The first time I taught Music History I, a student came to my office worried about an upcoming listening exam. “This is impossible,” he said. “The music all sounds the same.”
That semester, we studied everything from ancient Greek music theory to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. We covered Gregorian chant, Notre Dame polyphony, Renaissance madrigals, Counter Reformation Masses, and more.
The music spanned centuries. There are works in complete vocal unison, others with intricate harmonies. Some are in Latin, some in German. But undergrads don’t spend their time listening to chant and madrigals. I don’t blame them for having a hard time with the exam, and I know that their dislike and discomfort mostly comes from unfamiliarity.
So, when I hear someone say, “Contemporary worship music all sounds the same,” I think of my music history students and wonder if that person simply doesn’t like the music very much.
What does contemporary worship music sound like? Is it fair to say that it all “sounds the same”?
“(Almost) 100% of the Top 25 Worship Songs are associated with just a handful of Megachurches,” was the headline of a post by Worship Leader Research earlier this year. Most of the songs on the list were written or recorded by artists associated with Elevation, Bethel, Hillsong, or Passion, “the Big Four.”
Because so much influence is concentrated within a small group of creators and organizations, the number of people creating the most popular worship music is small (and getting smaller). But does this concentration of influence and popularity mean that contemporary worship music is starting to sound the same? Or does it just sound like it’s part of the same genre?
Over the past 25 years, contemporary worship music has matured into a recognizable musical style and industry force, with its own conventions and characteristics. A few decades ago, “worship music” was considered either a subgenre of CCM or a body of music marketed primarily to churches and worship directors.
Now, the genre is distinct within the Christian music world and the mainstream music industry. Worship albums have their own category at the Dove Awards; Spotify has multiple curated playlists devoted to the genre. Like most genres, contemporary worship music has a small group of influential stars (the Big Four) reliably producing its most popular hits. The songs don’t sound the same, but they do sound like they belong together.
“In any genre, there will be key markers,” said Shannan Baker, a member of the Worship Leader Research team and a postdoctoral fellow in music and digital humanities at Baylor. “There are similar themes, text devices like ‘broken chains,’ but the more you’re in the music, the more you’ll hear the differences and pieces that make certain artists unique.”
“It all sounds the same” is an easy criticism of any musical genre, and it usually arises from dislike. “Country music all sounds the same” is a way of saying “I don’t like country music.” Those who don’t prefer that particular genre probably imagine it according to their own generalized perceptions of its hallmarks—twang, steel guitar, something about trucks or dirt roads.
Those who spend more time listening to a genre, as Baker notes, recognize the diversity within it. There is some obvious musical variation in the songs on the researchers’ top 25 list. “This Is Amazing Grace” (Phil Wickham) is an upbeat four-on-the-floor with a rhythmically simple and singable chorus. “Oceans” (Hillsong UNITED) famously begins with a quiet, sparsely accompanied verse and chorus often performed in a slow, flexible tempo to showcase an expressive vocalist.
“Reckless Love” (Bethel Music, Cory Asbury) is in a minor key and driving 6/8 meter. Passion’s energetic “Glorious Day” begins with a subdued guitar-driven verse, “I was buried beneath my shame,” and builds in anticipation until the shout-sung chorus, “I ran out of that grave.”
Perhaps some of the perceived “sameness” in worship songs arises from the presence of common themes and Christian truths.
“There is an underlying hopefulness for which the Gospel allows,” wrote Nick Lannon, an Anglican pastor in Kentucky in an article for Mockingbird, “Why All Christian Music Sounds the Same (Even When It Doesn’t).” “The beats and the lyrics may change, but you’ll feel like you’re hearing the same song … and it’s instantly recognizable.”
It’s true; the rhythms, melodies, and lyrics vary—as they do in any genre—but themes like love, grace, and hope are consistent. And an array of common musical features might not be perfectly consistent, but a combination of them can place a song in the genre.
