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Episode 052: Rethinking Worship Music
It’s a delight to be talking with songwriter and musical composer Cody Curtis (Psallos) this week on rethinking worship music. Cody, who has a doctorate in music composition, comes at music ministry with a great perspective – a perspective that may be lacking in the church today. Our conversation involves talking about the “blind follow of popular worship music,” what discernment looks like, and breaking free from the “norm” and being creative (yet smart). One of Cody’s great accomplishments is the release of ROMANS (see link below), a musical journey through the ancient letter from Paul to the Church in Rome.
Check out ROMANS by Psallos (the project Cody made with past students from Union University).
Listen to Josh Garrels’ rendition of What Wondrous Love Is This (Cody gave this hymn as an example of a song written in the dorian church mode).
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
It’s a privilege and an honour to be talking with a very talented musical composer, songwriter, and probably other things as well. Cody Curtis is our guest on the show for this week. Thanks so much for coming on the show!
Thanks so much for having me.
A couple months ago now I came across this album online called Romans. Underneath the word “Romans” was this little word called Psallos. I was like “Hey, this kind of looks cool!” And I began to listen and actually really enjoyed what I was listening to. It was pretty much this musical journey through the book of Romans. I was like, “Wow, that’s intense!” So, upon exploring a little bit more about this musical group called Psallos, I came across this guy, or one of the guys behind the project, and that is who you’re listening to, his name is Cody. He’s here with us today.
But before we spend a few minutes digging into musical worship and creative musical worship as well, Cody, why don’t you share with us briefly who you are personally and then also how Psallos came about.
Yeah, so my name’s Cody Curtis. I live in Jackson, Tennessee. I work at a school called Union University here, it’s a private Christian school. Great university. I’m married to my wife, her name is Melody – very fittingly, her name is Melody. We have one child, a daughter named Elowen. She’s sixteen months right now, so she’s a lot of fun. I graduated from Union with an undergrad in music theory, and I did my Master’s in composition at the University of North Carolina, and I just in May 2016 graduated with my doctorate in music composition at the University of Memphis. So, I love music. I’ve really enjoyed all my training.
I love writing music in particular. Let’s see. I got into music when I was young, kind of late in the game, but went through all the steps to catch up. My wife and I, when we were in North Carolina while I was doing my masters, I was writing music for the school, but we just had this desire to write music for the church. I had grown up like most teenage guys, writing songs just, love songs, and the Lord really matured me during this time theologically – understanding the power of Scripture and what Christian worship is. So, we just had this desire to write music for the church – music that was artistically excellent, clear and edifying in the way that the lyrics were written and that was consistent with sound theology as the Scriptures show.
We started Psallos in 2012. It was really just a small thing – my wife and I. Our first album was almost entirely my wife and I doing all the playing and all the singing. It was just our attempt of taking the first steps and saying, “Well, what could this be?” It’s grown from that, but it was very humble beginnings.
That’s awesome. Okay, and obviously it’s lead to now, where even on your Bandcamp page it shows that you just came out with another EP as well. You guys just keeping going.
Yeah, so when we moved back to Jackson I began working at Union University. I had this idea for an album based on the book of Romans for a long time, and it was something that I kept dismissing because it really does seem quite impossible to adapt a book like that to music. But the idea kept coming back. So I teamed up with some students at Union and we talked about how we could actually pull this off. Romans was really our first major album. It’s a telling of the story of Paul’s letter to Rome. We used musicians here at Union and it’s just really cool to teach, and in a way, similar to how a preacher would preach through the book of Romans in a sermon series. So, taking it in small chunks and trying to explain it. We released that in 2015 and then the album we just released this year was a small EP called Church Songs. Those are more meant to be congregational songs for the church, whereas Romans is not so much a congregational album but more of a presentation. But also meant to facilitate worship.
Yeah, definitely. In listening to the Romans album, whenever the song “The Story of Abraham” comes on, I’m like, “Ah, this is amazing.” I really enjoyed that song out of all of them. I’m also into your latest EP. My wife and I were listening to it on the way out to Vancouver the other day, and that last song “The Lord is a Mighty King,” I think that’s what it’s called, it’s a great song. It’s very clear and rich in its content. I really think it’ll serve the church. My wife and I actually do worship at our church, so we’re excited about possibly getting on that as well. So thank you for your faithfulness and your work in that, it’s awesome.
