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Hymn Theory

Why "Break My Heart" Works

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

 

At the end of this year’s new-hymn class at Jackson Heights, we went through and recorded a dozen of the songs we’d learned through the quarter.  I’ve spent the past couple of days listening to the CD in the car, not only from a worshiper’s perspective, but from a hymnist’s perspective. 

Over the past decade, I’ve slowly learned that there are some things you can’t tell about a hymn or spiritual song until you sing it.  For one, there are some arrangements that look fine on the page but prove to be a booger to sing.  Most importantly, though, you can’t tell whether a hymn will generate buy-in from brethren until you hear them sing it.  There is a difference in sound between singers going through the motions and singers pouring out their hearts in worship.

Buy-in is the single most important attribute of a spiritual song.  It determines whether it will be used congregationally or not.  If a hymn does not have buy-in, it’s like faith without works.  It doesn’t matter how skillfully written or intellectually profound the hymn is.  If people don’t want to sing it, it’s dead.

As I was listening to the CD, then, I was listening for the telltale evidence of buy-in.  I heard it, among several other places, in the Clint Rhodes song “Break My Heart”.  “Break My Heart” is written in a style I don’t use.  If I had been invited to edit it, I would have had some technical critiques to offer. 

However, if a sacred song draws Christians into worship, it’s doing its job, and “Break My Heart” manifestly does that.  I think it works, and I think it works for two reasons:

Accessible Content.  “Break My Heart” is a song about the Christian’s struggle with sin.  Particularly, it’s about the times when we don’t want to do good, but we want to want to.  It’s a plea to God to overcome the stubborn resistance within us so that we can devote ourselves to Him.

Every Christian with an ounce of self-awareness will identify with this struggle.  All of us will wrestle with sin for as long as we live, and that conflict exists because our flesh wants to sin.  We need God’s help, we know we need God’s help, and so we want to sing a song that is about asking God for help.

Use of Counter-Melody.  Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the difference between songs written for a praise band and songs written for the congregation.  There are a lot of things that praise bands can do that congregations can’t.  Most notably, they can have a more extreme vocal range and use more complicated rhythms.  G5 in the melody will murder congregations on Sunday mornings.  So too will those dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythms that mimic the vocal stylings of a lead singer.

However, there are things that congregations do well that praise bands really don’t.  First on my list is the employment of counter-melody.  Typically, the lead singer of a praise band is The Lead.  They don’t want to step back and let somebody else in the band take over for a little bit.

However, congregations enjoy passing the melody back and forth or singing two melodies simultaneously with different rhythms.  Many of the most prominent songs that come from a-cappella traditions reflect this.  Think “Our God, He Is Alive”, for instance.  The same is true of “Break My Heart”.  The song really comes alive once you get to the chorus and the alto/tenor counter-melody.  They make it musically satisfying.

Fundamentally, I’m a pragmatist.  What ought to be is all well and good, but you have to pay attention to what works.  “Break My Heart” works, at least in a group that can pull off a tenor counter-melody.  Both song leaders and writers ought to pay attention.

'Joy to the World' Isn't a Christmas Carol

Monday, December 17, 2018
 
Every shopping mall in America is wrong.  Well, they’re wrong about lots of stuff, but they’re definitely wrong about this.  I know that I’m trying to stop the tide from coming in here.  No matter what I say, “Joy to the World” is going to continue to be used as a Christmas carol.  However, its words have next to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.
 
The religious background of its author is the first thing that should start to make us suspicious.  Isaac Watts was a Nonconformist, one of the eighteenth-century descendants of the Puritans who settled New England and the Independents who had Charles I executed.  Both of those groups had a deep and abiding suspicion of the observance of Christmas.  They regarded it as a Catholic innovation that had nothing to do with genuine Christianity (as compared to contemporary Anglicans, who celebrated Christmas with gusto).
 
It’s true that this anti-Christmas bias started to die out in the eighteenth century (though Christmas remained formally outlawed in New England until 1815), but Watts lived early in this period and was known for the strength of his religious convictions (particularly the strength of his Calvinism, which back in the day was something of a marker for opposition to Catholicism).  I’ve never been able to find any firm evidence on the subject, but it may well be true that Watts did not celebrate Christmas personally and would have objected to the use of his hymns in such a celebration.
 
Watts, then, is an unlikely carol-writer.  Instead, “Joy to the World” is a product of one of his life’s great goals—the modernization of the psalmody of the church.  Before Watts, dissenting churches in England followed Calvin in only using metrical paraphrases from the book of Psalms in their song worship. 
 
Watts criticized these paraphrases for, among other things, missing the spirit of Christianity.  The book of Psalms never mentions the name of Jesus, and He is certainly not central to its meaning the way that He is to the meaning of the New Testament.  Christians whose hymnody was limited to psalmody could never fully glorify their Lord.
 
