Lent: Life Lived in Minor Key


Have you ever noticed that the feel of the music in many churches changes at this time of year? Right now we are in the season of the Church Year known as Lent. During Lent, the sounds and singing in many of our churches could best be described as “sad” or “somber.”

Do you know what gives the music that sad, somber sound? Oftentimes it is because it is written in a minor key. In the music of our Western culture, songs are generally written in either a major or minor key. If they are written in a major key, they tend to sound more cheerful or upbeat. If they are written in a minor key, they tend to sound somber, sad or even scary.

Go to YouTube and listen to hymns like O Sacred Head Now Wounded and Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted. They sound sad and somber. They sound like a funeral. They are written in a minor key.

Lent is life lived in minor key. During the 40 days of Lent we follow our Savior Jesus on his dark and difficult road to the cross. We see him suffer. We watch him die. We are reminded that it is our cross which pressed down on his shoulders. It is our dumb and dirty deeds which caused his pain. Lent is a time of repentance and sorrow over sin.

But is Lent really such a sad season? Jesus bore that cross willingly in love. And because he did, we are forever forgiven for every last one of those dumb and dirty sins. Look carefully at the words of those “sad” and “somber” hymns that we sing during Lent. “If my sins give me alarm and my conscience grieve me, let your cross my fear disarm; peace of conscience give me” (Jesus, I Will Ponder Now Christian Worship 98:4). As we cling to the old, rugged cross, we are reminded that we will exchange it one day for the crown of heaven. Is that really something to be sad about?

Scientists call the coastal regions where fresh water and sea water mix an estuary. Lent is an “estuary” where the bitter tears of sorrow over sin are mixed with the sweet, joyful tears of sins forgiven.

So, as you live life in minor key during this Lenten season – as you sing those sad, somber melodies – make sure you listen carefully to the words. Yes, it is your sins that caused his suffering. That is your punishment which he bore. But he did so willingly in love. Because he did, you are forgiven. You are going to heaven. When we really listen to the words, we come to realize that the sad, somber songs of Lent are really the happy hymns of heaven.

Which is your favorite Lenten Hymn? Leave a comment below and let us know.


  21 comments for “Lent: Life Lived in Minor Key

  1. Karen
    March 25, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but “Go to Dark Gethsemane” and “when I Survey the Wondrous Cross” are not in minor keys! But “O Sacred Head” IS! I am sure folks will get your point. 🙂 Another one that is in a minor key is “Stricken. Smitten, and Afflicted”, which our 6-year-old granddaughter will sing at the top of her lungs from memory. It typifies Lent to me.

    • schroera
      March 25, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      Good call, Karen! I should have known one of my musician friends would catch me on this. I assumed because of their sad sound the first two were written in a minor key. I should have checked to make sure 🙂

      I think you got my point, though! There is beauty in those sad sounding hymns. It was good to hear from you. Please tell Otto “hi” from us. And, by the way, I too love to belt out “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted.”

      • schroera
        March 25, 2014 at 12:46 pm

        I updated the article to make it more accurate. Thanks again, Karen!

  2. Mary Beth
    March 25, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    My favorite Lenten hymn is “Were You There?”

    • schroera
      March 26, 2014 at 8:13 am

      The simplicity of that hymn has always struck me, Mary Beth. It really doesn’t say a whole lot about what Jesus’ death means for us. Rather it takes us to Calvary and makes us observers of what Jesus did for us. Sometimes it causes me to tremble…

  3. TP
    March 26, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Neither of these are in minor keys, but message of each is a great summary of the Lenten season. As you pointed out, “listen carefully to the words.”
    Right up at the top of my list is “The Lamb” from the Christian Worship Supplement. Talk about a hymn that focuses on the One who took the world’s sin, and through his death makes us his own! The refrain is one that the kids love singing, and the message of our Savior’s love, sacrifice, and forgiveness is needed daily.
    Being a fan of the supplement hymns, “What Grace is This” also ranks up toward the top. I’m thinking it is written in A Major, but nonetheless, it’s a good one!

    • schroera
      March 26, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      Many of the Lenten hymns we sing are old. Lent is kind of a forgotten season in many churches today. The newest Lenten hymns we sing tend to be over 100 years old.

      But “The Lamb” (1987) by Gerald Coleman and “What Grace is This” (2005) by Laurie Gauger are both “newer” Lenten hymns. Our church now sings “The Lamb” regularly. We haven’t sung “What Grace is This” yet. We’ll have to try it. Thanks, Tom!

  4. Peter Bickelmann
    February 19, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Bach also uses the chorale O Sacred Head Now Wounded in a very festive major-key setting to conclude the Christmas Oratorio.

    • schroera
      February 19, 2015 at 8:55 pm

      What an interesting choice for a Christmas Oratorio. I am going to have to check that out. Thanks!

  5. Martin Hartley
    February 19, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    “O Sacred Head, Sore-Wounded” is my favourite Lenten hymn. Sadly, many churches these days don’t know it.

    • schroera
      February 19, 2015 at 12:15 pm

      Martin, that is one of my all-time favorite hymns as well (not just for Lent)..

  6. Mary Rose Jensen
    February 21, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    My favorite gloomy hymn is “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted.” Our church sings it every year on Good Friday. A beautiful sad tune that is no longer in hymnals is IMANDRA. I put some lyrics to it that are appropriate for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/111938.html

  7. Eileen Smith
    February 23, 2016 at 8:42 am

    My Song is Love Unknown – hymn tune: Love Unknown
    The words are a beautiful prayer.

    • Ann Booth
      February 23, 2016 at 9:09 am

      Beautiful hymn. It continues with the words “My Saviours love to me – Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be!”

      • Sandi Albom
        March 5, 2019 at 9:13 pm

        Just my very favorite. That and the beautifully heart rendering John Donne poem, “Wilt thou forgive.” The last verse…
        “I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun
        My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
        Swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
        Shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore.
        And having done that, Thou hast done,
        I fear no more.”

  8. Don Higdon
    February 23, 2016 at 9:53 am

    It’s too broad a brush for me to characterize the entire season of Lent as sad. Holy Week, yes. However, the season is one of reflection, honest self-appraisal, and discovery of what we can do better, given the opportunity, or more accurately, recognizing the opportunity which is always there. Sometimes, we need a ritual lasting more than 45 minutes to guide our thinking.
    O Sacred Head; Were You There;
    I wrote parts for John Donne’s Wilt Thou Forgive, the words of which are a masterful play on words: sun and son, Donne and done, and more and More, all on a topic utterly current.

  9. Sylvester Gabriel Edet
    February 23, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Alas & did my Savior Bleed. this is my best Lenten hymn.

  10. Sara
    February 23, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    Oh, Dearest Jesus!

  11. February 23, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    One of my favorites is, “Saviour When In Dust To Thee” sung to “Spanish Chant” (or Spanish Hymn), #166 in the 1944 Lutheran Hymnal (also #72 in the 1958 Service Book & Hymnal). The more modern hymnals have almost collectively discarded this melody in favor of “Aberystwyth” instead. It’s not that there is anything wrong with doing this per se, but I miss the beautiful melody of the former. The excuse I’ve heard for doing this, is that Spanish Chant was too up-beat and not “Lenty” enough, whatever that means.

  12. Lucinda Saue
    February 23, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Sacred Harp shaped note songs are especially minor (in Dorian mode) and are lovely any time of year. Idumea is a favorite. “And am I born to die? To lay this burden down, and must my trembling spirit soar into a world unknown?”

  13. B. A. Lyons
    March 4, 2016 at 7:42 am

    Ah, Holy Jesus is in a race with Wondrous Love as my personal favorites.

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