How Harmony Impacts Lyrics

This past Sunday we sang “Your Grace Is Enough” by Matt Maher. Personally I love the song, its upbeat, has a great message, there’s a cool, syncopated guitar intro and outro, but there’s one line that always makes me go “hmmm… why do we sing that?”

Now when I tell you what line it is you’re going to say “really? You get bent out of shape over that?” And I respond with “It’s only a slight bend, but yes”. The line in question is “You use the weak to lead the strong”. Now this sounds like something God does. Right? It sounds perfectly Biblical and it is a good summary of how God uses the weak and foolish things of this world to shame lead the wise and the strong.

Ah, but see what I did there? I took the word that 1st Corinthians 1:27 uses and replaced it with the word that Matt Maher used. I first discovered this difference back in my undergrad days. My friends and I were having lunch and I was trying to tell them that God uses the weak to lead the strong but when I tried searching for that phrase to get the reference I came up empty handed. Instead I realized that I was preaching “Your Grace Is Enough” instead of 1st Corinthians.

Now Matt Maher is a skilled songwriter and his interpretation of 1st Corinthians 1:27 still gets the point across. Those word’s don’t lead me away from God and I can still worship with them. But this made me wonder two things. First: Are there songs that I sing that sound Biblical but actually lead me to worship a false god? And second: Why use “lead” instead of “shame”?

The first wondering is a post all in itself so lets focus on the second. Why use “lead” instead of “shame”? Both are one syllable words and if you use “shame” then you avoid repeating the word “lead” in the next line. It also adds to the alliteration of “shame”, “strong”, “song”, “salvation”, and “sing”. Not to mention its what is in the text. But when I try to sing “Your Grace Is Enough” with the word “shame” instead of “lead” it just feels out of place, like its wrong. What does it feel wrong to sing what scripture says?

I think part of the problem is our love of major harmonies.

There was a time when the original hymn setting of “Oh The Deep Deep Love of Jesus” would be just fine. Its a beautiful, rolling, minor melody. But it doesn’t sit well with us today. It’s strange singing about love to such a minor tune. Instead, most contemporary churches I have played at prefer Sovereign Grace’s major version. It seems to fit better with what we, as a culture, expect from our music.

Now back to “Your Grace Is Enough”. I started off by saying that it’s upbeat and might I add, quite major. Because of this it does not feel right to use such a charged word as “shame”. The word “shame” is just too heavy for the harmony to support. If we were to sing “shame” it would be a speed bump that shocks the singer out of the song’s flow. So instead of using a speed bump word Matt uses the more palatable “lead”. And it works! But how many times have we smoothed out the text of scripture for the sake of a song’s feel?

We, as songwriters, have to realize that we are shaping how people feel about God. When we choose harmonies, or melodies, or lyrics do they reflect the God of scripture or do they clean Him up for a contemporary audience? If someone goes from singing our songs to reading scripture will they feel like they are in the presence of the same God or will they feel a disconnect? Perhaps the God we sing about is so loving that we cannot comprehend the wrath that He displays in books like Genesis and Revelation, or even the church discipline in 1st Corinthians.

God is not one dimensional and our songwriting shouldn’t be either. Our harmonies, melodies, lyrics, instrumentation, recording techniques, and all matter of artistic choices should help others experience the the fullness of God’s character, not just the the parts of God that connect with a major harmony.

(P.S. There is no “one size fits all” approach to music. What one culture interprets as “happy” another culture, when they hear the same notes, might hear it as “anger”. This is why it is crucial to know the people you are playing/writing music for. We cannot write effective songs if they ignore the culture for which we are writing)

(P.P.S. I should clarify why I chose the word “harmony” instead of “key”. See, one of the problems that contemporary music faces is its obsession with being in either a major key or sometimes a minor key. The thing is, there is so much more to harmony than just major and minor keys. We, as songwriters, have access to a wealth of unused resources in the modes. One excellent example of a contemporary worship song that uses a mode effectively is “Revelation Song”. SongSelect says it is in the key of “D” but it is really “D Mixolydian”.

One thought on “How Harmony Impacts Lyrics

  1. Your thoughts are right on track, Dan. Also, I love the hymn “Oh the Deep Deep Love of Jesus” in the minor key. It’s very moving and dynamic.

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