Contemporary worship songs usually contain a clear demarcation between verse and chorus, a climactic bridge, simple harmonic structure, and heavy use of pads and keyboard effects to create a washy foundation of texture. Dynamic contrast and vocal range guide singers and listeners through moments of thoughtful calm and celebratory exuberance (as in “Glorious Day”).
These devices and harmonic language are not unique to contemporary worship music; the genre borrows heavily from pop, rock, and country. And given a recording by one of the Big Four, it’s not certain that the music of Bethel or Elevation would be instantly recognizable aside from perhaps the voice of a well-known vocalist like Kari Jobe.
One thing that makes contemporary worship music distinct as a genre is its intended purpose and function: the facilitation of worship. And the genre has evolved to reflect the musical practices of a particular kind of worshiping community, modeled by its most popular artists.
There are audible clues in recordings of sacred music that point to what kind of religious practice and gathering space they are for—a gospel choir or an organ, for example. Contemporary worship music in the vein of the Big Four borrows from mainstream pop and rock; the instrumentation (synths/keyboard, electric guitar, drums, bass) tells the listener that this music is for churches with a rock band setup.
Beyond these top worship outlets, popular artists like Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sovereign Grace, or CityAlight write music that uses similar instrumentation but borrows more heavily from the musical structures and text-setting style of 18th- and 19th-century hymnody. And yet the music from this segment of the niche still seems comfortably placed in the genre “contemporary worship music.”
Someone who claims “All worship music sounds the same” might be thinking beyond the actual sound of the songs to a broader perception of sameness or monoculture around contemporary worship.
All musical genres can feed and attach themselves to their own subcultures and communities, which use the body of music to project an identity. The same goes for today’s worship music, to an extent, where fans are also drawn to the personalities, fashion, and aesthetics that go along with it.
For some worship leaders and church musicians, the music of Bethel, Hillsong, and other popular worship artists has become associated with engaging, Spirit-filled worship. This music often comes with professionally produced visual media on platforms like YouTube and Instagram, so songs are attached to imagery that tells viewers what kind of worship experience the music can create: how it looks and feels, how worshipers will act.
A survey of worship leaders found that over half of the respondents said that they sometimes wished their church’s worship style/musical culture more closely resembled these artists.
“It wasn’t just about the band and music sounding a certain way,” said Baker. “It was about wanting their congregations to physically and visibly engage.”
Marc Jolicoeur, another member of the Worship Leader Research team and a worship and creative arts pastor in New Brunswick, Canada, says that many worship leaders aspire to recreate some aspects present in video and sound recordings because they have had firsthand, deep experiences with the music (at conferences or concerts, for example) and want to share it with their local churches.
“We think, I want that for my people, for my local church and my congregation,” said Jolicoeur. But it’s not about wanting the flashy production and professional quality for their own sake. It’s about the power of a particular model and culture of musical worship.
For many American Christians, worship conferences and concerts are places where we have experienced moving, dramatic, emotional worship. So it’s not surprising that those settings and the music they accommodate have become aspirational models for leaders and musicians.
The music of the Big Four and other popular worship artists doesn’t all sound the same, but it does evoke these desirable “mountaintop” worship experiences.
Perhaps if there is any danger of “sameness” in today’s most popular worship music, it’s in the narrow vision of what meaningful musical worship can or should be. The songs don’t all sound the same, but the conventions of the genre increasingly rely on access to multitracks, a big sound system, and a whole team of musicians. For most churches, Sunday morning worship looks nothing like an arena concert.
Leaders who want to use popular worship hits face the challenge of adapting and reimagining these songs for their local churches. The process requires creativity, flexibility, and a willingness to let go of some of the audiovisual associations that come with a particular song.
Adapting music for the local church and its particularities has always been the task of a music minister or worship leader. And, says Jolicoeur, the balance between pursuing musical excellence or ideals and recognizing the needs of your congregation is part of the calling.
Worship leaders “just want to create an environment where people are free to experience Jesus.”