Someone once asked me why I like minor music during Advent and Christmas. "I don't get why people like sad music when they get closer to Christmas, shouldn't we be celebrating?" Perhaps praising the glories of introspective minor songs is like preaching to the choir, but I think about this question a lot. As the months get darker and the holidays draw closer, people of all brands and creeds seemingly polarize into two camps. There are those who love simple rhymes, sweet cookies, and tinsel; and there are those who love going on cold walks, turn off the lights, and listen to obscure songs in minor keys. If we look a little closer though, I think we will find something better.
Let me give you a brief music theory lesson. If you are not a musician, it is easy to think about the difference between minor and major keys as "sad" and "happy" sounding, but it is more nuanced than that. Every major key includes the DNA of a minor key within it, but our ears naturally hear what musicians call a "tonic" and "dominant" relationship. Certain notes and chords hold tension (dominant) and drive us back to resolution in the tonic. The relationship between the dominant and tonic define what our ears what to hear and set the context for chords and melody. The balance of these two chords is called a tonal center, and in a major key, they sound safe and even happy to our Western ears.
There are minor chords within a major key, but the relationship between the tonic and dominant is so strong that the minor chords lack a strong voice. However, by introducing just one extra note, the whole scale changes and the minor chords suddenly come alive. This one note does not remove the tonal center of the major key, rather, it expands the capacity of the entire scale and introduces a parallel tonal center. A scale that had one center now can have two centers. The possibilities for melodies and chords grow and the emotional range with which the scale can traverse is amplified.
My favorite songs take advantage of this amplified emotional range. Songs can dance between the major and the minor tonal centers within the scale. The safe and expected relationship between the dominant and tonic in a major key gain greater meaning in context of their parallel minor and the minor key increases its power by ornamenting its older sister, the major... If I lost you in the theory, what I mean is that the addition of one simple note to a major scale does not just add some flavor, it establishes a completely new tonal world that magnifies the original center and amplifies our musical expectations.
The season of Advent is not unlike the addition of that reorienting little note. We plan out our lives and expect results based on our past experiences. We create systems and fall into patterns. We are dominated by our responsibilities and look for a tonic to ease our labors. Our hopes and expectations take on the predictable pattern of comfort and joy. But we want more.
Advent remembers that a little baby was born into a world longing for more than the expected patterns of sin. A little baby that, though small and weak, turned the world upside down and established a new tonal center of hope. The Kingdom that Jesus brought with his birth does not condemn the creation he so loves, rather, it transforms it from within. The advent of little baby Jesus established a completely new world that magnifies the original creation and amplifies our hope for redemption.
Advent is more than a time to remember Jesus' birth though. In the book of Revelation, we see this same amplification of emotion in worship before the throne of Jesus. Revelation 5:2-10 holds in parallel the Lamb who was slain and the Lion who has conquered. It recognizes the despair of sin and the victory of Christ. As we wait for Christ's second advent, we can participate in this heavenly scene by singing in ways that amplify both Christ's sacrifice and his final victory. Minor keys can hold in parallel the emotional depth of the Lamb who was slain and the joyful heights of the Lion of Judah.
I admit that I probably like minor keys more than your average person, but as we enter the beginning of the church calendar and crack open our Advent song library full of minor keys, I invite you to not think of them as "sad". Rather, listen for the amplified emotional pallet. Listen for both the Lamb who was slain and the Lion of Judah. Listen for that little note that changes everything. Listen for Jesus.
And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
More about Daniel Snoke HERE.