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When What’s Popular is Also Beautiful, Part Two

May 27, 2014

In the first part of this short post series, I shared one of my favorite contemporary songs with you and explained why I think it stands musically head and shoulders above typical contemporary sacred songs.

Today I am excited to write about another hit in this genre that exceeded my expectations and drew me in despite my first impressions.  When I first heard this song, I was sitting with Matt in our apartment in Prague, and he was listening to it in preparation for playing it on drums with the worship team on Sunday.  I wasn’t listening very intently, I simply noticed that the song went on, and on, and on, and dang, this song is long and the words are repetitive, are we really going to sing this as a congregation on Sunday? This is going to be a flop!  And so I complained about it as I do with music when I am dissatisfied (not a character trait in which I take complete pride) and went to church with low expectations that Sunday.

Well, the worship team did an impressive job leading this song for the congregation.  What I found is that I actually liked this song.  I didn’t understand why yet, but I really liked it.

I started listening to the song at home more often and even mentioned it here on my blog.  Then this year when I started playing it on the piano, I truly fell in love when I understood how the under girding musical structure worked and why it was so meaningful.

At our church’s youth group, Matt and I introduced this song for our worship times a number of weeks ago, and since then I get the impression that it is one of the kids’ favorites- the favorite of a group of teens who have shown not-very-much enthusiasm for corporate singing.  But they definitely sing along on this one, and have requested it a few times. (I should also mention that they also show genuine appreciation for Beautiful Things, about which I wrote in my previous post.)

Okay so what is this song I am talking about and why is it so great?  It is Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) by Hillsong United.  As I gave you last time, here is a recording and the lyrics/chords (from ultimateguitar.com).  Play this on good quality speakers or headphones and drown yourself in it.

Oceans Chords LyricsOceans is in the key of D, which means the tonic chord (home chord) is D, a major chord.  But wait!  The song does not start on the D chord.  This is unusual.  The first chord is a Bm (B minor), which is the minor key that corresponds with D major (every major key has a corresponding minor key with the same notes in it).  Tracking with me? (If anyone  reading this doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, feel free to ask for clarification in the comments).  So is the song in D major, or B minor? You would think it would be in B minor because that is how it starts, but we know it is actually in D because the song is scattered with A chords (the dominant chord  and second most important chord of the key of D) instead of F# chords (the dominant chord and second most important chord of the key of Bm).  The song also ends on a D chord…but I am getting ahead of myself.

This first chord progression (series of chords) is Bm, A/C#, D , A, G .  This is the most important chord progression in the song. Even though it is not in the chorus!  It starts out with a beautiful violin solo: a searching, yearning melody that starts on the note A, which is dissonant with the first chord, Bm.  I love dissonance!  It implies something unresolved that is longing to be resolved.  The melody goes up to D (tonic) using the leading tone C# (solfegge Ti), travels down to the A (dominant) and ends on a G.  Make note- the melody doesn’t end on tonic D, nor even Bm.  We are not home yet.

As I implied in my analysis of Beautiful Things, good music goes somewhere.  Similarly, the writers of Oceans are taking us on a journey of faith.  This chord progression is the foundation for verse 1, which speaks of God calling his disciple out on the waters, the great unknown where failure is possible. But it is there that the disciple finds Him in mystery, and He enables the disciple to stand on water in the midst of a storm. (This song happens to refer to my favorite childhood Bible story; another reason why I love it.)

The chorus is G, D, A.   Notice that the tonic chord is sandwiched in between G and the dominant chord, A. How weird- -usually contemporary choruses go something like D, G, A, D, with the tonic making the sandwich.  This alternative progression is much more interesting- it leaves us hanging, unresolved, but bringing us somewhere.   The progression gives us sight of home (D) but doesn’t land us there yet. At the end of the chorus the music goes back into the first chord progression (Bm, A/C#, D, A, G)  which brings us to verse 2.

Your grace abounds in deepest waters; Your sovereign hand will be my guide; Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me; You’ve never failed, and you won’t start now…

Listen to that. Sing that. Isn’t that beautiful?  Isn’t that empowering to your soul?

But I digress.  I want to reiterate how amazing this Bm, A/C#, D, A, G progression is.  It keeps the momentum of this song going because Bm and A/C# beautifully lead us to the tonic D, but then we don’t stay on D, the progression moves to the dominant A and then G (or Em, as it changes to at certain times).

After the second chorus, the music goes into an interlude which transitions us into the bridge. Along with the interludes, this bridge (sung seven times) is often where people playing this song are tempted to cut it short.  My husband Matt tells me that when the worship team in Prague rehearsed this song, they started out cutting a few repetitions of the bridge.  What they quickly realized is that the series of chord progressions in these repetitions of the bridge lead us to the musical climax (on the Bm, A/C#, D, A, Em progression), and without this build up of chords, tempo, dynamics, and layers of instrumentation and notes, the song is not what it is meant to be.  In this video one of the writers (or just a band member- I’m unsure) of Oceans explains that the “end goal” of the song is the last line of the bridge: “that my faith may be made stronger in the presence of my Saviour.”

Oceans closes on the chorus, then the Bm, A/C#, D, A, G progression, after which it finally rests on D.  We are home.  And yet the music at the end of the song sounds like it is still moving, as if on a journey, even though it stays on D.  When we find the Lord in this life, we find peace, and yet we are on a journey to our eternal home.

Hillsong-Zion

 

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