Anyways, I wanted to talk with you Cody in regards to something that’s really important, despite what many Christians and churches may think, but that’s the subject of congregational worship through music. I don’t think I’m making an over-generalization, but I feel like a lot of churches just sort of do their worship music on Sunday mornings or whatever, attempting to copy what they think is the norm or just the requirement of what they should do, you know? So they look around to see what Hillsong is doing, or Passion, or Matt Redman, or Chris Tomlin, or whatever. And, again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these groups or artists, but the possible issue that comes from this is when it just turns into a blind following without really considering the content of the song(s), the melodies and singability, and even the state of the specific church – do these songs, or this song, help bring this specific church to a place of worshipping in spirit and truth? So, I’d first love to hear your thoughts on that, and then the question out of that is, why do you think it’s important for the church to embrace more unique forms/genres/styles of music, rather than just doing what everyone else does?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the key is your phrase, “blindly follow.” It’s always dangerous to blindly follow anything in regards to our corporate liturgy, so discernment is always important there – and I would say especially for music. Music, as you know, is very powerful and it’s very stealthy in how it can affect us. It’s very much a personal thing, and so you have to be extra cautious when you approach it. When it comes to taking what we hear from what other churches are doing, or the radio, or organizations, or conferences like that, you just have to remember that, just because it’s popular or being done by a larger church doesn’t mean that it’s the best option for your church. It doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s good. We can probably think of some examples there, but you need to evaluate what would work well for your congregation. And there’s lots of concerns when it comes to that. I appreciate your sensitivity to it because I want to be gracious in the same way. I’m not super critical or don’t want to come out as super critical. But there are some things that you need to be aware of, and as a music leader or as a songwriter, a lot of that music (CCM) can sometimes be characterized as being written to appeal to a larger audience.
Sometimes you just gravitate towards certain things that’ll maybe sell or be more popular as opposed to what might be best.
I don’t know if I have time to get into all of that. And yes, singability is important. A lot of artists like Chris Tomlin, who I respect and I like, who has such a wide vocal range, sometimes his music may not be best for your congregation if they’re not used to singing that high. So you have to think about the melodic range and things like that. On the flip side though, we can say that just because something is unique and original doesn’t mean it’s the best option for your church.
So all that to say, to start with, just be discerning about what you hear, what you are wanting to include, because it is easy to just copy what is popular. You know, I’m a music minister as well, and I know it would be easy for me to just take a song that I hear, that I know people will like just have it sung because in one sense I’ll feel like, “Woah, I’m succeeding as a music leader, because they like it and they’re singing along.” But maybe my objective should be more in line with thinking, “Well, what does our Church need to learn about? To sing about? What is the preacher preaching through?” And so, yeah, if you just copy and paste, it’s easy but it’s not always the best. And it can create a bit of staleness in your music. I think a more unique approach to music gives us freshness to church music. And when I say fresh, I mean in a very particular way. It shouldn’t be exactly what you’ve been hearing the past 5-10 years or even a month ago. We’re trying to create new things and new creative ways and there’s some imagination there.
Yeah, that’s good. You talk about discernment. And I know you’ve just alluded to it in different fragments, but if someone who’s interested in music ministry came up to you and said, “Hey Cody, what do you mean by “I should be having discernment in the songs that I choose”?” What would you say?
The first place would be to start lyrically. As much as I love music and love composing instrumental music, in corporate worship lyrics are number one. So you have to exercise discernment there of, “Well, what are we singing?” and I would encourage that person to get rid of the music for a second and just look at the words and ask questions like “What is the overall teaching of the song?” Most songs are not going to be heretical. There are some, but for the most part it’s going to be okay. But then you could say,
“Well, are the words deep? Shallow? Are they taking into account multiple aspects of Scripture? Are they just painting a very shallow picture of God and the gospel?”
I think you’ll find that to be the case in a lot of songs. It doesn’t mean you throw them out, but it’s just something I consider. And that’s why I tend to lean more towards hymns because, I mean, those hymn writers, their language is so beautiful. They’re poets and they’re theologians. So, thinking about words. Yeah, with the music you want to be discerning about the singability and if it’s stylistically good as well. To go back to your previous question, if you’re just copying what other churches or organizations are doing then you’re going to mainly be singing one type of style. More of a rock n’ roll and folksy – and those are all blending together. But that’s what popular music is, it’s taking multiple styles and it’s homogenizing them into one popular musical style. So there’s benefit to your church if you’re incorporating a diversity of music styles. Maybe bluegrass, maybe string quartet, maybe instrumentations – there’s so much you can do. Of course this is all in the limitations of your church and the director, but, it’s just to know that, “Well, maybe I should be pursuing different types or different approaches of music,” because that will be good for your church, because your church is comprised of different types of people.