In response to this problem, Watts adopted two main strategies.  The first was the writing of hymns that had nothing to do with the Psalms.  He explains his purpose here in the first verse of what is reputedly the first hymn he ever wrote, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb”:
 
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Before His Father’s throne!
Prepare new honors for His name
And songs before unknown!
 
Clearly, no “song before unknown” could be a psalm paraphrase. 
 
However, Watts was interested in Psalm paraphrases too.  In his paraphrases, he aimed to repair what he saw as the great defect of traditional psalmody by including Jesus in psalms that did not explicitly mention Him.  “Joy to the World” is the best-known example of this part of his work.
 
As the above scan from my trusty copy of The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts shows, Watts wrote “Joy to the World” as a paraphrase of Psalm 98.  On its face, this is not a Messianic psalm.  Instead, it’s about the Israelite/Jewish conception of Jehovah coming in judgment.  Today, when we think of this, we often think of the Day of Judgment (as though there were only one in Scripture), the end of the world, and so forth. 
 
However, that’s not the way that the ancient Hebrews would have understood the psalm.  So far as I know, there’s no evidence in the Old Testament that they anticipated the end of the world at all.  Instead, they looked to the coming of the Lord as a time when He would bring about justice on earth, rewarding the righteous, punishing the wicked, and generally rebalancing the scales.  Psalm 98 is about the rejoicing that will accompany the righteous judgments of the Lord.
 
Watts, then, takes this text about the coming of God in judgment and reworks it so that it would be about, in his own words, “The Messiah’s coming and kingdom.”  Even though he did not feel strictly bound to the text of Psalm 98, none of Watts’ additions to the text involve mangers or stars or angels or any of the usual birth-of-Jesus trappings.  If he is aiming at Christmas, he misses.
 
Instead, Watts alters the psalm in two main ways.  First, he recasts it in terms of rulership rather than judgment.  “Joy to the World” isn’t about an episode of scale-rebalancing.  It’s about the continuing reign of Christ. 
 
Second, even though the entire hymn pulls phrases and concepts from Psalm 98 rather than attempting to follow its structure, the third verse is a particular departure.  Watts here has clearly decided to riff on the idea of nature praising God.  He goes back to the curse God places on Adam in Genesis 3:17-19, which provides not only death as a punishment for sin, but also thorns and thistles to bedevil the farmer.  Nature itself has been distorted by sin.
 
However, with the coming of Christ as the second Adam (see Romans 5:12-21), the effects of the Adamic curse have been reversed through His one righteous act.  This took place, of course, not in the manger, but on the cross, so it’s still not about His birth.  As a result of Christ’s victory, Watts looks forward to a thorn-free existence.
 
This may be millenarian language (working with Romans 8:19-22, for instance), but I think it’s more likely figurative.  Watts merely means to show how completely the curse has been overturned in Jesus.  This is, after all, a hymn in present tense.  As “When I Can Read My Title Clear” shows, Watts had no trouble writing about future events in future tense.  “Joy to the World”, however, regards the coming and reign of Christ as a fait accompli
 
We can still find the subject matter of “Joy to the World” in the gospels.  However, it doesn’t appear in Matthew 1 or Matthew 2.  Instead, it appears in Matthew 28:18, where Jesus announces His Kingship by declaring, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”  In the words of Hebrews 12:28, His is a kingdom that cannot be shaken.  Today, in a world where so much is apparently going wrong, we can find great comfort in remembering and rejoicing that the Lord still reigns!

Why Don't I Write More About Emotion in Hymns?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

 

From time to time, somebody will critique my hymn critiques by saying that I spend too much time on the intellectual side of hymns and not enough on the emotional side.  Certainly, when it comes to emotion in worship, there are things worth discussing, and I’ve discussed them extensively.

https://hisexcellentword.blogspot.com/2016/08/joy-and-cappella-worship.html

https://hisexcellentword.blogspot.com/2016/05/bono-honesty-and-worship.html

https://hisexcellentword.blogspot.com/2014/09/darkness-in-hymns.html

https://hisexcellentword.blogspot.com/2017/12/god-pleasing-worship.html

However, it is true that I don’t spend a lot of time arguing that we need to sing more emotional hymns in worship.  Differently emotional hymns, yes, but not really that the emotional level of our repertoire is too low. 

This is true for two reasons.  First, I think that to the extent that we have emotional deficiencies in worship, those problems are much more likely to lie with the worshiper than the repertoire.  God’s people have been struggling with going through the motions since Malachi 1, of not before, and the tradition of apathy in worship is alive and well. 

