I’ve heard there was a secret chord

Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song, ‘Hallelujah’, opens with a lyric that has always intrigued me.

“I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord”

Hallelujah, Leanoard Cohen

As a Christian and full-time musician this line provokes some profound questions about music. Is there in fact a ‘secret chord’? Is there a formula to writing a God-pleasing song or melody? How do we play music that pleases the Lord? Is it even about the music?

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of playing with Lucy Grimble at Spring Harvest, Minehead. It was an honour to play alongside some really talented musicians as we lead thousands of people in worship. I say ‘we’ because I believe it’s not only the person at the front with the mic that is ‘leading worship’… a topic for another time perhaps!..

On the Tuesday afternoon we rehearsed for the evening meeting. The song list included some firm favourites like ‘Waymaker’ and ‘10,000 Reasons’, but I was also pleased to see ‘Everlasting God (Strength Will Rise)’ – it had been quite some time since I’d played this. When we came to play this song we shared a sense that it felt relevant and timely. However, something was missing. As a band we all felt the song needed an additional section to facilitate more time to ‘wait upon the Lord’. I suggested a new chord progression where we could sing the line “Strength will rise as we’re waiting”, and after the band joined in a bridge wrote itself in a matter of minutes.

This might all sound rather trivial and insignificant, but the impact of this series of events was really quite incredible.

Strength Rising

Tuesday night came and the main venue, ‘Studio 36’, was full. There was a sense of anticipation in the room and people seemed so ready to be back together and worship God on such a large corporate scale. When it came to ‘Everlasting God’ it was quickly apparent that the joyful, upbeat nature of the song (often rare in songs about ‘waiting upon the Lord’) landed well. However, when we got to our newly written bridge something changed. You could feel the strength rising in the room, and looking out it was beautiful to see almost 2000 people declaring this in such a joyful way. It was like a moment of corporate worship had captured the essence of Nehemiah 8v12, “The joy of the Lord is your Strength”.

The week was full of many highlights, but I’ve reflected on this particular evening a lot and have been struck by a number of things.

There’s still life in the old songs yet

Firstly, an ‘older’ song can be relevant and feel fresh. Ok, so Brenton Brown only released ‘Everlasting God’ in 2006, but hear my point. Psalm 96 says “Sing a new song to the Lord”, but a ‘new song’ doesn’t actually need to be a new song. It can in fact be a song that we’ve sung thousands of times. As disciples of Christ, we are a people who are on a journey, and this is a journey of constant change as we “grow up into the Head” (Ephesians 4v15) and are “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12v2). As we continually gain more revelation of who God is through Christ, we can always sing a new song to God, even if the song itself is ancient.

Privileged to play our part

I was also struck afresh by the privilege of being a musician because that night we played a part in this song landing in a new way. Coming up with a few new chords might seem trivial on one level, but the deeper principles outworked here connect back to Cohen’s opening lyric. Did we find the ‘secret chord’? No, of course not. There is no greater spiritual significance to playing one chord over another. However, there is a lot of spiritual significance to a group of people coming together who have diligently honed their craft and humbly offer their skill for a cause greater than themselves. There is also a lot of spiritual significance in a group of musicians listening to leaders, wanting to serve them, and wanting to hear from God to discern what He wants to say. Changing the chords and writing a new section was very much the surface ‘one tenth’ (the tip of the iceberg) but so much of the impact came from the hearts, not just the skill, of the people serving.

However, I don’t want to downplay the significance of the musical component. On the surface, scripture doesn’t give away that much about what it means to be a musician, but it does drop some rather fascinating clues.

Music so often served a prophetic function, and musicians were seemingly able to play in a prophetic way. Yes, I’ve just dropped the ‘P’ word twice, but in the words of Tilly from ‘Miranda’, “bear with!..”

In 2 Kings we read a fascinating account of the Kings of Judah, Israel and Edom interacting with the prophet Elisha. It’s almost a passing comment, but in verse 15 Elisha says:

“But now bring me a musician.” Then it happened, when the musician played, the hand of the LORD came upon him. And he said…

In 1 Samuel 16 we have a different context, but something similar plays out. King Saul is being tormented by a spirit and makes the request for his attendants to find a musician who plays well (interesting in itself). Enter David. We of course find out that:

“whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.”

As a musician these verses blow my mind! They paint the picture of a prophetic musician  who is able to accompany the speaking of God, and an ability to play in a way that causes things to shift in the spirit realm. But the account of David also requires us to completely merge any musical gift with character. David’s diligently honed skill as a musician is not separate from his humility, or his relationship with God. In fact, the passage in Samuel confirms that it wasn’t just musical skill that gave a mere servant the confidence to put David forward. Our gift, sometimes described as the ‘one tenth’ of the iceberg, cannot and should not be separated from the ‘nine tenths’ below the surface.

And so maybe we have landed on an answer to our question, and it seems this answer is found not in the ‘one tenth’ or the ‘nine tenths’, but in the ‘ten tenths!’. We cannot offer God only our natural, surface skill. But we should not also focus so much in the ‘nine tenths’ that we don’t pursue excellence in our practical skills. Whilst on a big stage with bright lights, that Tuesday night at Spring Harvest reminded me again of the power of music, and the importance of offering God all that we have – our ‘ten tenths’. It was amazing to see how God’s spirit moved through Studio 36 that night, and how our human ideas and creativity were a vessel for God to speak through. Our offering that night wasn’t particularly flashy, but I do believe it had a prophetic dimension, and I do believe it was pleasing.

Finally, it is so humbling to hear that this song is finding new life in churches because of the arrangement we played that night. However, unlike in Cohen’s opening lyrics, none of these chords are secret! You can download a free copy of the lead sheet here. You can also see a recording of Everlasting God recorded live at Nexus ICA with Lucy Grimble here. I hope and pray that you will experience some of the same joy and strength that we experienced that night in Minehead.

Matt Cossey is the Principal at Nexus Institute of Creative Arts, a degree provider for people passionate about God, music and worship. He is also an active performer, a keen composer, a Nord Keyboards artist, and keyboardist for Disco icon, Gloria Gaynor.