There is a common misconception, whether realized or subconscious, that songs written in a minor key must always be sad, angry or otherwise dark in mood. This idea is not wholly unwarranted. It is an incredible and fascinating thing the way musical keys can embody their own unique moods and affect the listener in different ways. Generally speaking, a major key lends a “happy” mood to a song, whereas a minor key tends to provoke darker feelings to our ears and minds. Thus it is often equated with “sadness” or similar emotions. However, there are cases in which a minor key can be used without provoking that dark mood. Rather, its purpose serves to direct the listener towards serious contemplation, even of “happy” ideas. Case in point: this month’s featured hymn.
For those who are unaware, a “key” is simply the group of notes that make up a song. The difference between “major” and “minor” keys is the order of the notes. By changing the order, the relationship of the notes to each other suddenly becomes quite different. It also means that certain notes are used more frequently than others, and thus receive more of the focus. It is the unique frequency of each note, and its relation to the others and how they are grouped together, that gives a song a particular sound and feel.
I hope by now we can all agree that the arrangement of notes is extremely important. However, my point is this: just because a song is written in a minor key does not automatically make it sad. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the rich, beautiful and beloved hymn, “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” by Samuel Trevor Francis (1834-1925).
This is a hymn I actually did not grow up with. It was introduced to me a little over 10 years ago when my family moved back to Texas and started attending our current church. Since I first sang this song, it quickly became a favorite of mine. Its text alone is encouraging, worshipful, God-centered and thought-provoking, as any good hymn should be:
O the deep, deep love of Jesus! Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free;
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me.
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of thy love;
Leading onward, leading homeward, to Thy glorious rest above.
O the deep, deep love of Jesus! Spread His praise from shore to shore;
How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore;
How He watches o’er His loved ones, died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne.
O the deep, deep love of Jesus! Love of every love the best:
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest.
O the deep, deep love of Jesus! ‘Tis a heav’n of heav’ns to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee.
Does it not make you want to raise your voice in like manner and praise the unending, undeserved love of Jesus? Yet one of the very first things that struck me about the hymn was this: it’s written in a minor key. It seems almost contradictory when spared only a casual glance. A “sad” sounding key could never fit with such a joyful text. It just wouldn’t work.
Or would it?
On the contrary, the melody and its key are so perfectly fitting that nothing else could possibly do the text justice, in my opinion. But in order for my case to be made, it is important to gain a little more insight into the context. So, let us delve deeper into the musical and scriptural context and drink deep of its refreshing spring.
The melody (top line) begins on the first note of the key (called the tonic). Since this hymn is in F minor, it begins on F. The tonic, because the key begins and ends with it, gives the feeling of resolution and completion. You can always feel when a song returns to the tonic because it resolves all tension and has a satisfying end to it. I mention this because I think it’s important that the first note of the melody is the tonic. It could have started on one of the other notes that make up the first chord, but instead it starts quite simply on F. It is quiet and unassuming, laying the foundation for the rest of the hymn to be built. Plus, since the last note of the line is also an F, it creates a nice symmetry.
After the first note, the line continues with a gentle, rolling rhythm that characterizes the entire song:
It almost feels like the rolling of ocean waves, which fits perfectly with the “ocean” theme of the text. The second line is an exact copy of the first, which puts the focus instead on the new text. Not only that, but one could also argue that this duplication supports the purpose of the text. If you go back and look closely at each verse, you can see that the second line fleshes out the idea introduced in the first. We could even turn it into a question and answer format:
1. O the deep, deep love of Jesus! Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.
Q: Based on these qualities, what is His love like?
A: Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me.
2. O the deep, deep love of Jesus! Spread His praise from shore to shore.
Q: What specifically are we praising Him for?
A: How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore.
3. O the deep, deep love of Jesus! Love of every love the best.
Q: Why is it best?
A: ‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest.
So, what happens next? By the time we reach the third line, the textual and musical ideas are well established. It is at this point that we find the first change in the music. This is an important moment. Any time there’s contrast in music, it’s meant to draw your attention and make you perk up and listen.
