How songs survive 2: Singable Melodies

23Sep09

We are discussing hymns–defined as songs that are able to work in a wide variety of cultural settings, such that they can still be used a generation or more after they were written.  In this post, I am going to suggest that the #1 most important thing that makes a song able to survive is having a strong, singable melody…preferably one that can be sung a cappella and still sound great.

To explain this, let me begin with a seemingly goofy question.  What is one thing that all churches have in common? Old, young, rich, poor, Western, African, Asian, black, white, high-church, low-church, orthodox, liberal: with all the doctrinal and practical differences, do they actually have anything in common?  Yes, they all have PEOPLE–human beings, probably more than one of them.

“Duh,” you might be thinking.  It’s an inanely obvious point to make, but let me explain.  Because all churches have people, it means that all churches have human voices as their primary instrument.  If you travel and visit churches across America, you will realize that instrumentation from one church to another varies wildly–from pipe organs to electric guitars or just hand drums.  I once visited a church in Namibia with no instruments and no up-front music leader, just 600+ human voices.  And that’s the point:  human voices are the only instrument that all churches across the world share in common.

Thus, the human voice is the first and most important instrument on which a song must sound good if that song is going to survive beyond the cultural space and moment in which it was written. If a song is carried by its guitar part, then it will only be used by churches that have guitars. If it only works when carried by a piano, then all the churches that have a guitar-led worship band are going to pass over it, and so on, and so on.  But if a song works beautifully and elegantly with the human voice, then that song can be translated to any congregation anywhere in the world.

A good melody can always be added to with additional accompaniment specific to the congregation and culture of the church.  But if the melody is weak, the song will not survive.

I’m going to wrap up today with a test.  How do you know if a song has a compelling melody?  Try singing it a cappella. Listen to what you hear.  Are there overly long empty pauses (where instruments would be playing)?  Is it too repetitive and boring?  Or is it too complicated (and probably not repetitive enough)?  Does it move up and down in the scale or just sit in one place?  Would it sound beautiful if performed just like this, naked and unadorned, with a few voices giving it a bit of harmony?  If so, then you’ve probably got a solid melody.  If not, then, it may still be a great song for your church with your instrumentation, but it’s probably not going to survive or translate across cultures and times.  Other instruments will come and go based on a church’s cultural setting and budget, but the human voice remains.  And it’s the only instrument created by God.

In my next post, I’ll illustrate this point about melody with some examples (from Bob Dylan and the Eagles) and begin unpacking some of the specific features that make the best melodies work so well.  In the meantime, what do you think are some of the best, most singable melodies for corporate worship?

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3 Responses to “How songs survive 2: Singable Melodies”

  1. 1 Lewis Grant

    “Thus, the human voice is the first and most important instrument on which a song must sound good if that song is going to survive beyond the cultural space and moment in which it was written.”

    That’s a brilliant idea. In retrospect, somehow I feel like that should have been more obvious.

    Then again, I’ve never been one to listen terribly carefully to melodies themselves, but rather, to melodies in relation to the chords they are sung over. The way I tend to hear it, each note represents a different part of the particular scale that corresponds to the chord. It’s that interplay of tension and resolution that is, I think, largely responsible for what makes melodies interesting to me. (You can get some impressive tension and resolution using jazz theory, which is why I like it so much. And jazz theory doesn’t automatically require a jazz idiom, although I think it does take some work to export jazz theory outside the jazz idiom. But it can be done. And when you add in harmonies, wow! That’s why I think that really good jazz choirs produce some of the most amazing music out there. (I know I probably won’t get many people to agree with me on that)).

    Keep up the good work on the blog!

    • 2 churchmusicblog

      Thanks, Lewis. You’re right, the interplay between melodies and chords is huge! And it matters a lot for corporate singing b/c it determines the kinds of harmony notes that can be added to the melody. I don’t want to downplay that. I’m really a “chord guy” at heart. I have to work hard at crafting good melodies.

  2. I had never thought of it that way before, but this a great way to put it! I’m going to have to try that test with the songs I use in leading my church in worship.


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