When Words Fall Short: How Musical Form Contributes to a Song’s Meaning

by Christopher Harrison Brown

A few months ago, my rector introduced me to the work of Ken Myers, host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, contributing editor for Christianity Today, and former producer and editor for NPR.[1]  An excellent journalist, blessed with what he jokingly calls a “spiritual gift for bibliography,” Myers is well read on a variety of issues pertaining to Christianity and contemporary society.  The subject that has been most pertinent for him in recent years, however, has been the failure of many evangelical Christians to examine their thoughts regarding music, its nature, and its purpose.  This, of course, is a mighty topic and one that I could not begin to grapple with to any extent within the course of a short article.  If you wish to hear Ken Myers do adequate justice to this subject, I would highly recommend looking at his four-part lecture series “Ears to Hear: The Possibilities of Musical Meaning,” a link to which will be provided below.[2

One of the most significant points Myers addresses in this series is the misguided sense of dualism many people have regarding form and content in music.  It seems that, for most modern Westerners, it is either the form (the structure or genre of the music itself) that is of predominant importance or its content (often referring to the words sung within a tune).  When it comes to modern tastes in music, we see that people inhabit both categories.  On the one hand, so many of our youth are more than happy to ignore the explicit lyrics and the perverse worldviews glorified in much of popular music just to indulge in the form of the music. (Myers and I would probably both argue that we should not consider much of modern music to consist of proper form more so than catchy hooks and cascades of sensory overload, but that is an argument for another day.)  On the other end, there are those who hold the words of a song or hymn as being the most significant, even if the music’s form or structure is lackluster.  Indeed, some seem to believe that a song’s music is nothing more than a vehicle for its lyrics.

In recent years, it seems that many Christians in the West have taken up this latter stance, insisting on the intelligibility of the lyrics over the intelligibility of the music that accompanies it.  We will gladly listen to a bland pop tune on K-Love if the artist conveys an understanding of the Gospel and of Christ through (indeed, in spite of!) the blandness.  We find this sort of sentiment expressed in the works and ministry of such groups as Indelible Grace, a group dedicated to setting new music to the lyrics of traditional hymns.[3]  While their work is done with a love and respect for the hymn tradition, one still notices within it this dichotomy between the lyrics and its musical setting.  The lyrics, to them, are the lasting connection to our church predecessors and worthy of preservation.   The music, however, is somewhat antiquated and should, and perhaps needs to be, traded for something more contemporary.  Even Rick Warren, noted author senior pastor of Saddleback Church, has dared to state, “Music is nothing more than an arrangement of notes and rhythms; it’s the words that make a song spiritual.”[4]

In spite of my serious disagreements with this sentiment, I do believe that, for Christians, this dichotomy has a laudable origin.  We, of course, are people of the Word.  Our faith is one that is based on a professed Truth: that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One, who was wounded and died for our transgressions on Calvary and was raised again on the Third Day, thereby reconciling us to the Father. Furthermore, we, who are born anew through His death, resurrection, and ascension, are called to speak this Truth to the whole world (Mk. 16:15) and, in so doing, make disciples of the nations (Mt. 28:19). Indeed, Scripture even proclaims Christ himself as the Logos, the Word of God by whom and through whom all things came into existence (Jn. 1: 1-5)!  This in mind, we are a people who rightly care about the proclamation and reception of Truth.

All of this being said, however, I fear that, in emphasizing the verbal and written proclamation of Truth, we ignore the myriad other means by which we interact with the Divine Realities.  We forget that, for the early Christians, the mind meant something more than the mechanical definition we have inherited from post-Enlightenment Western thought.  The nous, about which the Apostle Paul frequently speaks, entails more than just intellectual cognition, more than just neurons firing properly in the brain.  It speaks, rather, to the intuition that enables us to grasp all of that which is true or real.

We can, indeed, receive and know Truth through rational thought and empirical sciences, but we can also grasp Truth through the intelligibility of the cosmos that God, in His Providence, so rightly ordered and through the senses with which He has blessed us.  And the realities that we know and experience daily as beings of mind and matter, of spirit and flesh, often transcend that which can be spoken or rationally understood.