Exactly. And as you say that, I want to get a little more specific. With metaphors and poetic imagery, a lot of songs (both hymns and contemporary songs) will have these sort of poetic descriptions – some songs I guess will have more or less. Do you tend to one or the other? Because, I guess the critique of a song is if it’s piled up with metaphors, is that, you know, people, if they’re maybe not super mature in their faith, will understand these metaphors to mean something that it really isn’t. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, and that’s a good point. I think you do find a lot of metaphors and similes being used in lyrics. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but sometimes clear blunt language is the way to go. Sometimes you need to colour it up with poetic devices like that, but you’re right, I mean, with comparisons like that you can sometimes misunderstand and as a songwriter you don’t want your listener to misunderstand. So, one example, our first album that we put out as Psallos was called Slave Songs. The whole thing is founded on the biblical metaphor of our former slavery to sin and how Christ has liberated us and has made us slaves to God; and therefore, the songs that we sing are in a sense, Slave Songs. The whole concept of the album was a metaphor, but within that my songs themselves were meant to explain or support what that metaphorical language was trying to communicate. So, as long as they’re done balanced, wise, and clearly. I think with metaphors and similes, they sound really nice, they sound poetic, but you just got to make sure they’re not misleading.
Exactly, yeah. And you know, it’s funny, even just yesterday we had staff devotions here and we were looking into Psalm 133, which is, “Oh how good it is when brothers dwell in unity.” And David gives these two similes. One is kind of funny today, the oil that runs down Aaron’s beard and onto his cloak. And then the other simile is like, it’s the dew from mount Hermon sort of giving life to Israel. Upon first reading, you look at these and you have no idea what’s going on. You can sort of make up your own interpretations. But once you begin to get the context of these metaphors, this psalm and the idea of Christian unity comes so alive in such a way that you look at this short psalm as a weighty thing. I think in songs it can be the same way.
Cody, I know you’ve already touched on this, but what would you say to Christian musicians to challenge and encourage them in their creativity and discernment? I know you’ve already talked about this, I just know that there are lots of people especially in their 20’s that enjoy the music aspect of church. How would you encourage them to break out from that “blind following”?
Yeah. I think to summarize, you need to realize that the world of music is much bigger than we realize. I’ve been blessed to get to make music in school and other places. But in my time of studying, my eyes have been opened to music of other cultures and music of other time periods. I grew up on classic rock n’ roll, so I think if I hadn’t studied music in school then I would just lean towards writing that type of music and just music that I naturally like. But I’ve been forced to study Gregorian chants from the Medieval period, early polyphony from the Renaissance, Baruch, and counterpoint complex from Bach. So my eyes have been opened to a lot of what music can be.
The musical language is more complex than we hear on the radio, and it’s more complex that we tend to hear in church.
I’m not saying we should be doing atonal serialism in a church context, but there’s a place for understanding the 20th century romanticism – just the richness of musical language. So, I’d say, study and listen to music from the past and see what you can glean. For example, there’s a piece, it’s not liturgical, but it’s Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” is just a magnificent work. And his language is, I mean, it’s non-functional tonality, it’s using a lot of octatonic scales. It’s stuff that is complex but it’s very beautiful. There are things we can learn from that. Also, expand your musical language yourself. And again, this is all within your context. I know we have limitations, but try to broaden your harmonic language. There are more chords out there than just 1, 4, 5, and 6, that we call diatonic chords. I use them all the time. It’s probably the majority of my musical language. You could experiment with wild chords. Secondary dominance, it’s like a 5 of a 5 chord, or augmented chords, diminished chords. Believe it or not, diminished chords have a place in our church worship. Even just harmonically you can do a lot of neat stuff with different types of scales you use. We usually just use major scales and minor scales, but you can use church modes like Dorian and Lydian and Mixolydian. For example, there’s the hymn, “What Wondrous Love is This?” which is such a beautiful hymn, and that’s composed in a Dorian scale – it’s an old church mode, but it works very well. So, just expand your musical language. Experiment without being too crazy, you don’t want to alienate your listeners or the congregation. But, if you are careful enough you can really animate your music and bring it to life with just little things like that.
That’s cool. As your talking, I’m sure that all you’re saying is very good, I’m just going to have to go through my dictionary after this. I have to look through my theory book and figure some of those things out.
I should probably use different words, but because of the internet all this stuff is accessible. You could look up what a secondary dominant chord is and you can learn new chords and—so, again, you need to know your limitations. But just knowing that it’s out there – that there’s more you can do. It causes me to just want to explore. I mean, composition is exploration. We can write bad songs, I’ve written tons of songs that are too wild, that just don’t work, but I tried. You learn from that and you just try again.
That’s awesome. Do you have friends, or maybe your wife, that are just pretty straight with you if you show them a song and they’re just like, “no, we can’t do that.”
Yeah. My wife is my sounding board of everything I write. She’s musical as well. We met in an undergrad at Union. She’s an amazing piano player, great vocalist, so very talented. And she knows a lot about music, so she can give me good criticism that is tangible – it’s concrete. It’s not just “I don’t like that,” but she says, “Well, you may want to think through this.” Yeah, you need that because otherwise you might just get too wrapped up in your own ideas that really don’t work.
