Five Reasons to Sing Somber Songs in Worship

I like sad songs. I don’t mean sappy love songs or My Chemical Romance or anything like that, but more somber forms of instrumental or sacred music—take the Agnus Dei sung after Samuel Barber’s Adagio, for example. I know that makes me a minority, but I think there’s good reason for the evangelical church to depart from its quest to happify everything it touches and reclaim some of the more somber, minor, reflective songs in its worship. Here are five reasons:

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Theology in C Minor

Listening to the jazz station right now. I don’t listen to jazz much, simply because it’s so hit-or-miss in my opinion. But a little jazz can be good for the soul, and this wouldn’t be Flotsam and Jetsam if I didn’t try to enumerate how I think this may be so.

When I was in high school, I thought I might try my hand at writing music. It was awful, but I didn’t know that at the time. I remember showing one of my pieces to my band instructor and asking his opinion. He was trying to be kind, and so instead of shredding it, he simply told me “you need to know what the rules are before you can break them.” He was exhorting me to go further in my music theory before I attempted to put notes to paper, and he was right. I’m not one of those naturals with music running in their souls.

I was reminded of that incident just now whilst listening to Donald Byrd’s rendition of “Ray’s Idea.” Half-listening to the song, it sounds like the drummer is spazzing out while the pianist is playing with fat fingers, and the bassist has had waaay too much caffeine. It makes me wonder what any of the old greats would have thought of it. Would Chopin be impressed? I’m reminded of the scene in The Majestic where Jim Carrey sits down in front of the piano and the community waits with baited breath to see if it’ll jog his memory (if you haven’t seen the movie, you should; it’s the only Jim Carrey film worth watching), and how his old classical piano teacher is scandalized when he starts playing these wild jazz riffs. Certainly, when jazz came on the scene, it broke all the rules. But when I tuned in fully, the song came into focus in a way that not only made sense, but fit together beautifully. It’s the bass, I believe, that ties the whole thing together, keeping the key while the piano dances all around it with it’s accidents and licks and arpeggios (forgive me if I misstep, music mavens– I’m no expert). What appears to be thick fingers incapable of hitting one key at a time is, in fact, an intentional part of the whole scheme. These composers and players know their way around a major scale. They aren’t making mistakes, they’re making music, exploring the qualities of their instruments and of the notes and chords themselves in a way that no one had done before.

The Sanhedrin thought Jesus didn’t know his doctrine well enough, or that he was flouting it on purpose. They thought he was ignorant of the law. A man can’t pick grain on the Sabbath– don’t you know that? A man can’t eat with unwashed hands. A man certainly can’t claim to be God; can’t extend forgiveness to sinners; can’t associate with gentiles, whores, tax collectors; can’t claim to interpret holy writ; can’t raise himself above Moses, Abraham, and the Fathers; A man can’t rise from the dead.

The scribes and Pharisees, those teachers of the law railed and railed, and Jesus just smiled. Listen closer, he says. The deep music of redemption threads its way through his works and teaching. Jesus isn’t sabotaging the sacred things, but saving sinners. And once you know that, you can see it on every page.

Et Cetera, Et Cetera

Hello. Late-night thoughts here.

Why are there so many stories in the Old Testament? It’s chock-full of tales. This is God’s word to man- can’t we just cut out the fluff and get to the important bits? One possible approach to one possible explanation occurs to me, mediated by Leithart filtered through the Wagner and Beethoven I’ve been listening to all evening.

All music has this quality of repetition to it. In most songs there will be a section of music which repeats several times, and while sometimes there is development from iteration to iteration in the form of a crescendo or the addition of instruments or underlying strains, sometimes the sections just repeats. And repeats. And repeats again. And then, just as the listener becomes aware that he is waiting for something to happen, the cycle breaks and a new section begins. It builds tension. It builds anticipation. Often these sections end on a leading tone, causing that sleeping musician’s ear in all of us to long for the resolution brought about by a tonic or dominant note or chord.

God doesn’t just want your mind, and so his book isn’t a list of propositions. He doesn’t just want your obedience, and so his book isn’t just a list of commands. God wants your worship, and so his book is all about the majesty of his Son, the Deliverer of Israel who appears at the end of the song to put away sin for all time. Something happens to a person when they read the unfinished story that is the Old Testament, and hear the broken deliverer theme over and over and over again. We were created listening for the resolution to come in Christ. Thank the Lord, the sweet strains of that resolution have come, and it’s a catchy tune.


Worth Your Time: Rainy Mood

Sitting down to write just now, I popped in my headphones and went to my favorite site for this sort of thing, called Rainy Mood. It’s a site which provides white noise while you work, but with Youtube sort of stuck in so you can mash the soothing sound of a thunderstorm with tunes or lectures or whatever it is you listen to whilst you work. One of my favorites is Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie, and you can access it on Rainy Mood here. Or you can opt out of Youtube and play your own music. Right now I’m going withTobias Hume’s Musical Humors. I highly recommend it for background music, and I highly recommend Rainy Mood for background noise. It beats the sound of the highway outside my window, anyway. Check it out.



Psalm 47:6 says “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!”

I hate Christian radio, on account of it’s terrible. Lately, therefore, I’ve taken to listening solely to secular radio. This has been a good summer for hits anyway, so why not?

But in reading Scripture and praying, I’ve been convicted that I deprive myself when I only listen to secular music. Now, I think that all non-sinful secular music is game for Christians (e.g. “Ten Thousand Hours” is OK, “Blurred Lines” is not), and I’m not talking about Christian versus secular. Listen to non-sinful secular music all you want. But not to the exclusion of Christian music. Singing praises to God is important, and wonderful, and something strange happens to the soul when we sing truth about and to God, something that doesn’t always happen when we talk about him, or pray to him, or preach him. Singing is like the calcium channel in “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.” (First person to understand that reference gets a blog post written in their honor.)

But this understanding of singing praise to God doesn’t make Christian radio any better for people like me. How can I worship God without feeling like “if it’s bad, it must be good for me?” I think there are a few ways.

1) Sing to yourself. I’ve made singing hymns, songs, and spiritual songs a regular part of my devotions. In reading and praying through and meditating on a verse or passage of Scripture, if a song comes to mind, I sing that song. It makes every morning a little individual worship service. I love it.
2) Make up songs. If you have talent, write songs. If you don’t (like me), then just sing new lyrics to songs you already know. They don’t have to be good, and no one except the Lord will hear them. But they are an exercise of singing truth to the Lord in a new song.
3) Use internet radio. Spotify has a ton of Christian music for the hearing. There are good Christian artists out there, and with a little effort you can sort through the bleh and find music that makes your soul sing.

I realize that not everybody is a musician, and not everybody loves music in the same way or to the same degree. But don’t let a lack of good music keep you from praising God through song. There’s no good reason for it.