Music has the capacity to touch on those realities and meanings that cannot be spoken.  Myers, at one point, responds to Rick Warren’s comment about music with a quote from philosopher and literary critic George Steiner, saying, quote, “Music is brimful of meanings which cannot be translated into logical structures or verbal expression.”[5]  When effectively wielded and used in the context of a song, it can envelop the lyrics with added layers of meaning and significance that the lyrics themselves cannot articulate.  Indeed, the finest hymns I know can encapsulate the message of its lyrics through its accompaniment alone.  Think, for instance, of “It is Well with My Soul.”  While I love the sense of triumph in Christ over suffering expressed in Horatio Spafford’s lyrics, I can perceive this same sense, in some ways more profoundly, just by hearing Phillip Bliss’ accompaniment.  I would encourage the reader to listen to several great hymns in his or her spare time today.  Hopefully, if the hymns are well composed, the reader will hear how the music itself conveys the message of the hymn’s lyrics and, to an extent, can carry the message of the tune on its own.  With all due love and respect for my brothers and sisters in Christ who serve His Kingdom through music, I would question whether this can be said for most of contemporary Christian music.  If we were to strip many popular Christian tunes of their words, would they still convey the same degree of meaning?  Or would we simply perceive from them a vague aurora of happy or sad, depending upon the music’s context?

Having lauded Myers’ work throughout this article, I would like to leave the reader with a quote from his “Ears to Hear” lecture series, one that, I believe, does more justice to this subject than I have managed to over the course of this whole article.  In the third part of his lecture, which addresses the significance of musical form, he states:

“…meaning is bigger than verbal content.  Flowers left by a bedside in a hospital room are meaningful.  A cross burned in someone’s front yard is meaningful.  A child running to greet her father returning home means something different from a child sitting coolly on a porch step until he arrives…

“…Words, rationally perceived, are necessary for stating and defending Truth, and we as Christians care about Truth, but we care about more than Truth.  We care about realities that can only be partially described by words.  We care about joy and sorrow, about hope and frustration, about fidelity and fear, about love and justice, and all of these abstractions are known by us as embodied creatures living in space and time.  Sorrow and fear, or hope, aren’t abstractions when you experience them, and what you experience can only be put partially into words, and many works of art, forms of imaginative expression, are suited better than analytic language of expressing what living through and within such realities means.”[6]

Once we, as Christians, can grasp hold of the fullness of our human experience in Christ, with all of its ways of knowing and understanding, perhaps then we can cease to perceive musical form as something inconsequential to its meaning and begin to see how the form can often speak Truth when words fall short.



[1] https://marshillaudio.org/people/ken-myers

[2] http://www.canonwired.com/epiphany-lectures/

[3] http://www.igracemusic.com/

[4] Ken Myers. “Epiphany Lecture 3: Form, Meaning, and Listening.”  YouTube video, 1:12:31, posted by Canon Wired, Feb. 19, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgOpTf3aJgc.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid


4 thoughts on “When Words Fall Short: How Musical Form Contributes to a Song’s Meaning

  1. This is primarily why I despise “new” hymn arrangements so much. It strips out so much of what makes a good hymn memorable and replaces it with simple, homogenized chords that any uneducated schmuck with a guitar in a praise team can play.

  2. So many helpful thoughts here. I recall, when working in a retirement home where some residents had dementia but had lived long lives following the Lord, that while they couldn’t remember my name or there’s, they could remember the lyrics and music (flawlessly) of old hymns of truth. Music enters our souls in ways that words can’t always do on their own. It’s really worth taking music seriously!

  3. Thank you all for your comments. I am very thankful and blessed to hear that this small article of mine has been well received and has provided others with some helpful thoughts with regard to the importance of musical form in worship music. I would, however, reiterate my comments about Indelible Grace and similar Christian bands and state that the ultimate intentions of such groups–to proclaim and exalt Christ and share His message with others– is laudable and cannot be overlooked or understated during discussions on this topic. It’s just that the philosophies behind such music, whether examined or unexamined, are, in my estimation (and yours, so it seems), misguided and ultimately harmful to the development of a rich and holistic Christian faith. But even with these strong convictions in mind, the importance of charity and humility in discussions with our brothers and sisters in Christ is one that must never be forgotten. While we may not be uniform in our understandings of worship, we must not forget that we are also UNITED in the One whom we worship. Again, thank you! 🙂

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