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 respond or lead 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 prayers 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 “oh’s” 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.
There can be a sense that a song isn’t modern unless it includes generic syllables. That’s a bad standard to use in determining what’s best for your congregation or the people you’re leading. Being relevant is helpful until it undermines the message we’re seeking to communicate, which is that words matter because truth and doctrine matter (Rom. 16:17).
Single syllables are easy to learn and people tend to belt them out passionately. In fact, at times I’ve heard crowds at their loudest when they’re singing generic syllables. As I lead a congregation, my hope is that they’ll be most excited about who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ. It’s not hard to get a crowd singing “oh oh oh” at the top of their lungs. What is harder and certainly more fruitful is to lead them in loudly singing something like, “And on the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.” The point isn’t how loud we sing, but why we sing so loud.
A Few Questions
So if you’re a leader, here are a few questions you might ask yourself before leading that song with all those generic syllables:
1. Am I drawn to songs that incorporate sections of wordless sounds? If so, why?
2. How many songs that I lead incorporate generic syllables?
3. Am I seeing it as a priority to enable the word of Christ to dwell in people richly as they sing?
4. Would I be encouraged and edified to read, rather than sing the lyrics to the songs I lead? If not, why not?
5. What am I seeking to accomplish when I project “Whoa, oh, oh, oh” on the screen?
6. Speaking of generic syllables, how often do I throw in comments like “Hey! Come on! Here we go! Whoooooa (not sure how to spell that one)?” What’s my point in using them?
If you’re a songwriter, here are a few questions for you:
1. Are these sounds adding or taking away from the content of the song?
2. Can I incorporate an extended syllable as part of a word, as in Oh—— my Lord, or Glo———ri-a? That’s called a melisma, which is simply singing one syllable over a number of notes.
3. Am I adding these sounds because it aids people in teaching and admonishing one another or because I can’t think of anything better?
4. Am I trying to be relevant and cool or edifying and faithful?
5. Would replacing syllables with a meaningful word serve people’s hearts and minds more effectively?
So in conclusion, oh, oh, ohhhhh, oh. I trust that this has been helpful. Hey! I’m really not trying to make a big deal out of this. Ooh, ooh, ooh.
But if this is a trend in congregational song, the word “Whoa!” does come to mind.