How did the song that Moses and Miriam composed after the parting of the Red Sea sound? Or how would the melodies of the Psalms sound? Even though there is no record of the music of these songs, we know that the melodies and harmonic progressions used in biblical times were different from the ones we sing or play nowadays.
As a teacher of Music Theory and Composition, I am passionate about encouraging students to apply theoretical techniques and tools that they learn in class to create their compositions. Being a composer of mostly sacred music, I consider it crucial to nurture our students’ talent so they can develop their voice and write relevant compositions to worship God and cultivate an inclusive community of believers.
While students are encouraged to write music for worship events, I call their attention to the fact that most of the Christian tunes that we currently sing or play in church are based on a Major or Minor mode. However, that was not always the case in Christian music. Early Christian Church tunes used up to 7 modes (“Greek” or “Church” modes). The inclusion of more scales and modes in the composition of Christian music can bring diversity to the current repertoire and stimulate creativity in congregational singing and other artistic expressions of worship.
Some of these scales or modes that students of Music Theory learn and may apply to sacred compositions are as follows.
Pentatonic Scale: Minor and major pentatonic scales are one of the most ancient scales, and are popular among African, Asian and Celtic sacred music. Most of the early Negro Spirituals were written using the pentatonic scale (e.g., Were You There, Amazing Grace, I Want Jesus to Walk with Me).
The Blues Scale: This rich, moving scale with six tones includes a minor third, flat five, and flat seven. It is a beloved scale in the Gospel repertoire.
Mixolydian Mode: This unique mode sounds like a major scale with a flat seven (e.g., The Revelation Song).
Dorian Mode: The dorian mode sounds like a minor scale with a raised sixth (e.g., Greensleeves).
Phrygian Dominant Scale: Frequently used in Jewish, Arabic, Flamenco and Indian music, this scale sounds like a major scale, with the second, sixth and seventh flatted (e.g., Hava Nagila).
Another stimulating challenge for Music Theory students is to incorporate rich chord progressions in their sacred compositions. Christian contemporary songs often tend to reduce the harmonic progression of the musical pieces to 3 or 4 chords. A variety and richness of chords, modes and scales can help cultivate a more diverse, colorful and inclusive singing community.
At the end of the semester students are required to write an original composition, which is eventually performed by a vocal or instrumental ensemble of the Department of Music. Over the years I’ve been thrilled to see how creative and meaningful these contributions are to enhance the repertoire of music for worship with new songs. After all, God in His Word keeps inviting us to come unto His presence with a new song!