Why All Christian Music Sounds the Same (Even When it Doesn’t)

The other day, my sister (who was visiting from out of town) walked into our […]

Nick Lannon / 5.20.16


The other day, my sister (who was visiting from out of town) walked into our kitchen during the chaos that is breakfast prep. Over the usual din (“What cereal do you want? Oh, all three kinds? No, it’s too late for eggs”) she heard the song that we were listening to (it happened to be “Wake Up Sleeper” by Zac Hicks and Coral Ridge Worship) and, after probably three seconds, said, “Is this Christian music?”

I’ve had this conversation many times during my life–why is it that you can always identify “Christian music” within seconds of hearing it?–but I’ve never been able to come to as satisfying an answer as I did that morning in my kitchen. We started talking about how funny it is that Christian music is so readily identifiable, and my sister’s suggestion was that there was always a certain happiness about it. That, though, didn’t seem quite right. For instance, the song we heard next, “Most Merciful God,” is a gorgeously contemplative setting of Thomas Cranmer’s general confession which repeats the line “Have mercy on us” over and over. At some point, the listener has got to get it through his or her thick skull that mercy is what we need…or else go crazy. It’s anything but “happy.”

That’s when my wife nailed it.

“It’s not happy,” she said. “It’s hopeful.”

This is why all Christian music sounds the same, even when it doesn’t. Whether a song is a funeral requiem, a praise chorus, a medieval processional, a communion anthem, or a heart-wrenching confession, there is an underlying hopefulness for which the Gospel allows. “Things might not be looking up for me right now,” we might sing–in fact, we might even be literally dead–“but I have hope for a new life.” This is why all Christian sermons sound the same, too…even when they don’t (N.B. when I say “Christian sermons” here I mean sermons that do the proper work of bringing the hearer face-to-face with their sin in order to then bring them face-to-face with their savior). The words might be different, the illustrations will be personal to the preacher and the audience, the piece of Scripture referenced will be unique…but the message will be the same: in a world of hopelessness, there is hope. In other words, the beats and the lyrics may change, but you’ll feel like you’re hearing the same song…and it’s instantly recognizable.

In music that is true to life, hopelessness is born of the idea that you need to get to work saving yourself. If that’s telling you to ditch your “9 to 5” or to find that one other person who completes you, “secular” music usually doesn’t have much ultimate hope to offer. There might be a little hopefulness, but there’s nothing really to base it on. Rick Springfield is certainly hopeful that “Jesse’s Girl” might eventually decide to be with him, but there’s no evidence it’ll happen. She and Jesse seem pretty happy. Rick, it seems, has unfounded hopes, and is destined to be miserable. What is it that Rob (John Cusack) says in High Fidelity?

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos; that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

Hopelessness (synonym: hope without foundation) leads to misery. The Gospel–the proclamation that we no longer have to save ourselves but have a savior who has given his life for ours–is the anchor for our hope, which leads to joy.

And so, finally, Christian music all sounds the same and Christian sermons all sound the same because Christian people are, at their core, all the same. We are those who have run into the brick wall of self-salvation. “Jesse’s Girl” has decided to stay with Jesse. After all, why would she choose someone like us? But, incredibly, someone has chosen us. In another Zac Hicks and Coral Ridge Worship song (“God Has Decided“), they’ve changed the lyrics to the all-time classic “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” The new first line? “God has decided to save my lost soul.”

This knowledge that we are chosen despite ourselves–that a savior has come to us instead of waiting for us to get to him–inspires a joy that is impossible to repress. It comes out in songs like “Wake Up Sleeper” and in songs like “Most Merciful God.” It comes out in funeral requiems, praise choruses, medieval processionals, communion anthems, and heart-wrenching confessions. This is what makes us all the same: we all need saving. Desperately. But we’re the same in another way, too: Jesus has come for every one of us.

Let us sing.

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23 responses to “Why All Christian Music Sounds the Same (Even When it Doesn’t)”

  1. Hmmm……this is tricky because it’s tough across our culture to agree on how to define “Christian music”. Easy example – Mumford and Son’s “Awake my Soul” – gloriously Christian and hopeful (according to how you’ve defined it, which feels right) but not of the “Christian” genre as our culture defines it, nor defined by the artist as uniquely “Christian”.

    I guess it’s why I find myself identifying the hopeful, life giving music I hear as “image bearing” rather than “Christian”. It’s just a helpful distinction for me. There are so many “Jesus is my boyfriend, and I need to please him” choruses out there that give me the feeling of a heavy yoke around my neck – I (personally) have a hard time calling those “Christian”.

