I've been thinking about Matt and Beth Redman's enormously popular song "Blessed Be Your Name." It's one of the few songs in Christian worship that frankly acknowledges hard times. There's no "and now I am happy all the day." This one's full of desert places and wilderness, and yet, using the phrase from the book of Job, arrives at a resounding praise.
What's interesting to me is how the song works as art. Most people, unfortunately, pay attention only to the lyrics of a song. But the best songs do more than speak. They sing. So it's profitable to point and click on a song that strongly sings to you, to see what it's made of.
Whenever I'm asked for simple advice to people who lead worship — by definition, people who are often more practised in the faith than in the notes — one of my first instructions is to listen to the form and let it speak. If it's in binary form, with alternating verses and choruses, try playing a whole different pattern on your drums or your guitar for the two different sections. Make one whisper, make the other shout. Songwriters gravitate to these forms for a reason, and we should perform them with that in mind. Take "Blessed." It consists of verses, a short bridge, and a chorus, and it asks to be performed in a way that underscores its own theology.
The verse is in a low register. Putting the song in the key of A, as it's often done, we're asked to sing notes ranging from A to E in the bottom of our range. Whether sung by men or women, it's just hard to sing those notes with an upright posture and a loud ringing voice. When I'm found in the desert place / Though I walk through the wilderness / Blessed be Your Name.
Notice the anapestic rhythm: besides forcing the phrase's greatest stress, along with the downbeat, on the word "found" (an ingenious detail that speaks volumes about the speaker's theology), it forces us to speak the words "Your name" quietly.
I've quoted from the verse's second half here, but its first half does the same thing, only speaking of "the land that is plentiful" and "streams of abundance." These words, though, hardly sound joyous in context. In each phrase the last line is "Blessed be Your Name," and in each the downward direction of the melody, going from C-sharp down to A, the lowest note in the song, not only speaks of resignation rather than triumph, it forces us to sing it that way every time. It even demands a certain posture. That low A is hard for most men and women to sing with head held high. The note speaks better when your head is down a bit.
The bridge is in an entirely different range. Its lowest note is E, the highest note of the verse. Of the three sections of the song, its range is right in the middle. And its lyric is transitional, too: Every blessing You pour out / I'll turn back to praise.
This line is sung on an ascending scale, going from E right up to B. The voice, the posture, and the spirit are forced upward.
The highest melodic range, from the higher A to an even higher C-sharp, is saved for the chorus, which is the song's title sung again and again with slight variations. In the final line, "Your glorious name" shines especially, with a grace note of D, the highest note of the song, right on the word "glorious," the only time the speaker uses that word to refer to God's name, which indeed goes unmodified throughout the rest of the song. Given that most popular songs are sung within a single octave, this one's melody, which spills below and above the usual range (it's nearly as big as the famously unsingable Star Spangled Banner
), has ambitions to match its lyrical subject matter, the highs and lows of the human experience.
Again the human voice and its cabinet, the human body, are brought into the deal: it's hard for most people to sing notes that high without straining a bit — you stand a little taller, hold your head a little higher, and brighten up your vocal cords a little more. It takes more air and more exertion. And so, as the spirit of the lyric is so beautifully embodied in the melody, there's an effect on us, too. Research shows that your facial expression and body posture and exertion actually affect your mood, and not just the other way around. Whether or not your mood is already in the depths, this piece of music takes you there, and from there to the heights.
The song itself, then, not only speaks a potent truth by choosing as its lyrical subject matter something grittier than the usual pie-in-the-sky stuff; not only speaks it by inhabiting a melody so well that form and function are wedded as they always are in good art; not only speaks it by demanding by its sheer technical qualities a certain performance trajectory. It not only speaks that potent truth, but sings it, and not only sings it but enacts it on the singer. The song becomes its own irenicon,
its own sacramental ceremony of peace.
This is exactly what E.T.A. Hoffman was talking about when he referred to "the artist as priest and prophet." Thank you, Redmans.