“The Homogenization of the timbral pallette”

Ok, so only I have a sorta-kinda inkling about what that phrase actually means. It’s from a pointy-headed study of pop music that concludes, basically, that pop music is literally boring:

We find three important trends in the evolution of musical discourse: the restriction of pitch sequences (with metrics showing less variety in pitch progressions), the homogenization of the timbral palette (with frequent timbres becoming more frequent), and growing average loudness levels.

The whole thing is here (I’m going to let pass all the jokes that could be made about “growing average loudness levels” and the evergreen complaint about volume in gospel concerts). And though of course the study is about pop music, so much of religious music these days apes trends in mainstream pop music hopelessly. Too often, the result is - secular or sacred - a thin musical gruel, and in the sacred instances, this paltriness requires a lot of religious theatrics, spiritual histrionics, and technological enhancements to distract from how musically malnourished the whole experience really is.

This shallowness has been, it seems to me, one of the underlying themes of the really quite brilliant and rich and deeply civil conversation that’s been going on in this recent thread about trends in vernacular sacred song and worship music. Really, yall, I’m impressed, and a bit proud.

If I had to boil down the hive-mind’s diagnosis of things from that thread into two words, they would be: identity crisis. Whether in southern gospel or P&W, crisis in turn breeds music that is nostalgic and derivative, the two being not at all mutually exclusive, particularly in the case of southern gospel.

This isn’t new, exactly. It’s been happening in southern gospel at least since the post-Civil War birth of the industry as a mass-produced enterprise (the first two chapters of my book are in part about the earliest emergence of this strange dance between nostalgia and modernity going on in southern gospel), even if the precise nature of the derivation and nostalgia always have to evolve to keep up with technology and social trends. But it’s no less annoying for having been around for a while, and it’s probably getting worse, if only because of the proliferation of cheap, sophisticated technological tools for manipulating music and the musical experience. Like so much of pop music, even when most religious music these days is new, you’ve heard it before, an in many cases it wasn’t terribly interesting the first time.

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  1. BackwoodsPhilosopher wrote:

    Great article! By the way, Doug, we’re still working on your book and really enjoy reading about the history of Southern Gospel music. It is absolutely fascinating and some of the history somewhat surprising. Again…..it’s fascinating!

    Regarding your current article, this is why I have grown to love the following music. The following video is musical purity at its best.

    Bluegrass Gospel Project in Vermont

    Here is another one from Bluegrass Gospel Project:

    Bluegrass Gospel Project - River of Jordan

    Listening to music such as this is like….

    ……having a York Peppermint Patty

    ……a glass of ice tea on a hot summer’s day

    …….a shower of rain during a drought

    Okay, I got carried away. Anyway, it’s nice just to hear something that does not assault one’s eardrums. Clear, pure and very easy-to-listen-to and NOT boring.

  2. Eugene McCammon wrote:

    My opinion is that instead of working from a printed score too much recording is done by ear. Nothing wrong with that (after all music is perceived by the ear) but it avoids the use of a script. The tendency is to produce music that never stretches the singer or the consumer. (The banality of most “new” gospel songs I will not go into today.) I heartily agree that melodic variety is suffering death spasms. Melodic cliches are rampant, making me wonder about the vocal skills of too many SG singers. Too often harmonies seldom deviate from the primary triads (1, 4, and 5) giving much of the sound a blandness, even to individuals who may be techically challenged, musically speaking, but who enjoy a sound with variety, whether it be lyrically, melodically or harmonic. Without sounding trite, I think we can do better.

  3. Ode wrote:

    “”"”"”proliferation of cheap, sophisticated technological tools “”"”"”"

    Its “cheap, but expensive” rather, like our precious Dolly P’s looks. A good studio for a live band costs today anywhere from 20K to infinity,and that’s before unevitable falling into endless loop of buying/upgrading soft, which, to quote gun collectors and potato chips lovers, you can’t have just one(or 2,or 3)

    All those joy toys can produce a wide range of musical product, from spectacularly cheesy/ blah to mightily impressive, but cheap (pricewise) this stuff is surely not.

    Unless one is heavily relying on samples or using pirated soft – common practice that despite many musicians’ paradoxically promiscuous treatment of other people’s intellectual property is still frowned upon (there still hope for hunmanity yet ;)

  4. BackwoodsPhilosopher wrote:

    Doug, as we’ve been reading your book……my husband just finished it and really gained a LOT of insight into the world of Southern Gospel. Now, I’m reading it and really enjoying the history and the musical perspectives.

