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Does it Groove? Part Two: Exploratory Groove Surgery
By Jon Nicol - 02/18/2003 - 08:46 PM EST

© 2003 Jon Nicol

We ended the first part of this two-part article with a question: How does one song “groove” for so many? Let’s face it: a big part of it is production and presentation. Take an average song; spend ten thousand dollars recording it, market it with ten times that or more, and it will most likely have mass appeal. That’s what pop music is all about. And like it or not, it can be that way in the “praise and worship” world, too. 99% of praise and worship songs that make it on to a big label album ride off into the sunset within six months or less. But some songs endure. Their popularity grows beyond the scope of the intended marketing. For an immense range of people, these songs “groove.” To find out why, we need to move past the production and presentation and do some exploratory surgery on these popular songs.

I want to “cut open” two “classic” praise and worship songs that have had widespread success. They have been recorded by hundreds of artists and heard and sung by millions of listeners and worshippers. We’re searching for the musical and lyrical elements in each that help make these songs “groove.”

“Shout to the Lord” (Darlene Zschech) and “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” (Rick Founds) were two of the most popular worship songs of the 90s. If you led worship or participated on a worship team over the last decade, you, like me, have probably had enough of these two songs. Kinda’ like Hootie and the Blowfish a few years ago—enough already!

But these two songs continue to endure despite many worship leaders retiring them from the regular rotation. Let’s look at the elements that help these songs groove.

(For the sake of time, space, and copyright laws, I didn’t include the entire lyrics to these songs. If needed, there are many web sites on which you can find these lyrics.)

Shout to the Lord

Lyrically, Zschech does a great job of combining the subjective desire to be close and intimate with God and the more objective proclamation of His grandeur and awesome majesty. (Simply put—you got the facts and you got the feelings.) And she does it in a simple AB format that neither overstays its welcome nor begs for more substance.

The language she uses is pulled from scripture, but not word for word. I think this is important to note. Many songs written verbatim from the Bible can tend to be awkward. Zschech, on the other hand, has taken words and phrases and shaped them into singable lyrics.

Let’s move on to the music of "Shout to the Lord" with this disclaimer: We are going to be experiencing some music theory here, so hang on. If you’re not a “theory” person, just skim it until you see something that looks like English.

The beginning melody of the verse (part A) moves in stepwise motion from the third of the One (I) Chord, or A (if you’re playing this song in the common key). The melody note begins on a C# (the major third of the scale and the chord) and steps up to the D and E underneath each syllable of “My Je-sus….” We see the same thing built on the Five (V), or E Chord. The melody continues on G#, the third of E, and steps up to A and B up on each syllable of “my Savior.” We hear the same two-chord progression and melody again under “My comfort, my shelter….”

A lot of you may be scratching your heads right now, but what I’m getting at is that Zschech established a pattern that is both familiar and “catchy”—a melodic hook. Then she reused it (as should be done with all hooks). Too many beginning songwriters fail to get this. Yeah, they may write a catchy chorus. But if the verses fail to keep the attention of the listener, no one will be there to hear that catchy chorus--except for your mom. Everyone else has tuned out or turned off.

Another musical element that makes this song “groove” is some of the chord progressions. I love what the Flat Seven (bVII) Chord can do to a song (think a Bb chord in the key of C, or in this case, a G chord in the key of A). Zschech uses this chord twice: once to land the plane and once to take off. She uses it first on the line “the wonders of your mighty love.” The line prior to this, with it’s internal rhyme (“all of my days, I want to praise”), feels like it’s building to take off. But then she drops the melody down on the flat VII (G chord) and resolves it back to the E chord via a D/F#. This sets us up for a return to the A – E progression that we talked about in the last two paragraphs. (By the way, you guitarists who are ignoring the bass note in “slash” chords—a.k.a. “inversions”—are missing out…but that’s a whole ‘nother article…).

At the end of the verse, she does the exact same melody and chord progression again. Only this time, she doesn’t abort the take off. The melody goes up to an octave above where it was on the last G chord. Now we begin to soar with “let every breath, all that I am / never cease to worship You…” The internal rhyme isn’t as strong in this one with “breath” and “am.” But it still works. And it’s worth noting here that internal rhymes are a great way to quicken the pace of the lyric at key moments.

I love it that Zschech could incorporate into the chorus an extremely overused chord progression and get the results that she gets. The progression is basically A, F#m, D, E. The old I – VI – IV – V (think doo-wop, “Earth Angel” and scads of other pop songs from the 50s and early 60s.) In Zschech’s hands, this too-often-cheesy progression becomes the canvas for a stunning picture of God’s creation worshipping Him. And as the words become more personal, more intimate (“nothing compares to the promise I have in You.”), the song decrescendos to take us back to the verse.

This song could be picked apart in more detail, but I hope I’ve shown you some elements in it that can help you make your own songs “groove.”

“Lord I Lift Your Name on High”

Let’s look at the music first on this one. I-IV-V. G, C, D. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. For this song, these chords have provided the backdrop for a catchy tune of celebration. These three chords continue to find themselves in popular songs of almost every genre of music. Funny thing is, for the longest time I tried to stay away from this chord progression in my writing. I was too “musically advanced” to revert to something that simple. Not like those other slouches like Bach and Beethoven (and the Beatles, too). Bottom line: those three chords have worked well for centuries. Don’t be afraid (or too “advanced”) to use them.

Lyrically, like Zschech, Rick Founds brings together nicely the subjective and the objective in a simple AB pattern. The “verse,” or part A, begins with a more subjective “I” approach: “’I’ lift Your name on high…‘I’ love to sing Your praises… ‘I’…” think you get the point. This brings up a major argument in contemporary praise and worship music. Many good people state that there’s too much “I” and “me” in the songs written today. Without getting into it too much, I’ll say that they have a valid point. But I’ll also state that there is a subjective component of worship, and feelings are involved. But this is a great topic for yet another article. If you care to comment on this topic, e-mail me or head to my message board and either start the topic or contribute to one that’s already started…let me know what you think. Back to the song:

The second half (or the chorus) rescues the song from simply being a “here’s-what-I’m-feeling” type of song. In fact, I’ll go so far to say that the second half of this song is what makes it what it is. Here’s why:

When people sing “Lord, I Lift You’re Name on High,” they’re not just singing a feel-good song. By singing it, the worshipper is retelling the greatest story ever told. This song recounts the absolute core and essence of the Christian faith and experience. And it happens within four simple lines. I truly believe that this is the heart of why this song rose to the top and remains among the most popular of all contemporary worship songs.

So as you write praise and worship songs, remember this: To retell the Christian story is an act of worship. It maybe as simple as “from the grave to the sky…” or elaborate like the hymns, “It is Well” and “Amazing Love.” But whatever you do, don’t forget to tell the story!

Before we wrap up, I think it’s also worth noting that both of these songs have survived some horrendous arrangements and renditions. Arrangement does factor into the groove of a song, no doubt. A mediocre song can get a boost with a good arrangement, but it will never be a “great” song. On the other hand, a great song can survive and outlive whatever arrangement it’s put through (even Muzac).

So as you’re writing, consider “Does my song truly groove?” Is this song communicating, both lyrically and musically, something that will connect with the listeners/worshippers? Groovy, baby!

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