The Key Change in Evangelical Praise Songs

I am sure someone has written on the phenomenon of the key change in evangelical praise songs. If not, it would make a great scholarly study at the intersection of anthropology and music.  Whenever a praise band makes a key change I notice that the number of raised hands in worship rises significantly.   Any thoughts?

Before the key change:

before key c hange

After the key change:

after worship


5 thoughts on “The Key Change in Evangelical Praise Songs

  1. It seems to me that this question combines two distinct matters: the musical and the liturgical.

    Musically, change of key is referred to as modulation, generally considered to be harmonic, using a “pivot chord,” enharmonic, often depending on a crucial so-called leading tone, and metrical or rhythmic, changing to the dominant key (based on the fifth tone of the tonic scale) on crucial beats. (See Persichetti’s book on harmony, or Walter Piston, or others.) Aethetically, modulation became more possible and frequent with the development of the well-tempered scale in the 17th and 18th centuries (used by Bach early on) which permitted movements between keys which would have resulted in noticeably discordant “out of tune” chords or harmonies using the previous mean-toned scale. Modulation became a routine part of American popular music in the earlier 20th century, “All the things you are” (music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein) modulates four times.
    From American popular music (sometimes the “American Song Book”), modulation entered other popular genres such as country & western, gospel, and Christian rock. One may notice that traditional evangelical Christian music such as Moody & Sankey, Homer Rodeheaver, and Michael Smith never or rarely used modulation; it became much more popular in evangelical music associated with more the exuberant expression often associated with Pentecostalism (whether or not the music or communities were really Pentecostalist).
    In evangelical music, the most commo kind of modulation is “pivot chord” using a chord common in two keys, or a “leading tone” such as a diminished or minor seventh. Pivot chord modulation is the easiest to achieve on guitars by players of middling ability. The emotional effect of modulation, unless carefully used, can effectively “gin up” a sense of emotional engagement and appeal, and might be regarded as manipulative in some cases.

    The liturgical aspect of the John Fea’s remark, “raised hands” suggests an emotional response to modulation sometimes articulated as “getting serious” or “getting real,” an appeal to authenticity associated with a prayerful attitude. “Raised hands” are a Christian gesture going back millennia, the “orans” position associated with outreach, raised arms, and associated with priests or celebrants at the Catholic Mass. (Some traditionalist Catholics argue that Catholic lay folk should never use the orans posture, a position clearly at variance with the behavior of many Catholic people every Sunday.) There has also been speculation that raised hands were characteristic of some African religious customs, customs that entered Protestant Christianity through the religious practices of enslaved people.


  2. I have at times questioned the whole church gathering as a theatrical production thing.
    I can’t help but think that some folks think the Holy Spirit needs a little boost.

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  3. I can recall the days when hand-raising was associated almost exclusively with Pentecostalism. The thinking in regular evangelical circles went, “We have higher standards of decorum in our more refined, doctrinally-correct churches.” Those days are gone! There has been a big change in the past ten or twenty years. Interestingly, the hand-raising and the increase in praise songs has been accompanied by a tendency to “dress down.” Ties, suits, and dresses have not totally been abandoned, but they are now in the minority from what I can observe.
    I used to falsely believe that praise music and homiletic pablum were necessarily linked. Recently I have come to see that it’s impossible to generalize. There are churches with very traditional worship formats which offer weak pulpit food and contemporary-worship churches offering meat.


  4. John, there is a lot more to discuss than just key changes done by CCM bands. There is the mayter of the actual keys they play in, compared to the 80s and the matter of keyboardists joining guitarists in ONLY playing chords. It is a complete music makeover. In the eighties and earlier, Bb was super popular.


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