Last summer my wife and I attended Hillsong Conference in New York City. Along with hearing some amazing talks on church leadership, participating in the conference gave us a sneak peak at Hillsong Worship’s latest album. I remember the first time they led us with the song “What a Beautiful Name” and how it was an instant favorite. Since then the song was released as the single from their new album “Let There Be Light” and has rapidly grown in popularity. According to CCLI it is the number one song currently being sung by churches in early 2017. In this article, I want to dissect this song to better understand why so many churches love singing it. By analyzing this song and how it was written, you’ll discover three ingredients that make up a great worship song. This will further equip you as you search for other new worship songs and determine whether or not they will be a good fit for your congregation.
#1 - This song is singable
The first reason this song is so popular is that it is singable. If your church is not engaging with a song, it is probably because that song is too difficult to sing. Here are a few factors that determine whether or not a song is singable.
First, a song is singable if the vocal part has a small vocal range so that anyone can comfortably sing it in the right key. By vocal range, I mean the distance between the highest and lowest notes of the melody. For congregational singing, you want to have the smallest range possible, generally not much more than an octave. An example of a song with a large vocal range is “Let it Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.” The melody of that song spans nearly three octaves. A large vocal range does not mean it is a bad song. It’s just not a song you want to have hundreds or thousands of people sing at the same time.
An example of a song with a small vocal range is “Take me out to the ballgame.” It’s the song that everyone sings during the 7th inning stretch at baseball games. The reason it’s a great song for that context is that its vocal range stays almost within an octave. That makes it easy for everyone to sing.
Now let’s take a look at the vocal range of “What a Beautiful Name.” Just like “Take me out to the ballgame,” this song has a range only one note over an octave, making it easy for everyone to sing because they do not need to strain their voice reaching high or low notes. Let’s compare that to another Hillsong song on the same album. The song “Behold” has a much larger vocal range at almost two octaves. The verses are super low, and the chorus reaches up to a F#. While I love this song, I do not think it would work well for most congregations, because most people would give up on trying to sing the melody.
The second factor that determines whether a song is singable is the key. Unlike the range of a song, the key can be changed. “What a Beautiful Name” is one of those rare worship songs that was written and produced in a key that is comfortable for most people. Although it is female-led, even guys can sing it comfortably. It may be a little low for you Chris Tomlin tenors, or should I say altos, but I would recommend keeping this song in D as it is the optimal key for both men and women.
The final factor that impacts whether or not a song is singable is the memorability and predictability of the song’s motifs and sequences. In music, a motif is a short melody, usually consisting of two or three notes, that when linked together form a sequence. Let’s look at the chorus of “What a Beautiful Name.” The motifs and sequences are simple. This makes the melody easy to memorize and easy to sing for the congregation. You’ll find more simple motifs and sequences all throughout the song. If you’re looking for a new song to introduce to your congregation, they will have no trouble learning this one.
As you can see, “What a Beautiful Name” is an incredibly singable song. It has a small range, it’s in an optimal key, and it has an easy to learn and memorable melody.
#2 - This song has good theology
The second reason this is such a popular song is because of its great theology. Unfortunately, I cannot always say this about popular worship songs. So whether or not worship leaders have chosen this song due to its theology or how singable it is as we’ve discussed, I think this song is an excellent example of modern worship songwriting done right.
A quick side note, a lot of folks think for a song to be theologically sound it has to be in a hymn book or a modern hymn written by the Getty’s or Sovereign Grace music. I love old hymns, and I love what modern hymn writers are doing. But to bash the songwriting of churches like Hillsong, Elevation, and Bethel? That’s ridiculous. Some of Hillsong’s music has way more theological depth than the most sacred of old hymns. I would even argue that writers like Joel Houston and Jason Ingram are modern day Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley. That could be a topic for a whole other article.
All of that to say, modern worship songs with great theology do exist, and I think “What a Beautiful Name” is an excellent example of this. This song is rich in both theology and direct references to Scripture. The first verse, pulls themes from John 1 and Colossians 1, referring to the pre-existence of the Son, and his role in creation. Verse 2 touches on themes of our sinfulness and the resulting reconciliation in Christ. The bridge, which is my favorite part of the song, speaks to the victory of the resurrection. All of the choruses, pulling from Philippians 2:9-11, speak of how beautiful, wonderful, and powerful the name of Jesus is. I love how many different facets of the gospel this song covers in such a powerful way. This is the type of theology you want your congregation to be singing on Sunday.
#3 - This song is gender-balanced
Finally, the third reason why this song is so popular is that it’s a song both guys and girls love to sing. It’s what I call gender-balanced. I don’t know if that’s even the right phraseology, but I think it works. I never considered this to be criteria for a worship song until I read the book, “Why Men Hate Going to Church” by David Murrow. In it he unpacks various reasons why men do not like attending church. One of those reasons is that a lot of worship music being written today is extremely feminine, and uses romantic references to God. For example, “Real Love” by Hillsong Young and Free, is one of my favorite songs because of the bass drops, synths, and the way it makes me want to dance. When I look at the lyrics, sometimes I think the songwriter wrote this for his girlfriend, they broke up with her, and rather than throwing away the song, he just threw the line, “Jesus, I’m found in your freedom,” and said, “Hey look! It’s a worship song!” That’s probably not what happened, but I say all of that because songs like that feel weird to sing if you’re a dude. Men enjoy songs like “Lion and Lamb” and “What a Beautiful Name," because they are more triumphal and victorious. I cannot speak for all men, but I know that most of them like to sing about the fact that our God can beat up anybody and has the ultimate cosmic street cred. Songs with lyrics about “Jesus my lover and boyfriend” can often be weird for men to sing. Despite having a somewhat feminine title, “What a beautiful name” has a victorious, anthem-like feel, especially in the bridge and last chorus. That is why I think this song is gender balanced.
I hope this analysis of the song “What a beautiful name” helped you reflect upon the reasons we sing the type of songs we do in worship, and why songs like this one should be a part of your worship band’s song library. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are there any other new songs right now that you feel are singable, have sound theology, and are gender balanced? Let me know in the comments.