Unpacking Wordless Lyrics in Worship

I’ve been thinking about the use of generic syllables in congregational singing for a while now.

It’s not a new phenomenon. I remember singing, “lai lai lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai lai lai,” as the last verse of the song in the ’70s that was called “Then Shall the Virgin Break Forth Into Dance.” I think it was supposed to be the dance section. We sing, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la” and don’t think twice about it. And the Beatles did just fine with “ob-la-di, ob-la-da” and the epic ending to “Hey Jude” (“na na na na na na naaaaaaa”).

But recently an increasing number of modern worship songs feature syllables like “oh, ooh and whoa.” Generic syllables can be enjoyable to sing and can provide a musical segue that involves the congregation. They also can carry meaning as they give expression to a burst of emotion that either responds to or leads into lyrics that actually say something. My good friend Matt Boswell reminded me that Paul begins his doxology in Romans 11:33-36 with “Oh,” the depth of the riches … . There are times when an emotional “oh!” is the most appropriate lead-in to a life-transforming truth.

But something more has been happening. Crowds are singing lengthy portions of songs using vowel sounds rather than actually singing words. Is this a good thing? Does it matter?

Music and Words

Col. 3:16 is the clearest direction God has given us for why we sing. Singing enables the word of Christ to dwell richly in us and also provides a means of teaching and admonishing one another. Beyond that, music helps combine doctrine and devotion, expresses our unity in the gospel, and is a foretaste of the songs around the throne.

When words are being sung, congregations have the opportunity to gather around the truth of the gospel and God’s Word. They are enabled to express thanks, lament, praise and pray together. People may be experiencing different things internally, but at least a common vocabulary helps them combine truth with music. Music serves as an instrument to deepen the emotional impact of the lyrics and possibly even help us hear them in a different way.

When we’re simply making sounds, the number of potential thoughts people are having increases exponentially. So in light of Col. 3:16, it’s clear to see why Christians don’t typically meet together to hum or sing “ahs” congregationally. It could be a moving experience and a beautiful sound, but everyone brings their own interpretation to it. And to be clear, this post is about singing, not worshiping instrumentally, which I posted on here.

Is there a difference between, say, a guitar solo and a group of people singing “oh, oh, oh”? I think so. Our voices can be used to sing both “ohs” and lyrics that mean something. Instruments can’t. Plus, instrumental interludes can provide space for people to think about what they’ve been singing, what some scholars think is meant by Selah in the Psalms.

Finding the Fine Line

This seems to be a matter of balance. If there was one song or even an occasional song that used “ohs” as a filler, this would be a non-issue. But when every third song we lead incorporates vocal sounds rather than words, we’re developing an unhealthy pattern and could possibly be teaching people that the feeling of singing is more fulfilling than the truths we express.

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Bob Kauflin currently has the privilege of serving as the Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace Ministries. © Sovereign Grace Ministries. WorshipMatters.com. Used by permission.