain rhythmic patterns, ways of treating the vertical components of music, and ways of assembling tones and phrases to form larger musical entities. They may also include the manner in which a piece of music is performed, the uses to which it is put, its ritualistic or social or aesthetic purposes, and a variety of other aspects.

I would propose that what we refer to modern worship music fits many of these elements, including both the musical elements and the manner in which it is used. Many people are critical of modern worship music would say that it is simple and repetitious. Let’s briefly examine those two concerns.


In terms of worship being simple, I would agree that the harmonic language of most worship songs is relatively simple. Almost all of the most popular CCLI songs are diatonic, which means that they only use the notes that are in the original key. Many would use only three or four chords. Because of the simple harmonic structure, voice parts are easy to sing as they are in the key and shadow the melody. Author John Frame notes in this book “Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense” that the origins of modern worship music are in folk music and in pop music culture. Both of these use simple harmonies, and one could argue that these are effective as the “folk” and popular musicians making the music need to be able to play them easily. The same is true of contemporary worship music. People need to be able to perform music that is accessible to them, so keeping a smaller harmonic vocabulary can help musicians be able to perform music.

If the value of worship music is based on more complex harmonies, we need to eliminate a plethora of favorite hymns, including the following just to name a few:

Amazing Grace
Come Thou Fount Of Every blessing
Glory to His Name
Go Tell it On the Mountain
Jesus Loves Me
Joy to the World
Just As I Am
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms
Only Trust Him
Rock of Ages
The Solid Rock
This is My Father’s World
What a Friend We Have in Jesus

These are all diatonic songs, almost all which only use three chords.

Certainly the rhythms are not simple in most modern worship songs. Syncopated melodies especially make the rhythm more complex than many hymns. In contrast, rhythms of hymns could be found to be simple and even stiff.


Reusing musical material is the basis of musical form. Often a musical idea is presented, sometimes developed, contrasted with new ideas, and then often returns again. Such is the case with many worship songs. The form of most worship songs could be seen as some variation of:

Verse 1 – Chorus – Verse 2 – Chorus – Bridge – Bridge – Chorus – Chorus – Tag

Contrasting that with many hymns would have internal musical structure within a verse, but hymns would most commonly fall into:

Verse 1 – Verse 2 – Verse 3 – Verse 4
Verse 1 – Chorus – Verse 2 – Chorus – Verse 3 – Chorus – Verse 4 – Chorus

In that way, the form of modern worship songs is not significantly more repetitive than the form of hymns. However, it should be acknowledged that there are churches that would repeat sections of a worship song form that shown above, which would make them longer and more repetitive. It could be argued that the form of worship songs are more sophisticated that hymns.

Repetition, in and of itself, is not inherently undesirable. Many of the Psalms are highly repetitious (Psalm 29:1-11, Psalm 118:1-4, Psalm 130:6, Psalm 136:1-26). If we discarded songs that were repetitious, we could lose these familiar songs:

Glory to His Name
Great is Thy Faithfulness
Hallelujah Chorus
How Great Thou Art
Jesus Loves Me
Joy to the World
Nothing But the Blood


Modern worship songs frequently exhibit similarity because they adhere to the stylistic guidelines as described earlier. This style is widely adopted due to its effectiveness in many congregational settings. It is easy for musicians to be critical of this style, and while I’m not asserting that modern worship music is the apex of musical beauty, it is fulfilling its role as Ulrich and Fisk say above, “the uses to which it is put.”

2 comments to In Defense of Modern Worship Style


    I feel from what I have been seeing that the “modern” style of worship is moving away from the “bridge” mentality and more into the modern hymn area. I find that artists like Phil Wickham are showing the availability to break the mold and write more verses than bridges.

    • Roger O'Neel

      I would agree with you about the bridge being less important in recent years, and that we are seeing more “songs” that could be called “hymns.”