Beholding God: The Function of Melody in Helpful Worship Music

You can read the prerequisite to this essay here.

Melody

Melody is a fundamental facet of musical composition – the only element absolutely intertwined with the lyrics. A musical arrangement can be changed but the melody is intrinsic to the identity of a song. Without the melody, lyrics become poetry.

The melody of a worship song must serve as an aid to the lyrics. It must elevate, not subvert, the lyrics. With this in mind, we recognize that melody has influence. Music wields the power to emotionally stir us and move us in various ways. Various melodies affect us in different ways. Because the melody has such an influence on us, it must be considered another tool in the construction of a helpful worship service.

As I have already suggested, melody should exalt the lyrics. How can melody serve this purpose? It is perhaps easier to see how the arrangement of a song can exalt the lyrics: by letting the words have center-stage (i.e. getting out of the way). However, what about the melody? This is not the performance of the song, with its environment and dynamic, or the tamber of the instrumentation. We are simply considering which notes correspond to which words and the compositional picture they paint when strung together in rhythmic sequence.

I suggest that the melody compliments the lyrics when it moves the singer in an emotional direction appropriate to the lyrics that he sings. First, I will explain the relationship between principles and implications. Second, I will explain how a melody exegetes the lyric. Third, I will show how the influence of melodies can be positively used in corporate worship.

A. Principle and Implication

A proposition necessarily has an implication. That is, a fact always implies something else. “If this is true, then this must be true.” For the principle to be an argument, it must have another principle which is coupled with it, which then implies something. For example, consider this principle: “All whales are mammals.” From that, I immediately know the implication: “Shamu is a mammal.” How is this an implication? Well, because we understand a second proposition to be true: “Shamu is a whale.” Each truth statement we learn or confess, when coupled with a fact we already know, can be seen to imply something else.

The principles in Scripture exemplify this. There is truth proposed in the text, but there are implications of the truth that are not explicitly stated by Scripture. For example, the evangelical confession of Trinitarian theology is not found in one place in Scripture, but pulled from several principles found throughout the text. In no place does the Word state, “The Divine is one God in three persons.” The church has long recognized, though, that this is a necessary implication of what the Bible speaks concerning each member of the Trinity. This is a doctrinal implication.

The second kind is practical implication. This would be how we are to live in light of a particular fact. For example, if God is ultimately the One Who draws people to Himself in salvation, then what implications does that fact have on my evangelism? Well, it gives me great peace in knowing that the ‘success’ of my preaching is not dependent upon me, but God. So I’m not going to focus on pragmatism, on trying to entice people to accept Jesus. I’m just going to preach the gospel and pray for conversions – this is a practical implication of the fact that God is sovereign in salvation.

What I want us to recognize is that the relationship between an implication and its respective proposition is not subjective, but objective. I don’t get to decide what the doctrine of Sola Fide implies. Logic tells me that it doctrinally implies that God does not accept my labor as grounds for justification and that it practically implies that I do not have to do good works to be right before God (there is a bit of inter-changeableness in how one might state a doctrinal or practical implication – much depends on how you read the implication). The relationship is one of necessity, such that an implication is intrinsically linked to its respective truth. For the relationship to be broken would be an act of insanity, or foolishness, because you would literally be denying logic.

This may seem irrelevant. Hopefully the next section will clear things up.

B. The Exegetical Function of Melody

I suggest the melody is an implication of the lyric, in this sense: it communicates what emotion is appropriate in response to specific truth claims. We want our lyrics to be filled with truth. All truth calls for certain emotional responses. For example, we are to shout for joy in light of God’s salvation (Ps 35:27). Isaiah felt ruined in light of God’s holiness (Isa 6:1-6). John fell down as a dead man in light of Christ’s glory (Rev 1:17). We are to respond to God’s self-revelation in appropriate fashion.

When should be happy while reflecting on the glories of heaven and the end of earthly suffering. Christ’s death on our behalf should cause gratitude to swell within us. Seeing the wrath of God against sin should compel us to fear His power and soberly rejoice in the cross. No doctrine is without an appropriate response. Singing these doctrines, there are proper and improper reactions. Who would shout for joy that our sin made Christ’s suffering necessary, in some sense? Who would weep in sorrow because of God’s gospel?

Inappropriate responses to doctrine are exercises in foolery. As we worship God through song, the melody can aid us in appropriately responding to the doctrines we sing. When the lyrics call for joy, the melody reflects this in a joyful composition. When the lyrics call for reverence, the melody does likewise. So on, so forth. In order for the melody to do this, it must accurately communicate to us the practical implication of the truths we are singing. So: the melody must accurately interpret the doctrine.

The melody must faithfully exegete of the lyric. When a text is exegeted, its meaning is drawn out. The melody must be able to exegete the text and, in knowing what it means, see clearly what it implies, and communicate that to us.

The melodies we sing preach to us the lives we should live in light of the truths we confess. A helpful worship song boasts a melody that preaches to us in this manner. In our hymns of praise, we want melodies that faithfully explain to us how we should respond to God’s self-revelation. The exegetical function of melody proves invaluable when we contemplate the dying, sin-loving bodies we still live in.

C. The Helpful Influence of Melody

As saints of God, our spirits have been raised from death to life to love Him (Eph 2:1-10). Though it is not a perfect love, it is a true affection (Eph 6:24). However, our bodies have yet to be resurrected (Rom 8:18-25). We live presently with spirits that love God and bodies that habitually love sin. On top of this, our bodies are dying – still under the effects of sin. We are prone to laziness, apathy, lust, pride, and the like. This conflict wears on us even in a Sunday morning, corporate worship service. As I contemplate God’s character and work presented in the lyrics, my spirit rejoices in the truth. However, my body leaves me prone to a disaffectionate state. I am compelled by my flesh to not revere God in His omnipotence and holiness, to remain apathetic in light of His gospel, etc.

When the melody properly interprets the emotional implication of the lyrics, it utilizes its powerful influence to show me the appropriate response to what I am singing. It opposes my flesh, saying, “No – you will not be apathetic to this. You will bend to the sway of these doctrines.” The melody can serve as a softener of my sinful flesh, appropriating it to the emotions implicated by the doctrines I am singing. Essentially: the melody submits my body to a posture of worship. That, I believe, may be the best way of putting it.

Melody submits my body to a posture of worship through the influence it has on my emotions. As we already stated, music has power to stir us in certain ways, depending on its composition and arrangement. The composition of the melody, then, should be used to exalt the lyrics by submitting the flesh to the practical implications demanded the truths of God’s character and work. The melody, when properly written, will put the flesh in its place: “Be joyful here. Be sorrowful here. Be hopeful here. Be reverent here.”

Closing Thoughts

In light of the above meditations, I have two brief thoughts.

  1. We need melody-writers who are theologians. If the melody interprets the lyrics and communicates the appropriate response to it, then it follows that we need melody-writers who understand doctrine well. Melodies don’t write themselves! Hymn-writers, even non-lyricists, should saturate themselves in the Word of God. Systematic and Historical theologies would prove helpful tools in this work of composition.
  2. Hymns help prepare us for receiving the Word. If the influence of melody is appropriately used, it submits the flesh to the truth of God. It serves as a form of discipline. After three to five helpfully composed and performed songs, the worshiper will be in a much better position to accept and submit to the Word of God. His flesh has been disciplined by the hymns he sang the previous twenty minutes.

May God be exalted in the praise of His people!

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