Repetition in Christian Songs


Posted by Matt Postiff September 28, 2015 on Matt Postiff's Blog under MusicĀ 
Last night, part of my message dealt with repetition in Christian hymns and songs. This was not a message that just bashes "7-11 songs" for having too much repetition. It is instead the result of a brief "scientific" study I did over the last few weeks that carefully measures the repetition in songs and uses a computer program to assist in that song analysis.

I am concerned about excessive repetition in Christian songs. Some repetition can be helpful, and some is found in Scripture. See Psalm 136 for an example of fairly heavy repetition. The Proverbs and Psalms use poetic synonymous parallelism. Because this is not exact verbal repetition, I do not count it as pure "repetition." But there is a point at which verbal repetition becomes bad (sinful). See Acts 19:34 for a pagan example of repeated chanting. Our Lord warns us against using repeated words to get God to hear our prayers (Matthew 6:7).

I took some examples in our traditional hymnal as well as among some contemporary songs and ranked them according to their repetitiveness. One example I found was the hymn "Worthy is the Lamb" in the Living Hymns hymnal. Once all the repeated lines are eliminated, only 29% of the song remains. I call this percentage the "meaning density" of the song. Meaning density is a measure of how many words in the song express unique meaning. If when you sing a song you utter 100 words, but these words consist of 10 repeated phrases of 10 words each, then you are singing with about 10% meaning. Of course some repetition can be well done and sung to a different melody and manner, but after awhile, all the variations boil down to the same meaning. A song with such low density is what I would call "fluff."

There are three general groupings of hymns and contemporary songs. The first has a meaning density around 35% or less. The second group consists of songs that have a percentage of around 50-75%. The third group is above 75%, and many of the ones I studied have 100% density. That means that they have no repeated phrases in them. Songs like "Amazing Grace" and "His Robes for Mine" rank the highest according to the repetition calculation.

The analysis revealed that certain songs are extremely repetitious. The song I mentioned above, "Worthy is the Lamb" is under 30%. "Jesus Saves" devotes 30% of all the words sung to that two-word phrase. "My Sins are Blotted Out" dedicates 60% of the song to that phrase from the title. "Why Should He Love Me So?" has 50% of the song in those words. The phrase "I Can Only Imagine" takes up 26% of the song by that name; this particular song has an overall meaning density of 35%. The Hallelujah Chorus has a meaning density even less--near 20%! I noted that almost all of the CCM genre songs that I studied fell under the 50% mark in terms of repetition.

Heavy repetition within a song is not necessary or helpful, particularly when you consider that a good song that "gets into your head" will be repeated quite a bit by your thinking of and singing the words over and over.

After this study, I am more resolved than before to select hymns that are not under about 50% of repetition. Are those songs always wrong to use? I don't think so. But as part of the regular worship diet of a church, they are not appropriate.

A lot of objective work could be done in this area (research assistants, please?). Many more songs could be run through my program; the program could be improved; and more characteristics of songs could be distilled. Even more important would be to look at other important aspects of hymn analysis, such as music style, focus on God or man, theological truths or errors contained in the song, the originating theological system, and the quality of the words and music in terms of their majesty and worthiness of our great God.

The script I mentioned is available here and the Powerpoint is available here. To run the program, you will need a Perl interpreter like Strawberry Perl or Perl in the Cygwin package. For a bit more detail, listen to my message here.

© 2004-2018 Fellowship Bible Church | 2775 Bedford Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48104 | 734-971-2837 | Privacy Policy | Sitemap

Home | Connect | Learn | Grow | Community | Bible | Members

Facebook  Twitter  YouTube  Google Plus