My life in many ways is an odd combination of words and music. I write lyrics and put them to melodies, compose concert music and write academic papers about it, and sometimes even read books and make music that aren’t connected at all. I can’t help it; I like both. So if I had to pick just one book that shaped what I really believe, it might be a book that combines music and words.
In my case, that book was apparently my mother’s, kept from her college days, passed to me when I was eleven or so as something that might be worth knowing about. Spiral-bound, festooned with pictures of assorted musical instruments, bearing the unassuming title Hymns II. (It got this name, it seems, by being the revised edition of an earlier publication called Hymns. We have to give them credit for getting straight to the point.)
I was familiar with classical piano scores from my music lessons, and I knew all the praise choruses we sang in our contemporary-leaning churches, but this familiar old book was mostly new territory to me. That would change. That first hymnal from my childhood has since been joined on my shelves with twenty or thirty others, collected over the years from various denominations and historical periods. Even in the ones dating back to the early 1800s, though, I can still find many of the same songs I learned from Hymns II. (Thinking about it, I suppose that means it’s the other way around.) Something about good hymns makes them timeless.
My inclination toward composing inspired me to try my hand at writing my own melodies for some of the lesser known hymn texts. This turned out, quite unintentionally, to be an excellent form of training for a young composer and lyricist. Hymns, after all, were written to be sung.
Working with the texts from this old hymnal, I saw firsthand how music can bring words to life. It’s more or less a truism to say that good hymn texts are full of good theology. As songwriter Stuart Dauermann once sagely put it, hymns are simply “theology set to poetry set to music.” Growing up in and out of various churches, I was familiar enough with what qualified as sound Christian doctrine—true to the Bible, accurate about God, compassionate to your neighbors. It was one thing to read those sort of words on a page, or even to hear their messages preached in a sermon. But putting them together with music made them seem alive in ways they weren’t before. Music has a power and expression all its own, so combining the expressivity of music with the clarity of words makes a union unlike any other.
On the technical side, I found the hymn texts had strong rhythmic patterns, clear vowel sounds, crisp rhymes, exactly the things to teach me the shape and form of good melodies, and from there to good compositions. When I began to learn composition more formally in college, my teacher often had us study straight out of a hymnal there too, a comprehensive course in four-part harmonic techniques. And for more advanced composition and harmony, our class could compare the same hymns as arranged by the likes of J. S. Bach.
Even more importantly than building my musical skills, my hymnal-guided foray into composing led me to a deeper understanding of worship. When I was in high school, I helped lead music at a church that was suffering a chaotic split in a so-called “worship war,” bitter factions clashing over whether we should use “traditional” or “contemporary” songs. But something seemed deeply off about that to me. If I could make a song that used a hundred-year-old (traditional) text and a newly-composed (contemporary) melody both at once, then hadn’t I proved the division was spurious?
Hymns II showed me a Christianity that is bigger, broader, stronger, and deeper than my own little set of Christians. Sing “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” to take just one example, and you’re singing a time capsule of church history—words taken from an 13th-century French monk, versified by a 16th-century German Lutheran poet, translated by a 19th-century American Presbyterian minister, and harmonized by (who else?) J. S. Bach. Sing it today and, logically, it’s a contemporary song. Can we really dismiss all of that with a tidy label of “worship style”?
More than that, though, you can sing the hymn without knowing any of its history— you can hear it with a new melody or harmony, you can re-translate the words from German or Latin, you can play it with an electric guitar— and the hymn will still do what it’s meant to do. It makes us think about Jesus Christ, about his suffering and death for us, about our need for His salvation. The words and the music together don’t point to themselves; they point to Christ.
It turned out that the “worship war” at my church wasn’t really a matter of worship at all, not even about music. While at the time I wasn’t successful at convincing the factions in the church, my realization helped protect me from the temptation to fall into any form of sectarianism. Finding Hymns II taught me that worship is not about my hymnal, nor even about a particular time period or style of music. Worship is not about hymns; worship is about the One the hymns are about. That’s what Christians want to make songs about, no matter where or when they find it.
That’s what I learned from a book with words and music.
Eric Pazdziora is a composer, author, teacher, pianist, and worship leader. He is currently a doctoral student in music composition at the University of Maryland. His new album Hymns and Lamentations is available on his website at www.ericpazdziora.com.