The main contrast isn’t so much in the melody, although that is a new idea as well. For the first time, it doesn’t begin on the tonic, so already you notice something different. However, it is in the harmony (that is, all the secondary notes below the melody line) that the “major” change is felt most clearly. And yes, I meant “major” as a pun, because at the beginning of the third line, the music switches to the feeling of a major key. 😉
The sudden switch from the heavy, contemplative feeling of the minor to the lighter mood of the major could represent a moment of enraptured joy bursting out of the truth in the first two lines–and indeed, without the truth established at the beginning, there would be no basis for joy.
If we take apart the third line, we can see that the melody is actually broken up into a single idea repeated in each measure:
Both the rhythm and the direction of the top notes is repeated, but each time it begins on a different note. In musical terms, this is known as sequencing. Normally, a sequence either ascends or descends in succession. This line, however, does both. It descends in the first three measures, starting a little lower each time, but immediately ascends between measures 3 and 4. And it doesn’t just go a little higher–it rises up to the highest point of the line on the very last word. The use of sequencing at this point is worth noting, because it adds a certain amount of tension (in a good way). It builds up with each repetition, while pushing us forward continually, until it hits its climax in one glorious, long note. And even though it may not be the highest note of the whole song, the natural crescendo that the line creates and the way the last note is held out makes it feel like the highest point, and the impact is definitely still there.
Interestingly, just like “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” this hymn also drops back down immediately after the climax, so that the moment of high emotion doesn’t last for long. Instead, it is directly followed by a return to the beginning’s more solemn mood.
The final line is similar to the first. In fact, the melody is identical. However, the harmony notes are not an exact replica, as was the case in line two. I think this is the most interesting part of the whole song, because the melody gives you that sense of familiarity (thus effectively reinforcing the theme of the first line), yet there’s a subtle difference.
It’s this deviation in the harmony that gives the last line a unique and unexpected twist. Perhaps the most obvious example is the very first chord of the line. It doesn’t start on the tonic chord, as the first two lines did. That’s what your ears expect–the tonic. That solid feeling of returning home. But you’ll notice that the other three notes under the melody are not the same as they were at the beginning. We have the unexpected use of a D-flat chord. It’s a major chord, so the feeling of the minor key is postponed. You’re not quite sure if it’s going to stay in major or return to minor; it could go either way. But your ears are still longing for that sense of finality. They want the music to return home.
This desire is enhanced because of that climax chord at the end of line three, known as the “dominant” chord. More than any other chord, the dominant naturally “pulls” your ears in to want resolution. They hear that chord and they automatically expect the tonic to follow. Yet the composer, Thomas John Williams, denies your ears the return to the tonic. The beauty of it is that it catches your attention and highlights the fact that this is not yet the end. There’s still more to come. Likewise, the text in the last line mirrors this idea. It takes us back to the beginning, again contemplating God’s truths but from a different angle.
Finally, the music comes to rest at the very end on the lovely tonic, F, so our ears are satisfied as everything settles and returns home.
What purpose, then, does the minor key actually play?
I think the most important reason for using a minor key in any hymn is to convey a mood of solemn contemplation. There is praise, but praise that is rooted not in emotions but in the truths of scripture and on God’s character, which doesn’t change based on what we “feel.”
When one comes to terms with the extent of God’s love and mercy toward us, there follows overwhelming joy, to be sure. But it is coupled with awe, wonder and a sense of unworthiness. Today’s hymn is a wonderful representation of that “solemn joy.” It is a praise of Jesus, who poured out His love on wicked, wretched, undeserving sinners, and whose work on the cross allows us to stand boldly before the throne of God and call Him “Abba, Father.”
So the next time you hear a hymn in a minor key, don’t automatically think of it as “sad.” Instead, think “contemplation.” The key is pointing us to seriously consider God’s truths and to treasure them in our hearts. After all, it is because of the Son’s perfect obedience and submission to God’s Law, the ultimate sacrifice of His life, and His glorious resurrection that we can cry out:
“O the deep, deep love of Jesus!”
What do you think about today’s hymn? How do you view minor keys and their purpose?