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The Psychology and Negative Effects of Repetitive Lyrics in Modern Worship Music

by | Feb 16, 2022 | Blog, Opinion, The Church, Theology | 0 comments

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Today’s worship landscape has been overtaken by modern, contemporary music as the hymns of the old days that contained good theology have been largely abandoned. In this article, I want to compare the psychology of the lyrics of two popular worship songs; one hymn without repetitive lyrics and one contemporary single with them.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m concerned with psychology. Shouldn’t we only be concerned with what the Scriptures have to say about worship? The answer to that is a resounding “yes,” however, a cursory look at the psychology will explain why charismatics–who don’t actually adhere to biblical principles in worship–are attached to shallow, repetitive music in the way that they are.

In a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, it was demonstrated that repetitive lyrics in music were a key indicator in how likely a song would reach the top spots on the Billboard list. In other words, the more repetitive the lyrics, the more people became psychologically attached to a song. The study noted that these repetitive portions of music, also known as the chorus, have historically been “used as a ‘hook’ to catch the ear of the listener and is repeated regularly throughout a song.” The effect of this, the study notes, is known as “repetitive priming” which results in a more pleasant experience among the listener.

Now, let’s take a look at two popular songs. The first one is a hymn released by Stuart Townend, How Deep the Father’s Love For Us. The lyrics contain three main parts with no repetitive lyrics, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll only print the last section.

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I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Even though this hymn is newer, it is nearly indistinguishable from the hymns written throughout history by the Reformers, the Puritans, etc. in it’s theological richness. The accompanying music is subtle and the focus of this song is on the actual words. It is not overrun with psychological tricks to garner an emotional response; the solid and rich theology in this music alone is enough to do that for a true believer.

Now, let’s look at another highly popular song that’s making its waves throughout Evangelical churches around the world. This song was written and produced by a “worship artist” named Charity Gayle. The name of this song is New Name Written Down in Glory. For this song, I’ll post more of the lyrics, roughly half, as you should get the point. The other half is nearly identical. As you can see below, the song is repetitive and shallow.

There is a new name written down in glory
And it’s mine, yes, it’s mine (I’ve met Jesus)
I’ve met the Author of my story
And He’s mine, yes, He’s mine (There is a new name)
There is a new name written down in glory
And it’s mine, yes, it’s mine (Hallelujah)
I’ve met the author of my story
And He’s mine, yes, He’s mine (Yes, He’s mine)Yeah, sing it,

I am who I am because the I Am tells me who I am
I am who I am because the I Am tells me, come on
I am who I am because the I Am tells me who I am
I am who I am because the I Am tells me who I am
I am who I am because the I Am tells me who I am
I am who I am because the I Am tells me who I am
I am who I am because the I Am tells me who I am
I am who I am because the I Am tells me who I am

There is a new name written down in glory (Sing it out, hallelujah)
And it’s mine, yes, it’s mine (Oh, He’s mine. Yes, He’s mine)
I’ve met the Author of my story (Oh, His name is Jesus)
And He’s mine, yes, He’s mine (He’s mine, whoa, He’s mine)

There is a new name written down in glory
And it’s mine, yes, it’s mine
I’ve met the Author of my story
And He’s mine, yes, He’s mine (Yes, He’s mine. And He’s mine)
And He’s mine, yes, He’s mine (Yes, He’s mine. And He’s mine)
And He’s mine, yes, He’s mine (Yes, He’s mine)

Below is the video of Gayle and her band performing this song. As you can see in the video, the music and the production itself is the focus of the song and the repetitive lyrics–as concluded in the psychology study cited above–serve one purpose: to create pleasure. That pleasure is evident in the reaction of the audience and the band.

So, the questions that must then be asked: Is this an acceptable form of worship? Is God okay with this? Is this even worship at all?

Clearly, this is a form of worship; it appears to be an emotional form of self-idolatry. As noted in the lyrics, the song isn’t even about God, it’s about me. Count how many times the words “I,” “my,” “mine,” “me,” etc. have been used just in the lyrics above. Yet, just do a YouTube search for churches performing this song and see the reactions. These people believe they are worshiping God but this song isn’t even about God. Let’s just be real, this song wasn’t designed to cause one to worship the one true God revealed in Scripture. This song was designed to sell.

In another study conducted by the NIH (yes, I know, the NIH is run by awful people), various repetitive chanting practices were studied among various religious groups including Roman Catholics and Buddhists. The study demonstrated that:

Verbal repetitions of a sequence of a particular tune or the vibration of sound may be utilized as contemplative aids for acquiring attentiveness, presence of mind, and for triggering a series of positive associations through correlative thinking that links the name of Amitābha Buddha with symbolic and literary narratives of his Pure Land Sukhâvatî, literally the “land of bliss.”

In other words, the verbal repetition in chanting and singing has been demonstrated to psychologically open one’s mind to suggestion. Notably, the charismatic movement employs this technique to emotionally manipulate the audience prior to the preacher taking the stage to open their minds to be able to more easily receive whatever is being stated. Just watch any YouTube video from Bethel Church and its pastor, Bill Johnson, and you will see this. But this technique, to a certain extent, is now being regularly employed by many mainstream Evangelical churches whether intentionally or not. There is hardly a Southern Baptist church that doesn’t begin the worship service with Hillsong or Bethel music.

But is this how we want to open the hearts and minds of people? By emotional manipulation? Isn’t that the job of the Holy Spirit? It is the Holy Spirit that does this work within us and he does so through the preaching of the Word; not through psychological-emotional manipulation of shallow music.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. –John 14:26

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