A Child’s Journey Into Sacred Music

“Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

Was this your first sacred song? If so, you had a perfect start for the journey into sacred music.

Sacred music evokes or expresses the Christian faith, either through specific words describing God’s qualities and scriptural events, or by the creation of a musical atmosphere designed to foster reverence.

While children experience sacred music first through simple songs and hymns, they are able at young ages to enjoy chunks from larger compositions that are regarded as masterworks in the Western classical heritage. In short, the gap between “Jesus Loves Me” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” may not be as large as it seems.

Children of all abilities perceive and absorb the technical elements of music effortlessly. True, they may have limited vocabulary to describe these elements, but they instinctively respond to music’s mechanical ingredients, categorizing what they hear according to basic qualities such as whether the music is slow or fast, loud or soft, whether it is filled with the same sounds or a variety of instrumental colors, or if it is characterized by a catchy set of words.

Sacred concepts, therefore, when expressed through music, shape and intensify any child’s faith. When a melody with sacred words enters a child’s heart through the eye or ear, a version of that melody is likely to exit the child’s body via his own arms, legs, or singing voice. Technical elements like tempo and rhythmic patterns cause expressive physical reactions in a child, even if the child cannot hear or speak but can rather feel and sense.

Musical color (the sound of differing instruments and voices) affects the cognitive development in a hearing child in the same way that a seeing child comprehends visual colors. In addition, musical form (the reassuring patterns of contrast and repetition), which is common to all Western music, helps a child organize his perception of time as well as regulate the flow of his emotions.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that sacred ideas and images, when expressed through musical elements, will be implanted forever in a child’s mind and heart. That is why adults recall so fondly their own singing of “Jesus Loves Me.” But the power of this recollection is not based solely on nostalgia. It is also based on repeated exposure and careful consideration of the musical and spiritual elements of a real song at a young age or with immature ability.

So let’s take a minute to analyze some of those elements. The tune of “Jesus Loves Me” is simple, limited to five different pitches. (In the key of C, these would be C, D, E, G, A.) These five pitches form a scale pattern called the pentatonic scale. The highly singable pentatonic scale appears in folk music across the globe and helps explain why the melody of “Jesus Loves Me” feels so natural and timeless.

Secondly, the words of “Jesus Loves Me” are set into rhythmic patterns common to Western music. The verse part (“Jesus loves me, this I know”) sounds as “short, short, short, short / short, short-long” (sing the melody with those words). The refrain (“Yes, Jesus loves me”) flips that pattern, changing it to “long-short, short / short-long.” The last line of the refrain (“The Bible tells me so”) basically restores the initial pattern of “short, short, short, short, short-long,” bringing satisfaction to the singer and to the listener. Children do not need awareness of this pattern to feel its effect.

Similarly, the child naturally grasps the third element that makes “Jesus Loves Me” such a classic: its musical form. Form in Western music is created by the juxtaposition of passages that repeat and passages that present new material. “Jesus Loves Me” is cast in one of the most basic classical forms called “verse-refrain.” If you regularly sing hymns, you are familiar with this form where the different verses of poetry use a single melody, while a set of lines breaks up those verses with a predictable, repeating touchpoint that unifies the piece (refrain).

Indeed, one of the main reasons “Jesus Loves Me” sticks so well in children’s minds has to do with the reassurance felt each time the refrain “Yes, Jesus loves me” recurs. Lest this example seem too simple, recall that we enjoy verse-refrain form every time we sing more complex songs like the hymn “Blessed Assurance” (refrain: “This is my story, this is my song / Praising my Savior all the day long.”)

Repetition and contrast form a key element in Western music across the centuries. In fact, the world’s best-known chorus, “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah, relies in part on resounding repetitions of the word “hallelujah.” Try to imagine this chorus without that repetition!

The key to learning what’s inside a piece of music is simple: Have repeated hearings. With repeated hearings, music embeds itself in a child’s memory. Select one or more of the sacred pieces listed to the right in accord with your faith tradition. Introduce the text first, pointing out that the composer was responding to a text in every measure. Or, let the child discover the text across repeated hearings and tell you what the song is about.

Describing music—something we hear that “disappears”—can be challenging at more sophisticated levels, but simple, comfortable terminology works quite well for children. In fact, descriptions should be simple, since the goal for a child is to feel the language of music. Music translates sacred words into an experience deeper than spoken language alone.

We want our children to experience many sacred compositions, but try not to favor quantity over repetition of a focused selection of works. A child who embraces a few well-crafted pieces, whether simple or complex, is building receptivity to a rich heritage of sacred music and a foundation for absorbing and enjoying this music in the years that lie ahead.

Song Suggestions:

The Lord’s Prayer
Outside of chant renditions used in liturgical services, Albert Hay Malotte’s version is the most iconic musical setting of this text.

Ave Maria
A happy marriage between a tender melody written by Charles Gounod imposed above J. S. Bach’s first Prelude in C in Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

If With All Your Hearts You Truly Seek Me
Aria No. 4 from the first part of Felix Mendelssohn’s spectacular oratorio Elijah. It is preceded by an impressive recitative “Ye People Rend Your Hearts” (No. 3) that kids may also enjoy learning and singing (in their own versions) around the house.

How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place
Gorgeous chorus from Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), Op. 45.

Sleepers Wake, A Voice is Calling!
Wonderful chorale by J. S. Bach (Wachet auf, Ruft uns die Stimme!). You can enjoy the hymn itself (found in many hymnals), discover the beautiful (and likely familiar) organ prelude (BWV 645) transcribed from the cantata, or listen to part or all of the cantata (BWV 140), which starts with a vigorous overture for orchestra and chorus, and through which the chorale tune is woven.

From the motet Exsultate, jubilate by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 165). This is an exuberant virtuosic aria that always impresses! Look for a performance by the boy soprano Aksel Rykkvin, whose stunning performances have drawn many people to sacred vocal music.

Sing God a Simple Song
A catchy, strong, poignant song from the first part of Leonard Bernstein’s curious and somewhat outdated 1971 theatrical mass called simply, Mass.

Be Thou My Vision
An old Irish hymn to the tune of “Slane,” translated by Mary E. Byrne. Many hymns can capture a child’s imagination, so choose ones your child likes.

His Eye is On the Sparrow
Timeless gospel hymn written in 1905 by Civilla D. Martin (words) and Charles H. Gabriel (music). This has been recorded by many artists so you can have fun exploring different versions.

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