    I’m with you on hope being the identifier, I just would broaden the scope to say that just about any artist or style out there can fill me with hope somewhere in their catalog of tunes – even Rick Springfield.

  2. cal says:

    Or, there’s an expected “sound” from the ghetto that is the “Christian” music industry, just how country music has that twang, even as it has radically changed over the past thirty years.

    Bottom line is the bottom line. It’s a genre with expectations. Bands like Theocracy (prog metal) don’t sound like Christian music even if they are explicitly Christian lyrics with all Christian band members. And there are hopeful songs that have an explicitly non Christian telos, theme, or lyrical progression (I’m thinking of the weird Jungian, Post-modern vibe of Tool’s Lateralus).

  3. BH says:

    I think I actually agree with your wife that the music is happy. Maybe I would say positive. I’m just not sure about hopeful. I think the reason songs like Mumford’s “Awake My Soul” impact our hearts so deeply (and universally–they’ve enjoyed worldwide success with their message even though they aren’t explicitly Christian) is that their lyrics and music reflect our broken human condition. We can’t understand hope without understanding the need for hope. I don’t find that Christian music really addresses our need for hope very well. Nor does it often address the mire we are bogged in or give us a taste of the redemption to come. It feels, to me, more like a series of positive memes with a Christian flavor sung to a familiar set of chords. I would like more music that reflects the struggle of this world in a real, gritty way and then offers a message of hope. Hope that acknowledges the death we face every day.

  4. BH says:

    *I agree with your sister, not your wife. 🙂

  5. Barnaby? says:

    Christian music sounds the same because they use the same god forsaken song progression and chord progression. I admit I only listen to the radio (KLOVE), but gosh, I am sick of it. Here’s the chord progression every song has: 1 – minor6, 5, 4. I try my best to listen to the christian stations because the songs and lyrics are more uplifting but it’s impossible to not switch the station after some point to some classic rock or something. I’m thinking about making a video where I mash all the songs together to show how ridiculous it really is.

  6. Mike says:

    What sounds the same to me is the male Christian music sound. I am sooo tired of that raspy breathiness that begins all songs. It comes across as so contrived and ungenuine. It smacks of a teen trying to sound sexy and romantic to a little girl he’s trying to woo.

    • Andy says:

      Mike – You noticed the exact same thing that I have noticed – the “breathy” sound that so many male singers have. I agree it seems forced.

  7. Dru says:

    I have been critical of Christian Music for years. The reason music all sounds the same is because that is what we tell the record companies we want. Because of a name we download the singles, buy the albums and attend concerts no matter what mush the artist puts out. I mean DC Talk, Audio A, Mercy Me and Amy Grant are still on regular rotation on many stations. Stop supporting mediocrity don’t allow the labels to cookie cutter a sound for 5, 6 or 20 years artist after artist. It has nothing to do with hope, love, grace or mercy. It has to do with that the Christian consumer wants safety over creativity. They are secure in what they know so they never change and demand more from their artist. Kevin Max is still cranking out records that sound the same, even his remix albums are the same, and because he is safe he is on top of the charts after each album release. He should have been forced to retired 10 years ago for putting out cookie cutter albums. So why change the formula if its still making money. The record companies know this and they keep giving us music without creative substance. Look at artist like Family Force 5, their first couple of albums were different, creative and a breath of fresh air in the christian music space, however once they signed with a major christian label their music fell into the ‘mold” and became vanilla, and the dumb sheep went out and bought it.

    Want creative music Stop buying safe music that is not creative.

    There are so many artists that may not be labeled Christian that are amazing who have a great story, who are clean and fun to listen to, but you have just got to do the research. Relevant Magazine, their “the drop” section is full of artists that are like this. Not all but some, so you have to do the research.

    Just because your singing about, love, grace, hope, and God does not mean you should stop being creative. Look at God’s creation around you every where you look its so different, beautiful, dynamic, breath taking, unique, challenging, so why doesn’t our music follow His example. Were so worried about safety that we have become lazy and just suck in what they force on us.

    Until the Christian consumer demands better, nothing will change.

    • Spheniscinda says:

      I feel the same. Christian music is shallow and boring to me, created to evoke as many emotions in the listener as possible. And that should not be the goal- its about praising the Lord. And even though it is nice to feel happy when doing so, I like to be clear-minded and not in an artificial emotional high (whitch, honestly, other, secular artists can achieve way better [as they usually are better in pretty much every aspect of music]).

