In Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer offered four necessary categories that we need to consider if we are seeking to adequately critique a work of art. He wrote:
"What kind of judgment does one apply, then, to a work of art? I believe that there are four basic standards: (1) technical excellence, (2) validity, (3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through and (4) the integration of content and vehicle."1
Schaeffer employed the idea of form and content as a means of artistic understanding and critique. However, when utilized with songs, lack of musical understanding generally applies this grid insufficiently and erroneously. Too often music is thought about as if the notes are the form and the lyrics are the content. In actuality, the lyrics have form and content, the music has form and content, and the marriage of text and notes have another layer of form and content.
For example, when thinking about music for worship services, do we give due attention and diligence to both the lyrics and the music? When we consider the text, do we evaluate not only its expression of truth, but how artfully it expresses that truth? Is it possible that awkward wording, intentional misuse of grammar for rhyming purposes, a series of non-sequitur allusions, and empty syllables of "yeah," "hallelujah," and "glory" actually work against the meaning and truth of the text?
To use Schaeffer's categories, does the composition of the lyrics exhibit technical excellence? With regards to validity, not only should the content be theologically accurate, but is it internally consistent and are the scriptural allusions used correctly with the context and intent of the biblical original? Does the literary vehicle integrate with the content? For example, while not technically impossible, it is unlikely that the form and meter of a limerick is a suitable structure to discuss the doctrine of the atonement--the lightness of the form crumples beneath the weightiness of the content.
Let's turn our attention to music. When was the last time you heard someone talk about a song by saying that the lyrics were filled with biblical truth, but because of the lack of beauty, truth, or goodness in the music it ought not to be sung or used in congregational worship? It might have a place in other arenas of Church life, but Lord's Day worship is not one of them. When making musical selections, is the music critiqued for its excellence, its ability to be sung by a congregation, its goodness and truth?
This is where a degree of musical knowledge becomes important in evaluating compositions on something other than emotional reaction or popularity (either nostalgia or current trends). Using Shaeffer's standards again, does the music evidence technical excellence, validity, and intellectual content? In other words, well-crafted music has a sense of repetition and variety, melodic contour, harmonic interest, an accessible excellence, a worship aesthetic, a congregational understanding, a successful development of the inherent musical qualities of the source material.
The final piece of this puzzle is the combination of the text and the music. These elements should match in tone and form, in weight and character, in beauty and longevity. What we sing and how we sing it has a formative role in developing the affections and spiritual life of a congregation. This aspect of spiritual formation goes beyond the intellectual assent to the truthfulness of lyrics but rather holistically weaves a slow-working miracle of redemptive transformation of our heart's desires and rightly ordered loves.
1. Francis Schaeffer Art and the Bible (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p. 62