Repetition in Songs is Not A Contemporary Versus Traditional Argument

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repetitioninworshipmusic

For many years, as the editor and curator of content here at The Worship Community, I have seen debates, articles, forum posts, tweets, and Facebook statuses conveying the originator’s thoughts on why or why not contemporary music is “rich” enough or theologically sound enough to be considered lasting. Traditional hymns vs. Contemporary choruses has been a “worship war” raging in discussions and internet spaces for decades now.

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that each generation probably deals with some tension and struggle over the preferences of traditionalists and contemporists. I’m not even sure that’s a word…but it works for our purposes! I have observed that people who are in the “hymns are better” camp tend to look on repetition (in choruses) as a negative thing, perceiving that it is shallow, and lacks theological breadth.

Repeat for Impact

I’d suggest that some of the greatest moments of impact in literature, oral presentations, and songs come in the form of repetition of key phrases. We featured a great article by Bobby Gilles about the use of repetition in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. It can be a powerful tactic to really create impact in certain lines of speeches, poems, or songs. This doesn’t mean that repeating one line a thousand times makes it acceptable or “rich” in the sense of what makes a song good for corporate worship. It just means that using it intentionally as a device to reinforce a key theme is valid, and we actually see this employed in songs across the ages.

I am including a variety of hymns and songs from hundreds of years ago throughout church history to show that repetition can be a great songwriting tactic as long as it is employed thoughtfully and with intention to emphasize key themes, lines, or even certain points in the songs where the emotions can be expressed with a repeated word for effect!

All Creatures Of Our God And King

…written by Francis of Assisi, around 1225, but not published for another 400 years, this tune was trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish by Wil­liam H. Drap­er for a child­ren’s Whit­sun­tide fes­ti­val in Leeds, Eng­land and is sung to the tune of Lasst Uns Er­freu­en a popular hymn melody that is used in at least 35 different hymns.

All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!

O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

So, a hymn text that is written almost 800 years ago uses a simple line in the stanzas AND the refrain to provide ample opportunity for expression of praise and reminds us of some great simple truths!

There Is A Fountain

…penned by William Cowper in 1772 and sung to Cleans­ing Fount­ain, a 19th Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can camp meet­ing tune, uses repetition in EVERY stanza. Five of the six stanzas contains a key line that is repeated FOUR times in the span of that one stanza.

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Each truth in each stanza is driven home by repeating the lines.

Jesus Loves Me This I Know

…written by Anna B. Warner in 1860 with the music and refrain written in 1862 by William B. Bradbury is one of the most beloved and sung children’s hymn of all time. But don’t despise its “childlike” expression. It is one of the best simple expressions of the love of Jesus through song ever written.

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

A very memorable melody and simple lyrics make this a song to pass on generation to generation.

Joy To The World

…written by Isaac Watts in 1719 and sung to Lowell Mason’s 1836 tune that is believed to be inspired by a Handel melody, is traditionally used as a Christmas song, but is a hymn of rejoicing over the second coming of Christ based on Psalm 98, and employs the repetition tactic to emphasize key lines.

Joy to the world! the Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy

I included stanza 2 (instead of the more familiar stanza 1) because it literally uses the word repeat!! One could argue that because of this repetition each stanza is not “rich” enough because half of the lines are just the same thing repeated 3 times. I wouldn’t make that argument, though! It’s one of our greatest Christmas/rejoicing hymns to date!

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

…written by Eli­sha A. Hoff­man in 1887 with accompanying tune written by Anthony J. Showalter   is a beautiful traditional hymn that repeats the word leaning 5 times in each refrain.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

I love this hymn. It has stood the test of time despite its simplicity and use of repetition. One of the greatest tests that we can apply to our modern hymns and choruses as the decades go by is to see which ones still are utilized in our corporate worship singing. Of course, at some point our generation will move on to our heavenly homes and generations that follow will then either carry on our songs, or they will fall into obscurity.

This Little Light of Mine

…traditionally thought of as a children’s song, this “spiritual” has been around for almost 100 years. It was written around 1920 by Harry Dixon Loes. The original lyrics are slightly different than the version we are familiar with today.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine

Again, WHY is this song still being sung almost 100 years after it was written? Catchy tune? Yes. Memorable themes? Yes. I’d also suggest it’s the simplicity of the expressed truths using repeated lines that makes this easy to pass on generation to generation.

Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah

…composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel is not necessarily a corporate worship hymn that you will experience every Sunday from church to church, but it is a big piece that makes its rounds every holiday season. Imagine how bland it would be without repetition!