      I guess Christians are pretty accepting when it comes to media, even though its mediocre (the success of … well I wouldn’t call it bad. More… lazy? Boring? Biased? movies like “Gods not dead” kinda prove that). As long as words like grace, Jesus, God and forgiveness come up, the song must be ok and gets bought and listened to.
      This article was disappointing in the way it doesn’t look at Christian music with a critical eye. It just accepts the fact that it all sounds just the same and well, must be hope, right? No, its the fact, that the four same chords get re-used over and over and over again, the same beat, instrumentation, vocalisation, all is the same, the lyrics are bland and shallow and just repeat the same three messages and 100 words over and over (like… isn’t our God worth more words? More melodies?).

      There are few exceptions (New World Son for example and thank God for Neal Morse and his genius), artists that are actually different and whose messages are still great. And, in the case of Morse, I am actually able to spend weeks analysing the lyrics and find hidden treasures in every line. And songs like “The Wall” by Kansas are just mind blowing once you get to the core of it – and its also stunningly beautiful to just listen to it. But the whole Prog thingy often is too much for a listener that is only used to the easy-to-digest popular music.

  8. Larry says:

    Personally, I’ve grown very weary of the Christian music I have heard. Worship is more than a song, to coin a phrase from a song I hope never to hear again, because I already heard it a thousand times. Christians are missing the true scope of what God made music to be in this life. Music can make us dance, make us cry, preach, teach, proclaim, advocate, sympathize, expose, and it can do this in any genre that can possibly be imagined. Wake up church and rob the devil of his lies. Music belongs to you!

  9. cam says:

    cuz all the lyrics only draw from a limit pool of available words themes:
    god you are mighty awesome light dark defeat death goodness sin sweet blood of jesus i am not worthy

  10. Kevin says:

    Most of the comments in here are spot on, and the article is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read. The only thing hopeful about walking into a kitchen with Christian music playing is that you might be in close proximity to a kitchen knife that will enable you to end your suffering. If you die and immediately start hearing Christian music, that is a really bad sign.

  11. Boss says:

    So called “Praise and Worship” music is BORING!!!!! There are no longer miner 3rds and 7ths…. Today this music just uses pop music major chords and keys…. Miner keys add emotion like gospel, blues and R and B… Theae styles all originated in miner key gospel music…. Today, praise and worship music sounds more like some white-bread Bray Bunch or Partridge Family band!

  12. Heather Duke says:

    My aunt is obsessed with bands like: casting crowns, mercy me, etc. I mention it and she seems to get offended. I think Country sounds the exact same. Every voice and note sounds the same. Thanks for this article!
    -Anonymously, Heather Duke

  13. Wes Hall says:

    I play electric guitar and keyboards at a large church and I agree, the music is repetitive and some songs are nearly indistinguishable from each other. Example, we were rehearsing one night and the singer mistakenly started singing the wrong lyrics to whatever song it was, we were halfway through the song before anyone realized it, because the chord structure, arrangement, and melody were almost identical. Most of the music starts the same, low breathy vocals, a single guitar or piano, second verse the band joins in, everyone is playing down but gradually building, and then there’s the big build up toward the end of the song, then it ends quietly. That’s a good formula but it’s overdone.

    Not to say that there aren’t a few decent songs out there, but for the most part it’s just cookie cutter in my opinion. I also play in a rock band so the difference may be more apparent to me than someone who only plays Christian music, I don’t know it’s hard to say, but that’s my take on it.

  14. Amy Schlegel says:

    So glad I am not the only one who thinks all Christian music today sounds the same and is dreadfully boring! It wasn’t always that way — I loved many of the Christian artists and songs that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Rich Mullins was by far the best, in my opinion. I doubt that radio stations today would play him at all– his music doesn’t fit their canned Muzak mold!

  15. Andy says:

    Wow! I have a unique perspective in that I’ve been away from the Christian music industry for about 20 year. Being a musician, it pained me to listen to the same chord progressions, the same “build-up” to bring forth the audiences emotional response, etc, etc, etc. The same hand raising responses saying, “Look at me, I’m the real Christian on this row!” Flash-forward 20 years…nothing’s changed save one: Toby – keep keepin’ it real brother.

  16. […] 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 … […]

  17. […] 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 lyrics may change, but you’ll feel like you’re listening to the […]

  18. […] 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 … […]

  19. […] 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 … […]

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