Monday, November 20, 2006

In Search of the Lost Minor Chord

This past Sunday in church our hymns had a definite eschatological tone -- the spiritual "Soon and Very Soon," and old Reformation-era greatest hits, heavy on the minor chords, themed around the tribulation of the saints, like "Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word." These latter hymns are what I cut my musical eyeteeth on back in Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, before my feet could reach the sanctuary floor. I like them. I told our organist so. She beamed, and said, "There's another reason God brought you to our church!"

Gosh, ma'am -- I just said I liked minor chords.

Not everyone does. I was Googling online later in the day, looking for the name of an imaginary sponsor of Prairie Home Companion -- I think it's the Society For the Preservation of Minor Chords -- and as often happens during such searches I found myself headed down a variety of strange Christian-subcultural rabbit holes. While I'm quite aware that many of my more Protestant brethren and sistren prefer more uptempo music than I do, I guess I was not entirely aware that some Christians turn musical composition itself into a moral issue -- that they parse Scriptural passages about joyful noise and such, and extrapolate that into a kind of biblical prohibition against "downer" church music. Minor chords = bad. Happy-happy-joy-joy melodies = good. (If you really want to go canoeing on the backwaters of Christianity and see what some folks think about "godly" versus "ungodly" music, take a lookie here -- I especially enjoyed the gratuitous sexism and racism inserted in what purports to be a discussion of music -- or here , or here, or here .)

If our worship is a reflection of our theology -- then it's hard to see how someone who thinks use of minor chords is somehow falling short of the glory of God can have any grasp on the theology of the Cross -- the concept of God coming to us and sharing in our suffering, our weakness and defeat. Life is not always happy-happy-joy-joy. Pretending that it is, is frankly not telling the truth about either the human experience in general or the Christian experience in particular...and at least the way I see it, those of us who follow Christ are charged with being in the truth business. For all those moments of joy at the thought that "we're goin' to see the King," there are also moments of pensiveness and introspection, of sadness, of despair; times when we plead, "Lord Jesus Christ, your power make known." Our music needs to reflect that part of the faith journey as well in order to be an authentic expression of who we are as the people of God.


zorra said...

How sad and a little scary those links are. They remind me of the old Bill Gothard music analogies about throbbing pulse = feverish/sick, no pulse = dead, but muted pulse = healthy. Also the emphasis on joy-joy-joy as the only 'acceptable' Christian emotion. In our house we refer to that music/attitude as "now I am happy all the day" because of a dreadful rinky-dink chorus to that effect that is grafted onto Isaac Watts' lyric "Alas, and did my Savior bleed" in the Baptist Hymnal. I don't say that to pick on Baptists, just on the apparent discomfort with, as you put it, moments of pensiveness or introspection, or of stopping to consider the death of Christ in all of its significance. Jesus came to us and died and was raised to make us whole, not one-dimensional.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Very well put thoughts. I like quite a bit of the minor key music too. And I agree, that if our worship experience is to be authentic, it should reflect the mountains and the valleys. Many of the old spirituals do that well.

What does bug me is when the music doesn't match the meaning. Sometimes this isn't because of the way the music is written, but because of the way it is played. The musicians at the church I attend push much of the music toward the peppy end of the spectrum. Usually that is OK, but some music is meant to be more stately, IMHO.

But I recently attended a different Lutheran church from my usual. That day, all the hymns were so draggy, as are many in that newer hymnal. I think that is just the way that Lutheran group worships; it is what they are used to. In contrast, the sermon was "memorable" because it was about how God takes care of all our needs and everything is always hunky dory. You'd think that a sermon like that would be accompanied by some superficially chipper music.

I like minor key music...but I don't tolerate draggy music too well.

Mary said...

A reciprocal(o). Absolutely agree about the minor chords - essential to reflect the range of our theology, and also meet the needs of those who are feeling less than happy on any given day. Triumphalist Christianity can be a real deterrent.

Widening Circles said...

