God is Here!

Thank you for your recommendations on topics last week!  They were very helpful and have given lots of thoughts for things to write about.  I’m always open for input, so if you ever think of something musical that you would like to know more about, please let me know!

This week, I’d like to take some time to discuss one of the hymns we will be singing this upcoming Sunday (Thank you Tom for the suggestion!). God Is Here is a hymn I think many of us are familiar with.  I’ve posted a link at the bottom to jog your memory in case it’s not ringing a bell.

I’ve always been fascinated by music theory, but I do understand it can be a dry subject.  I’ll briefly talk about the design of the hymn, before getting to what I think will be a  more accessible analysis of the hymn.  The form of the hymn is pretty interesting, following an unusual AABC format, meaning the first and second phrases follow the same pattern, but the third and fourth phrases are unique.  What you would normally expect would be a AABA structure, or even an ABCA structure.  

The other thing that strikes me as interesting about this piece is it’s predilection to the subdominant harmony rather than the dominant harmony.  This is going to get in the weeds slightly, so feel free to skip the next four paragraphs if it’s not interesting to you!  I’m going to go through some of the rudiments of harmony to hopefully explain this, and why it is interesting to the point of the piece of music.  

Most music you listen to will be based on the 7 note scale called the Diatonic Scale.  If you played a C on the piano, and then played all the white keys until you reached the next C, you would have played a Diatonic Scale.  Harmony is based upon creating a three note chord, called a triad, on each one of those notes.  That gives us something akin to the primary colors from which we can create songs.  The triad based on the first note of the scale is called the Tonic.  It is the home, it is where you will feel most at peace during a song.  Most songs will start with it, and most songs will end with it.

All of the other triads can be put into two categories, Subdominant and Dominant.  The Subdominant is the triad based on the fourth note in the scale.  In the key of C Major, it would be the F triad .  The D triad and the A triad both share 2 notes with the subdominant, and so typically have a similar effect.  The Dominant is the triad based on the fifth note of the scale, the G triad in the key of C Major.  It’s partners are the E triad and the B triads.

This is important information because all music that is functionally harmonic (which is likely most all music that you listen to)  will go down one of these two paths- Tonic-decoration-Dominant-Tonic, or Tonic-decoration-Subdominant-Tonic.  The two paths have distinctly different feels to them.  God Is Here uses both paths, but puts a lot more emphasis on the subdominant throughout the piece.  The effect of this is a warmer, more peaceful, and more comforting harmony surrounding the melody.  An example of the piece taking the opposite path would be Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee. 

 Apologies for the lengthy explanations, hopefully that makes sense!  If you are at the sanctuary early on Sunday, I would be happy to demonstrate these differences.  I absolutely love studying music theory, and whenever you hear me improvise, it is essentially you listening to me work through harmonic problems in real time.  I am sure that is plenty of talking about music theory for now though. 

OK, beyond music theory, what I think is fascinating about songs is how composers fit the music to the text.  Hymns are a little tricky in this regard as there are often four or more verses, meaning each moment of music needs to fit the meaning of four different words.  For today, I am just going to examine the first verse.

God is here!
As we Your peo-ple
Meet to of-fer praise and prayer,

The first line of text, God is here! outlines a C major triad.  C major is commonly associated with purity, and triads with strength.  The next line, As we Your peo-ple, gives us the highest note of the phrase on the word ‘we’.  Composers will generally save pitch peaks for the part they find most important to the phrase.  At the same moment that we reach this peak, the harmony moves to F Major, our subdominant, evoking warmth and calm.   The third line closes off the opening phrase, but not with finality.  The word ‘prayer’ ends the phrase on a half cadence, necessitating the piece to continue moving forward.  

May we find in ful-ler measure
What it is in Christ we share.

The second phrase mirrors the structure of the first (the two A’s in our AABC form).  The pitch peak here falls on the first syllable of ful-ler, again with the move to peaceful sounding subdominant harmony.  The phrase again ends in a half cadence.  Perhaps this time, referencing how this quest to ‘finding fuller measure’ is a never ending challenge.

Here, as in the world a-round us,

All our var-ied skills and arts

This phrase only involves the first half of this sentence, but a lot of things transform muscially.  Accidentals (notes not belonging to the key we are in) are introduced on the first word, shifting home key away from C Major, and making F major (the subdominant) the new Tonic (home key).  In terms of text painting, I think the most interesting thing is how the composer ends the phrase by moving to A minor, the relative minor to C major (where we started the piece).  I think this is probably the composer making a reference to our varied skills and arts not being enough to satisfy our souls.

Wait the com-ing of the Spir-it
In-to o-pen minds and hearts.

This last phrase begins with another outlining of the C major triad, similar to how the first to phrases began.  The highest note in the entire piece occurs on the word ‘into’.  I think the composer does this to bring importance and weight to this action of the Spirit entering our minds and hearts.

There are a lot more fascinating things that occur musically through this piece, but I am aware that I am already well past how long these usually are.  I hope you found this interesting and I hope it brings more meaning to the hymn when we sing it this Sunday.  Thank you for reading!!

-John