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

This is a great example of a VERY repetitious refrain. 9 times we see the word Hallelujah. Obviously, this is a masterpiece that is part of a larger work that isn’t typically used for regular corporate singing, but it is an example of the cream of the crop from that generation standing the test of time.

Nearer My God To Thee

…written primarily by Sar­ah F. Adams in 1841 and sung to a tune by Bethany and Lowell Mason (1856), this hymn is reported to have been the song that the band was playing as the Titanic sunk in 1912. President William McKinley is reported to have quoted lines from this hymn on his death bed in 1901 after being shot by an assassin.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

The refrain, “Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!” is a great example of simple, repetition that has stood the test of time. This hymn is one of the most popular hymns of all time.

There are plenty of other examples to pull from:

    • The Old Rugged Cross (Words & Music: George Ben­nard, 1913) uses the phrase “the old rugged cross” 12 times.
    • To God Be The Glory (Words: Fanny Crosby/Robert Lowry, 1875; Music: W. Howard Doane) uses the phrase “Praise the Lord!” in the refrain 4 times. That means if you sing the song straight through, you will have sung “Praise the Lord!” 12 times.
    • Onward Christian Soldiers (Words: Sa­bine Bar­ing-Gould, 1865; Music: St. Ger­trude, Ar­thur S. Sul­li­van, 1871) uses the phrase “Onward Christian soldiers” 7 times throughout the song. Even the song is structured like a hymn in meter and melody, the refrain comes in like a chorus would in a contemporary song, after every stanza the refrain is sung. It is simple and repeated throughout the song.
    • Be Still My Soul (Words: Ka­tha­ri­na A. von Schle­gel, 1752; Music: to the tune of Fin­land­ia by Jean Si­bel­i­us, 1899) repeats the phrase “Be still my soul” 10 times throughout the song.
    • All Things Bright And Beautiful (Words: Ce­cil F. Al­ex­an­der, 1848; Music: to the tune of Royal Oak, arrange by Martin F. Shaw, 1915) uses a repeated refrain 5-6 times throughout the entirety of the song.

Well, I could probably keep going on and on with a list of timeless hymns and songs that use repetition to effectively convey beautiful Scriptural truths. The point is that it is a time tested and useful tactic in songwriting that when used properly can create a singable and memorable expression of worship and/or Biblical truth that serves our congregations well.

Regardless of your preference, it’s easy to see, when looking back through the musical annals of church history, that repetition has its place and some of our most beloved traditional hymns contain repeated phrases that basically make the song. Imagine some of these hymns without the repeated refrains or songs.

Repetition in Worship In Scripture

Scripture contains examples of repetition. Psalm 136 uses the phrase “His love endures forever” at least 26 times. Psalm 119 refers to “The Word” over 100 times. Psalm 150 brings home the idea of praising the Lord with 12 repetitions of variations on that theme.

In Isaiah 6:3 we see the creatures in God’s throne room saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Revelation 4 revisits the same throne room of God where the phrase Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come is on infinite repeat! So, we have an Old Testament example of a phrase and then a New Testament revisiting of this same phrase. Day and night they keep repeating this same phrase!

But does God need to hear us babble on and on?

One common objection to repetition in contemporary music is that people believe that we don’t need to sing lines more than once because God isn’t deaf. He hears us the first time. Why should we sing a line over and over?

The encouragement in Matthew 6 not to use vain repetition in prayer is sometimes thrown around as a reason for not being repetitive in worship. But the problem I see with that parallel is that the vain prayers being prayer were being offered by people who were trying to get God to hear them based on the “goodness” or “eloquence” of their words. Where in contrast, when we repeat phrases over and over from a worshipful heart, we are making sure that WE hear the truths that build our faith.

I would suggest that in times of collective singing, as our focus is primarily on God as the object of our worship, our secondary purpose in singing together is to build one another up, to speak to one another, to remind ourselves of these Biblical concepts and truths.

We can repeat lines in songs and refrains or repeat choruses again and again to build OUR faith. God doesn’t need to be reminded of his goodness, we need to remind ourselves of His goodness! Worship music kills 2 birds with one stone, so to speak! God is glorified and we are encouraged!

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Russ Hutto is the Associate Director of Worship & Media at St. Simons Community Church, where he mentors, oversees and helps lead Family and Student worship environments. He is also the content curator and editor here at The Worship Community and at HighestPraise.com.

References: cyberhymnal.org



is the Associate Director of Worship & Media at St. Simons Community Church, where he mentors, oversees and helps lead Family and Student worship environments. He is also the content curator and editor here at The Worship Community and at HighestPraise.com.

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