However, the solution to the apathy problem doesn’t lie in the adoption of hymns that manufacture emotion.  You can be a spectator at a rock concert and ride the emotional wave, but a-cappella congregational worship works differently.  Only enthusiastic participants are likely to experience an emotional reaction.  If brethren aren’t eager to participate enthusiastically, no hymn will move them.  If, on the other hand, they arrive determined to rejoice, no hymn will prevent them.  The cure for apathy must be found in the heart of the worshiper.

Second, overly intellectual hymns aren’t a problem in practice.  I cannot think of a single hymn that has entered the repertoire in my lifetime that I would describe as emotionally deficient.  Conversely, I have seen (and written!) dozens of hymns that sank without a trace because something about them didn’t work emotionally.  In fact, this is the most common reason why my hymns (and the hymns of others in my circle) fail.  A hymn that’s all content with no feeling is as dead as faith without works.

This is a problem that solves itself.  No song leader selects uninspiring hymns because they have lots of sound Biblical teaching and are good for the congregation, like broccoli (a possible exception:  singing “O Happy Day” when somebody’s about to get baptized).  Instead, we sing the songs that move us.  Not every hymn in the repertoire works for everybody, but all of them work for somebody.  Brethren will sing the most vacuous lyrics imaginable if the music is emotionally powerful. 

As a result, I don’t critique hymns for lack of emotion, any more than nutritionists critique diets for lack of potato chips and chocolate cake.  Christians who have never thought about hymn content in their lives will still intuitively seek out hymns that they enjoy singing.  Even people who don’t care about Bible authority and a-cappella worship will still look for an emotional experience in worship.  This is the aspect of worship that human beings most naturally get right.

Other aspects, though, are more challenging.  Unlike potato chips and chocolate cake, emotion in worship is good for us, but it doesn’t provide a balanced diet by itself.  We’re called to sing not only with the spirit, but with the spirit and with the understanding. 

However, because thinking about what we’re singing is effortful, brethren often don’t want to invest the effort.  Emotional worship that is not also thoughtful is a problem, and it’s a problem that’s hard to avoid when we worship with content-light hymns.  As a result, most of my commentary is focused on content.  It’s not so much that I’m neglecting the role of emotion in hymns.  It’s that I’m taking the presence of emotion for granted.

New Hymns and the 10-Minute Rule

Friday, September 14, 2018

 

Much of the discussion about “Oceans” last week centered on the issue of congregational suitability.  Content questions aside (and content isn’t the biggest problem with “Oceans”), I and many others look at “Oceans” and see a hymn that is too difficult for the congregation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a congregation can’t eventually kind-of learn “Oceans”.  If you want to grind away at it for several weeks of new-song class, you can get it off the ground, at least for people who can read music.  Non-singers will probably take considerably longer than that to get the hang of it, if indeed they ever do.  Lots of hymns and praise songs are in this category.

However, just because you can slowly and painfully force a group to learn a song doesn’t mean that it’s congregational.  In fact, it means that it isn’t.  One of the hallmarks of congregational music is that it is easy to learn, so that ordinary Christians can quickly and painlessly begin to worship with it.  An unsuitable hymn will take weeks to learn; a suitable hymn will take minutes.

I mean this literally.  During my time at Joliet, I introduced more than 100 hymns to the congregation there, via a small group that met outside of the assembly.  Typically, about 20 people would show up for a hymn-learning session.  Maybe half of those could read music.  They were good singers, but none of them were music professionals or anything like that. 

After a year or two, we fell into a rhythm.  We’d sing the melody together until the song leaders present felt like they had it down.  Then, we’d sing parts until everybody felt like they had their parts down.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Using this method, we would learn 6-7 hymns in an hour-long session.  Some of these hymns were centuries old.  Others, like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”, had been written in the past few years.

From this, I derive the 10-Minute Rule.  If your church sight-reading group can learn a hymn in 10 minutes or less, it’s congregationally appropriate.  If it takes you weeks of grinding, you’re trying to learn something that wasn’t written with the congregation in mind.  What’s more, you’re learning one song when you could have expanded the repertoire by half a dozen with wiser song selection.

The grind method is problematic not just for its effect on the poor, suffering sight readers, but for its effect on the invisible majority.  People who can’t read music will always have a tougher time learning to worship with a new hymn than people who can.  The harder the music is, the more these difficulties will be magnified.  It may well be that rote learners will never reach the point where they can sing an “Oceans” confidently because they are always being surprised by the rhythm.  This sounds terrible, and it distracts worshipers from worship. 

When it comes to worship, content is king, but even great content can be defeated by bad mechanics.  There are hundreds of songs, both new and old, that have strong content and are easy to sing.  If we can learn a new hymn in 10 minutes, why spend hours on one that isn’t 10 times as good?