Dylan, the Eagles & Corporately Singable Melodies

01Oct09

Last week we discussed singable melodies.  I am suggesting that the most important feature that makes a song suitable for corporate worship is the strength of its melody.  Songs that get sung across the world are the ones with strong, compelling melodies that are able to stand alone, because those work well on the only instrument shared by all churches: the human voice.

This week, I simply want to illustrate and explore the point about singable melodies.  To do this, I have chosen two songs that I, and millions of other people, think are fantastic.  BUT, for all their popularity, and even though both of them are great folk rock songs, one of them would work well (musically) for corporate worship, while the other would be an utter disaster.  The difference?  Melody.

Our first example is one of the greatest folk rock songs ever: Like A Rolling Stone, by Bob Dylan.

Try this: If you’re not surrounded by people who will think you’re crazy, hit pause on the video and sing the melody of the first verse.  “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw-the-bums-a-dime in your prime… didn’t you?” What do you hear?  We have one note being repeated over and over with no regularity or pattern.  It’s almost like a typewriter pounding away and the typist is pausing occasionally to think about what he wants to type next.  At the end of the line you have an indefinite pause after “prime,” before Bob asks, “didn’t you?”  Not only does this melody, without its accompaniment, sound lonely and boring, it would be incredibly difficult for a group of people to follow, because it’s so irregular. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not insulting the song.  It’s a great song.  But the melody cannot stand alone and therefore would not lend itself to corporate singing.  Fortunately for all of us, it’s not intended for corporate singing.  Rock on, Bob.

Second example.  Peaceful Easy Feeling, by the Eagles.

Although these songs are in a similar genre, the construction of the melody is very different. Again, try the a cappella test.  What do you hear?  The melody moves fluidly from one note to the next without irregular pauses.  It stays in a relatively narrow range (5 notes in the verse) but is not so simple as to be boring.  At the end of the first line (“lay”), there’s just enough time to take a natural breath before singing the next line.  At the chorus, the melody goes up to its highest note, a C#, at “peaceful” and then gradually works its way back to its lowest note, also a C#, at “on the ground.”   So the range of the melody is only 1 octave–reasonable for most average voices to sing.

Now, I don’t want to pretend to be more musically astute than I am.  I cannot analyze this melody through the lens of a great music theorist.  Nor do I hold this song up as a paragon of melodic achievement.  But I can say this: it works pretty well for singing. It’s repetitive enough to be memorable, (but not so much that it’s boring) and unlike Dylan’s song above, which is driven by chord changes, this song is basically carried along by its melody.

So what’s the point of this comparison?  People will enjoy listening to both of these songs.  But they will only enjoy corporately singing one of them.  And when we’re writing or selecting songs for corporate worship, we want melodies that invite people to sing their best.  This is what hymns do well–they are carried by strong, memorable melodies that encourage good singing.

Can you hear the difference?

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2 Responses to “Dylan, the Eagles & Corporately Singable Melodies”

  1. 1 Lewis Grant

    Good comparison, Wendell. I’ve actually heard the chorus of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” used as the chorus of a worship song years back at summer camp.

    The Dylan song makes me think of some of Sting’s music. His vocals are great, but they’re very hard to sing along to, even for a musician.

    We really don’t sing corporately very often anymore, either in a sacred or secular setting, do we? Singing the national anthem before a professional sports event is always a bit striking to me, mainly (I think) because it’s so rare to sing together. I suppose your next post sort of gets at this. There really is something about singing together, where the voices are the primary instrument, that is almost unexplainable. The choirs that I’ve sung in have often come together as a group (in a personal sense) much more quickly than, say, a classroom studying traditional subject. That’s probably why I like ending songs at church a capella.

    • 2 churchmusicblog

      Thanks, Lewis. Yeah, there’s a real shortage of corporate singing in the culture at large. This is one area where I think Christians, ordinary non-rock-star Christians, have a chance to be a noticeably beautiful counter culture. If we in the Church can learn how to sing (and sing joyfully) together, that in of itself will be something that marks us as different from the rest of the culture. Meanwhile, the rest of the culture will probably continue to think of singing as something that professionals do.

      It’s a good way for Christians to testify that our God is good. I need to put up a regular post about this.

      Thanks so much for your feedback and encouragement, Lewis.


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