Sad Songs Say So Much

October 14th, 2013

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Bernie Taupin and Elton John are a powerful songwriting team. Taupin writes the lyrics. John then puts them to music. But in one of Taupin’s songs, John hit the wrong chord.

Bernie Taupin and Elton John met in 1967 after answering an ad for talent placed in the New Musical Express by Liberty Records A&R. Neither passed the audition, but Liberty’s Ray Williams recognized their talents and put them in touch with each other. The two hit it off, forming a songwriting team. Taupin writes the lyrics on his own and John then puts them to music, with no further interaction between the two. Except for a brief interlude between 1977 and 1979, the pair has collaborated on more than 30 albums.

In 1984, they released the hit “Sad Songs Say So Much.” Taupin’s lyrics include “there are times when we all need to share a little pain.” These moments occur when “all hope is gone.” It’s then that “sad songs say so much.” The lyrics are a lament. Elton John’s melody is exactly the opposite, however. It’s upbeat. This hurts the song.

In a study published this summer in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Ai Kawakami and a team of colleagues discuss the effect of sad music. They conducted an experiment with 44 participants, asking them to listen to one of three musical excerpts all in the minor key (the minor key is typically associated with sad music). A participant would listen to an excerpt and then answer a question like: “How did you feel when listening to this music?” Then the participant would listen to a “happy” version of the excerpt – i.e., transposed into the major key – and answer the same question.

Researchers discovered that when participants listened to sad music, they experienced what Kawakami calls “vicarious emotions.” Sad songs have a sobering effect on listeners, causing them to care more deeply about the sorrows of others. They short-circuit self-centeredness. These findings should be of particular interest to the faith community.

In scripture we find a rich loam of lament literature. Select psalms, songs, and dirges are recorded to sober the reader. For instance, after Job suffers the loss of his sons, daughters, livestock, and servants, he’s stuck with a screwy wife and stupid friends and pours out his heart to the Lord. He doesn’t throw a pity party, however. Job tears his robe, shaves his head, falls to the ground, and pours out this sorrowful lament: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

The Apostles Paul and Peter were familiar with lament literature. They recognized how it sobers our faith. Paul told the self-absorbed Corinthian church to “become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning” (I Cor. 15:34). When the Thessalonian church feared Jesus had left them behind – throwing a little pity party – Paul pulled their eyes off themselves by reminding them to “be sober” in their faith (I Thess. 5:6-8). Peter urged believers to “keep sober in spirit” (I Pet. 1:13). The Christian life is not about fulfilling my wants but fighting a war. Our “adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” he warned, so “be of sober spirit” (5:8).

In 2002, Matt Redman released an album titled “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” Its second track included “Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” Regrettably, Redman coupled Job’s lament with a lively melody. The song sold like hotcakes, quickly becoming a favorite both on the airwaves and in worship services. This is an example of what Michael Card calls the “lost language of worship” – the loss of lament, or sad songs in our worship services. The Jars of Clay singer/songwriter Matt Odmark ran up against this a few years back. He wrote a song in response to the tragic death of a friend. Christian radio stations refused to play the “The Valley Song,” telling Matt that it was not “happy” enough for their audiences. Christians don’t want sorrow. They want songs that Odmark describes as “happyhappyhappyallthetime.” How sad.

These are examples of what Flannery O’Connor described as a “prevailing heresy” in American religion. It’s the powerful penchant to keep things “positive,” turning sad songs into rousing worship tunes. But O’Connor warned that keeping things “positive” causes Christians to forget “the price of restoration.” Christians who forget this steep cost invariably become consumerist, or self-centered. They select churches that promise to “meet your needs” or offer entertaining programs for their kids. How sad.

The good news is that resources are available for churches serious about recovering the lost language of worship. The Calvin College Institute of Worship has done noteworthy work on lament songs (http://worship.calvin.edu/). Or check out this interview with Michael Card: www.worshipmatters.com/2006/11/10/where-are-the-songs-of-lament/. Last but not least, scan an old hymnal where sad songs such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” abound. Select one or two and sing them sorrowfully. A woman in our church did this a while back. Before communion, she sang “Blessed be the Name of the Lord” – but as a sorrowful lament. Our church was visibly moved. We felt more deeply what Bernie Taupin touched upon – how sad songs do indeed say so much.

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6 Responses to “Sad Songs Say So Much”

  1. Barnabas says:

    Thanx Mike, a nod towards the tears on the streets. Depths of sadness that dare not cloud the doors of the church. A journey, as you say, Jars of Clay and Michael Card have dared to reveal. Passion that taps into a depth of joy beneath grief in the shadow of death and and fear in a dark place. Tis grace that taught this heart to fear….

  2. Jason Poling says:

    Don’t miss out on the excellent stuff being put out by the worship team at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville (www.sojournmusic.com). Their disc of recast Isaac Watts hymns “The Water and the Blood” is particularly outstanding.

  3. Dave says:

    Mike, I love what you wrote and what you’ve detected. Pulling on my junior psychologist self-analysis hat, I “leaped” over sad things earlier in life and found myself un-trained to meet with similar emotions later in life. It may take a while for our culture to un-learn “the happy happies” just as it’s taking me a long time to un-learn that. Let me take an extra stab at culture-analysis: happy-happy is a youthful thing, an appropriately so, and sadness is appropriate to age and wisdom. Our culture lacks wisdom from its elders. If our elders led us well, they would lead us in being sad when we should be. Instead, our elders have led the way in making money in selling youth to our culture, thus creating a self-satisfied youth, robbing our youth of their sensitivity for a need for aged wisdom.

  4. Barnabas says:

    And Jesus himself wept.Sharing in His sufferings seems to be a Western mindset allergy. Meaning exclusion of the lost. Criticising sheepishness!

  5. Jeremy says:

    Great post. When I first encountered, live, the Northumbria Community in worship (www.northumbriacommunity.org) I was stunned by the deep lament that forms part the foundation of their approach–praying for sex offenders and their victims (an unprecedented moment in a service for me) and recognizing how our addictions/liturgies shape our love or lack of it. This is a deep need in our church rhythms, to face suffering head on.

  6. Barnabas says:

    2 Corinthians 4:8-9 – “Troubled, Perplexed, Persecuted, Cast Down, But Not Destroyed”
    Accepted or not?

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