Why Is Worship Music So Repetitive?

As a worship pastor, one of the main arguments I have heard over the years is that there is a lot of singing and that modern worship is too repetitive. It is difficult to imagine what heaven must be like, but Scripture gives us a few glimpses. It turns out that one of the things we should expect is a lot of singing. From what I see in Revelation 4:8, that includes a lot of repetitive singing. “Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come'” (Revelation 4:8). So what is the deal with repetitive worship music, anyway? Lyrical repetition is not something new: repetition has been a staple of Western church music dating back to before the Reformation, and certainly since we have been singing in Modern English, which we started doing somewhere around the year 1550.

The Baroque Period

The Baroque period is in many ways the foundation for much of the music we listen to today, and perhaps the best-known work from this period is Handel’s Messiah. Messiah is an unparalleled work of art and worship, but it is clearly built on extraordinarily repetitive vocal and musical phrasings:

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

That is a lot of Hallelujahs, right? But this type of repetition was not uncommon in the music of the Baroque era, which was built on the foundation of solid bass lines, flowing melody lines, and repetitive chordal patterns. One of my favorite composers is Antonio Vivaldi, who also wrote during the Baroque period. One of his best-known pieces is the Gloria, written to be sung during worship services.

Gloria! Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!
In excelsis Deo! In excelsis Deo!
Gloria! Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!
In excelsis Deo! In excelsis Deo!
Gloria! Gloria! In excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis, Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo! In excelsis
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Here’s the thing, I absolutely love this stuff, but I am not going to try and tell someone it is not lyrically repetitive. It clearly is. The question then is not whether a worship song is repetitive. The question is whether repetition is such a bad thing.

African American Spirituals

The music of America is unquestionably influenced by the music of the American South, and the Spirituals sung by slaves have become the basis for the gospel music, most modern music: starting with blues, which is the basis for rock, country, soul, rhythm & blues, you name it. These songs were built on repetition, built on the experiences of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, and built on stories from the Old and New Testaments. These were songs of hope and encouragement to people bound in slavery seeking a better Kingdom.

Many of these spirituals are still sung today and are familiar to many of us. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is an example:

Swing low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home
I looked over Jordan and what did I see Coming for to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home

This song is a reference to 2 Kings 2:11-12, “And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more.” It is a cry of an oppressed people longing for Heaven, longing for peace, longing for freedom, and the songs from this era, and songs influenced by this era, continued to echo in many American churches today. These songs hold meaning because we are still a people in a world that is not our own, longing for or eternal and permanent home.

Repetition Aids Retention

A good educator knows that repetition is the best tool for helping students remember and grasp concepts. It makes sense: if you want to teach someone how to change oil, how to hang drywall, or how to remember the multiplication table, repetition is the way to do it.

The first time I drove a car, I was thinking about EVERYTHING involved! I was thinking about how the key goes into the ignition. I checked to see where the gas pedal and brake pedal were. I checked all the gauges, checked the rear defroster, tested the turn signals. That was a long time ago, and I am now much more comfortable driving a car because I’ve done it many, many times. I instinctively review these things without really thinking about it, because it is so ingrained into my mind. That is how we learn, we are shown how a thing is done a few times, then we perform the task with help a few times, then on our own a few times until eventually we just…know it.

The music of the church often works the same way; repetition of a lyric or musical phrase helps to reinforce that thought, that concept, and plants it in our minds until it becomes our truth until it becomes our first thought when we are faced with trials or we have reason to celebrate! After all, repeated lines such as ‘silent night, holy night,’ ‘sleep in heavenly peace’, bringing in the sheaves,’ and ‘let heaven and nature sing’ are just some of the repeated phrases that have found their way into our hearts. We can barely read them without singing them to ourselves. Psalm 136 uses the phrase “His love endures forever” 26 times. Surely this sets an example for our singing as well.

To answer the question of whether so much repetition in worship is a bad thing, the biblical answer seems to be no. Three of the four Gospels are nearly identical, yet they are there for a reason – because repetition of the same account from different sources confirms the validity of the account. In much the same way, repeating words in worship music doesn’t cheapen or invalidate those words. Rather, it ingrains into our mind: words of praise to our Savior, words of scriptural truth, and affirmations of our testimony of faith.

Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Matt Botsford

Jason Soroski is a homeschool dad and author of A Journey to Bethlehem: Inspiring Thoughts for Christmas and Hope for the New Year. He serves as worship pastor and in Colorado and spends his weekends exploring the Rocky Mountains with his family. Connect on TwitterInstagram, or at JasonSoroski.net.

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