The Healthy Tension Between Music & Lyrics
You feel it coming. The swell beneath your feet. The steady rise of the instruments and vocalists building and building. You wait for it. Wait for it. And then finally - the sonic crescendo hits you like an ocean wave hits the shore.
Your heart is stirred. Your mind is distracted.
You know it's coming. These words you've sung before. You think on the glory of God and the splendor of His Majesty. You consider what He’s done for you. The words paint a vivid picture in your head.
Your mind is stirred. Your heart is unmoved.
As worship leaders, we artfully combine music and lyrics. But powerful music with shallow lyrics is like a sweet dessert with little substance. And powerful lyrics with mundane music is like a hearty meal with little flavor.
There's a publication by the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches called "A Position Paper Concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship". The portion on music helps shape this idea.
"The poetry of the songs should be good poetry, it should not have to rely upon the music to carry it"
"The music of the songs should be artistically defensible as good music, it should not have to rely upon the words to carry it.”
Put It To Practice
Let's give it a try. Choose a worship song you've recently lead. Sit down, and read through the words. Is your mind compelled? Is your heart stirred? Or does it fall flat without the octave jump and instrumental build?
Now consider the music of the same song. Is it "artistically defensible as good music"? Does it "Satisfy the aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony design, rhythm, restrain, and fitness which are the conditions of all art"? Or is it bland and unimaginative without the lyrics to bring some interest?
Recently I was planning the songs for a Sunday Service. I wanted to lead the timeless hymn "How Great Thou Art". It clearly has strong lyrics so I was off to a good start.
We often lead this song with belting vocals, atmospheric swells, and drums building toward the final chorus. Instead, I decided to limit the musical dynamics considerably. I wanted the lyrics and themes to shine above all else.
And guess what? Our church sang more loudly, and more passionately than any time in recent memory!
The Honest Truth
Can I be honest? I hide behind musical dynamics. I don't consciously realize it most of the time but it's true. How do I know? Because leading this song made me nervous.
Would it fall flat? Would it be boring? The drums never broke into a groove. The guitar never broke into a strum. Will people just be waiting for us to kick the song into gear? When's the build? When's the jump? When's the drop? When’s “the moment"
It's not uncommon for me to craft a short break of quiet and intimacy into my song list. But for me, leading a whole song this way took bravery.
What About The Words?
On the other hand, you may confess you hide behind lyrical integrity. Thinking strong lyrics justify poor music. Or you may avoid stirring music, thinking it distracts from the lyrics.
But music attaches meaning, affections, and emotions to words in such a powerful way. Music takes phrases and sentences to new heights they couldn't reach on their own.
Fortunately, we don't have to choose between music or lyrics. We can enjoy both music and lyrics by bringing everything under the authority of scripture and leading of the Spirit.
God has generously given beautiful words and vivid pictures through His word. He also created man with creativity and skill in music. Let's use it all for His glory!