The Vital Connection of Music and Prayer in "Hallelujah"

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I recognized the chord progression immediately.  My nephew Jacob was noodling around with my guitar during a Thanksgiving holiday weekend family brunch. Everyone was sitting in the living room while I was cleaning up in the kitchen. There was talking, laughing, and then there was strumming. 12/8 time.

C to C/B to Am. Repeat. Then F to G to C, and then back to G.

“I heard there was a secret chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?”

Somebody had taken out their phone, and quickly spoke the upcoming lyric to the room so everyone could sing along. Scrubbing away above the sink, a smile appears on my face as hear my family sing. My father, my daughters, my brothers and my cousins and my wife. All singing along.

“Maybe I’ve been here before
I know this room I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah”

After going on an all night writing binge at a hotel in New York, Leonard Cohen came away with a draft of “Hallelujah” with over 80 verses. After some deep editing, the song was released in 1984 on the album Various Positions. The song was over produced, and went largely unnoticed until it was covered by other artists beginning in the early 1990’s.

When Leonard Cohen died in 2016 at the age of 82, music critic Jim DeRogatis wrote that “Hallelujah” is “arguably one of the few unequivocally perfect songs in the history of popular music.” I like that. I think DeRogatis is right.

“Hallelujah” is two perfect songs in one.

“Hallelujah” is a prayer. Every verse talks about God, religion and faith. It challenges us to let faith guide our actions. If only we could hear, really hear that “secret chord,” then the Lord would be pleased.

But “Hallelujah” is also a tribute to music as a connection to higher power. Though your faith may be strong, when we don’t listen we will remain baffled. We will continue to need proof of the existence of something all powerful. We need to listen. We need to hear.

“There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah.”

Over and over again, we hear the word “Hallelujah.” Hallelujah as an elegy. Hallelujah as a prayer. Hallelujah as a question. Hallelujah as an answer. Hallelujah as a living connection between music and prayer. Hallelujah as a celebration of family, gathered in the living room during Thanksgiving. Hallelujah as the perfect pop song.


“Hallelujah”
Written by Leonard Cohen
Recorded Leonard Cohen

Released December 1984

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