Yeah, hey before we go to the last question here, I’m just going to throw a curve ball at you. When it comes to pastors and elderships that may not be musically inclined, what would you say to them if they forget the importance of worshipping through music? What would you say to encourage them a little bit?
It’s a good question. I think most pastors will have an appreciation for the importance of the musical component of worship. One thing I hear people say a lot as I have conversations about music and worship is that –if a pastor preaches a 50-minute sermon and even if you take notes, sometimes what he says doesn’t stick as well to you as the song that you might have sung. Music has a way of being… I call it sticky. It’s so emotionally charged that it can really take hold in our heart and our memory, so just recognizing that what’s being sung will be very powerful and will be memorable for the listeners. Sometimes music can conflict with what the pastor is going to preach on, and what I do at our church is I find out what our pastor’s going to be preaching on, and I know the text, the passage, and I try to write or pick out music that will complement it. It won’t steal away from his quote on quote “thunder.” It sets him up, and it sets the congregation up to receive the Word.
So, music and preaching – they really should go hand-in-hand. They have to be good friends and not in conflict.
Yeah, that’s great. And Cody, lastly, what would you say to Christians who aren’t necessarily in to music to challenge their understanding of musical worship? I know a lot of people who might say, “I go to church and I’d rather just listen to the sermon than have to stand up and sing.” I don’t know, what would you say to them to encourage them a little bit about the importance of musical worship?
Yeah, so I’ll answer this twofold. The first is to recognize that, and hopefully people will know this, and your language has been really consistent and I’m grateful for that, but worship is not just the musical part of the service. A lot of people, if you just ask them what Christian worship is, that’s what they’ll go to first. Maybe that’s what they’ll go to – that worship is whenever we sing songs together. When we start to study and understand what Christian worship is, you see that music is just a part of it. But it is a very important part.
My master’s thesis was actually about this. It was an examination of what Christian worship is from a theological standpoint and then understanding what is the role or function of music within that paradigm, and then, because I was a composition major, how do I then write new forms of art that can be consistent within that.
So, a simple definition of worship that I like is: Christian worship is our appropriate response to God’s revelation – how God reveals Himself to us.
So we can respond in lots of different ways in our own individual or private worship, and also in our public corporate worship. Scripture tells us that we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to each other. There’s this mandate that when we gather together, we are to sing. That’s why we first and foremost sing in church, because Scripture tells us to. But you can go a bit deeper and think about why God wants us to sing and not do corporate pottery or corporate finger-painting or some other type of art form.
My argument is that music is the best suited form of art that facilitates corporate worship. I don’t think you’re going to find a better one.
And the reason is because when you sing, you are expressing in an objective, verbal language, truths about God. We sing to the Lord and we sing to each other as Ephesians 5 talks about. And so there’s the objective side of it, but also, music is very much subjective. It’s emotional. So you’re taking objective truth and you’re marrying it with subjectivity, and in the right hands a composer can use those well, so that the music, the emotional part, is complementing and even compelling what the words are trying to do. And so, what music does is that it helps us think our feelings and feel our thoughts, so whenever we’re singing together we’re making these intellectual thoughts about who God is. But then it brings our hearts along with it so we have this emotional response, not just an intellectual response. I think that coordinates well with what Jesus talks about in John 4 about worshipping God in spirit and in truth. Not just with our heads, not just with our hearts, but with both of those things. So, just to see that music is not in and of itself “Christian worship,” but it plays a very crucial part. And we need to learn to embrace that and put our defenses down. It helps to worship our Creator a lot better.
That’s great, thank you so much Cody. As you talk about the marriage between the melody and the words – that the subjective melody can be shaped to complement the objective truth, I’m reminded of listening to a podcast with Keith Getty talking about that as well, and I thought it was profound. Such a great point. But anyways, Cody, I know that was a short conversation, but thank you so much for coming on here. I’m going to put the links to where people can listen to your music. But it’s a collective isn’t it?
It was. So our first album Slave Songs was my wife and I doing everything, and after that we realized that we wanted to be more on the background. So at Union we met some very talented musicians. Thomas Griffith and Kelsie Edgren are the lead vocalists through Romans. So with Romans, for example, you will hear Union students. They’ve graduated now, so Union alums did all the playing and all the singing. I wrote the music and got to be part of some of it, but it’s certainly based in Union right now and am grateful for all the talent that Union has. And so yeah, I think our course of action from here on out is to just write music and let others perform it – others play it. I think it helps to take away the whole “band” persona from us. It’s more about the music and less about what we look like and who we are. So it’s just an emphasis on music and emphasis on Scripture.
That’s great. To our listeners, I’ll put up links to where you can find and listen to this music as well. Anyways, Cody, thank you so much, and I hope to have you back on the show again soon.
I appreciate it, thank you so much.