Our music--like our faith--should have room to express all that we are, IMHO. Good post!

the reverend mommy said...

I LOVE minor chords. It's funny that people forget that 48 percent of the Psalms are songs of lament -- without the lament, well, can it be REAL worship?

Anonymous said...

What they all said...

And I'm no musician, but I'm not sure what was said in those links is even good music theory.

I had a course in seminary on the Psalms...there's a lot more anger and fear and despair in them than most people think. And that is precisely why they are so powerful. Oops, don't get me started.


Anonymous said...


SingingOwl said...

Yeah, what Rainbow Pastor said. I love minor chords, and I love joy too. I suppose that makes me partly holy or something.


Anonymous said...

OH my. Aside from being ethnocentric in their exposition, they have also made some (predictable) errors regarding the psychology of music, music theory and so on. Blergh.

I don't mind major/minor/offbeat/onbeat/ rock/Bach... as long as it is (a) played WELL AND IN TUNE and (b) not too loud because I am not deaf yet!

Just a moment while I go get my ram's horn and join them on Sunday...


Reverend Dona Quixote said...

Oh gag me with a tuning fork ----!!!!

I'll have to make another stab at those links, LC, when my stomach's a little stouter ...

All this time I've been teaching my congregations to clap on 2 & 4, and now I discover I am leading them to Perdition. Horrors!!!!

Wonder what the authors of these pieces would think of my beloved Charles Wesley setting Christian lyrics to bartunes, so the largely uneducated folks to whom the Wesleys ministered could sing the Gospel in such a way that it was accessible to them, 'cuz they knew the tunes....

"Jesus, Lover of My Soul" is probably way too sexy for our shirts [church?]

Methinks its a variation on that old saying, attributed to some one somewhere in the Bible Belt: "Dancing [substitute "rock music", "Rap," whatever] is the vertical expression of a horizontal thought." Said usually with a frigid gleam and a sour expression.

Arrrggghhhh! [Rending of garments, gnashing of teeth, sackcloth and ashes to follow. 'Scuse me while I go de-string the guitar and burn the drum set.]

Anonymous said...


I mean, really, WOW.

I knew there were people out there who are, in your ever-so-delicate words, "nucking futs," but WOW.

I want to insert some snide comment about the authors of those websites here, but I think instead I'll just say how sad this kind of ignorance makes me feel. There are people depriving themselves of some of the greatest art God has ever given the world because they're afraid of the emotions said art may evoke. Lament, joy, courage, awe - all of these should be brought to the surface by our song. Thank goodness there are some, like yourself, who see that music is reflection and expression of the children of God that we are.

GREAT post - thanks for this!


Anonymous said...

First time visitor. Hi! This was a cool post.

Those links are sad and deluded, but music does powerful things to people. It's funny how far back this debate goes. I'll try not to go on too long here, but have you ever heard of shaped note music? One of the most popular shape note books is the Sacred Harp. The thing with shape notes is this: it's a very American musical tradition that began in New England in the 17th century as a reaction against the popular style of singing at that time - the lining out system. That's where a leader stood in front of a congregation and quickly chanted out a line (e.g. "O, Thou who dries the mourners tears..."), then the congregation would sing the line back, each person at his/her own time, and possibly in his/her own pitch. The argument against this was that the music was too chaotic and that God wouldn't understand it. Long story short, a century.5 later, the same arguments were raised against this more organized shape note music, and the tradition essentially died out in New England. It hung on in the rural south all this time and is making a popular comeback via vehicles like the movie Cold Mountain.

My point is just this - whatever kind of music exists out there, SOMEbody, somewhere is bound to have a problem with it. It's too bad, really. Music is powerful and can be a great form of worship. If you get a chance and are interested, check out for more info on shape note and Sacred Harp music. It's incredibly stirring.

In Christ's Love,

Rob, the displaced Michigander*

*I noticed you used "Michiganian." Lately I've been advocating the ban on both terms, and would like to replace them with "Mischuggana." Thoughts? :)