    As we’ve been reading your book…..sometimes at night my husband would read passages and then we would discuss a line or a chapter in full-blown detail. As we would read and talk, the book has actually helped me to understand even better the things about this Southern culture where I was born and raised.

    The following is an insight and perspective based upon your book, the Southern culture and the progression of Gospel music over the past 50 years.

    I’ve wanted to comment even more on your latest article, but since reading “Then Sings My Soul”, so many things have been going through my mind…..and so many things “stand out” even more.

    I know the following may be a little off-topic from your current article, but then again, maybe not. Familiarity reigns in the musical melody, the lyrics and the sound.

    One thing about Southern Gospel music that stood out to me on Sunday night at a local “Gospel Singing” was how interwoven the music is with the Southern culture of down-troddenness, poverty, death, despair, gloom, doom….and the fact that it will never “get better” until we “get to Glory bye and bye”.

    On Sunday night, we were listening to a local SG group. The female leader of the group constantly referred to “death” as she would introduce various songs. By that I mean, she would say things such as this…….”Well, this may be the last time that we all see each other.” OR “If we never meet again……”

    Since the Southern culture was originally based upon agriculture as opposed to industry and forward movement or progression…..and since the South lost the Civil War, I have realized that many Southerners never overcame the sadness of losing the Civil War. Thus, the down-trodden, the gloomy and the poverty-stricken psychology towards music and many other things relevant to Southern culture.

    Even though so many SG songs have the same melodic line or have the same “sound” or “feel”, they also enjoy similar subject matter that seemingly glorifies the physical troubles and trials over the spiritual and faith-filled “Victory in Jesus”.

    Previously, in days gone by and on a more “positive note”, the hymns of old such as Rock of Agesor It is Well With My Soul rejoiced in a realistic view of the Christian faith, but with forward movement. Consequently, they left the weary Christian on an emotional “high note”.

    These old hymns not only fit the Southern culture, but fit the cultures of people all over the U.S. or even in other countries. The “sound” and message of these timeless hymns cross denominational, racial and cultural lines or barriers. The weary Christian may walk into a church or a convention center weary and down-trodden, but after hearing these hymns, they leave rejoicing, knowing that “it is well with their soul”.

    On the other hand, the Southern Gospel culture in many ways relies upon the ineffectiveness of “victim-hood” in their songs, their demeanor and in taking offerings. “This is a sacrifice, my bus broke down, we represent four families, it’s not glamorous”……..says the groups.

    Coming to the concerts are the down-trodden, the sick, the lonely, the widowed, the divorced, the weary, the unemployed, the retired and worried, the retired and hurting……etc. etc.

    We have “victims” in the audience and “victims” on stage. These are folks who see themselves as “victims”. It became the identity of choice. The modern SG music reflects and encourages this choice.

    While the hymns “Rock of Ages” and “It is Well With My Soul” speaks of our spiritual need for the grace of Christ……not giving way to “victim-hood”……. the following song speaks about our physical and emotional “troubles and trials” and how we need to “sit down and rest a little while”.

    We’ll Soon Be Done With Troubles and Trials

    Other songs reflect the joy of leaving this sad, age-inducing world and entering Heaven where “we’ll never grow old”.

    Land Where We’ll Never Grow Old

    If you listen to many testimonies and songs today, you won’t hear the “sounds” of victory, grace, faith and forward progression, but rather, you will hear how there is basically no “victory” until we reach the pearly gates.

    Another song that talks about the physical and emotional distress of life…… “farther along, we’ll know all about it”, is the following:

    Farther Along

    A line in the song…. “cheer up my brother”…….to this day, my mother cannot listen to this song without getting weepy. As a matter of fact, if given a choice, she’ll refuse to listen to “Farther Along”.

    I guess the question could be asked, depending on one’s spiritual perspective, does this song make you want to drown your sorrows in a beer or “take up your bed and walk”? Does it induce sadness and despair or glorify Jesus Christ?

    Music reflects the song of our soul, but what condition are our souls really in? Do we really have faith in God, or is Heaven merely an escape route out of physical suffering and pain? Do we really want to see Jesus or get out of paying taxes? Is it more about the physical troubles and trials or more about the spiritual victory given to us as a gift on the cross of Calvary?

    In a way, I’m “raising a question”, but at the same time, gaining perspective on the modern culture of Southern Gospel music…..and Southern music as a whole (such as country music).

    I’ll conclude by posting this song. Listen to the difference both lyrically and musically in this hymn:

    Victory in Jesus

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