Oh, Oh, Ooh, Ooh, La, La, Whoa

musical notes_FotorI’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 in to 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; Titus 1:9).

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:

  • Am I drawn to songs that incorporate sections of wordless sounds? If so, why?
  • How many songs that I lead incorporate generic syllables?
  • Am I seeing it as a priority to enable the word of Christ to dwell in people richly as they sing?
  • Would I be encouraged and edified to read, rather than sing the lyrics to the songs I lead? If not, why not?
  • What am I seeking to accomplish when I project “Whoa, oh, oh, oh” on the screen?
  • 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:

  • Are these sounds adding or taking away from the content of the song?
  • 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.
  • Am I adding these sounds because it aids people in teaching and admonishing one another or because I can’t think of anything better?
  • Am I trying to be relevant and cool or edifying and faithful?
  • 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.

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45 Responses to Oh, Oh, Ooh, Ooh, La, La, Whoa

  1. Zac Hicks January 23, 2014 at 8:37 AM #

    Bob,

    Thanks so much for always taking such a generous approach to this kind of thought. I appreciate the balance, correctives, encouragement, and irenic spirit! Your point about Romans 11 was especially fresh to me. Three things (which go right in line with the kinds of things you’re saying) that I encourage our choir and congregation with are:

    *A melismatic “oh” (especially when it is in the upper range of the male, allowing for an effective unison prime of men and women) really can be a very viable way for a congregation to feel what it’s like to offer up a shout of praise in a way that highlights the corporate, unified nature of such a shout. I’ve experienced the glory of such a shout in certain contexts, and it blew me away.

    *Sometimes, when it seems like it’s excessive and unhelpful, we’ll change an “Oh” to something with more content and direction, like “gloria” or “hallelujah.” It fills in a lot of those gaps.

    *Sometimes, I give those parts only to the choir and it becomes a kind of accompaniment that creates the effect of sounding like “distant angels.” That probably seems a bit mystical, but in our context it works well to highlight the fact that, in worship, we experience how we are joining with the worship of the hosts above, and how the “heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.”

    One other thought. Sometimes the classical-traditional folks roll their eyes (or worse yet, express moral indignation) at such “juvenile” expressions as oh’s and whoa’s. The irony, historically speaking, is that Baroque music (Handel, Bach)…really the birthplace/flowering of Western church music…was FILLED with melismas on words that went on WAY longer than the longest, most epic Hillsong whoa-session. Granted, they were melismas of syllables of actual words (most of the time), but the principles you cite go hand in hand. Some of the “theology” behind those melismas for the Baroque composers is the the same type of reasoning we’re engaging in above.

    • Bob Kauflin January 23, 2014 at 9:12 AM #

      Great comments, Zac. I’m going to add the part about changing “Ohs” to real words. Makes a difference. Totally agree about the Baroque music. Never quite understood how singing a word over 12 bars helped me understand it better.

      • Michael January 23, 2014 at 10:30 AM #

        Concerning Baroque music: one difference is that the long melismas in Baroque music weren’t typically written for congregational singing but for choral or solo singing. The sacred music of the Baroque wasn’t really any different in style from the concert music of the period, and those long melismas were typically there to display the virtuosity of the singer. Although it could be done for word painting – like in Handel’s “Rejoice, greatly o daughter of Zion.”

        I have also been bothered by some of the classical-traditional folks who think some of the more modern music is too repetitive, but they love Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus (or anything else from Messiah).

      • Aaron January 23, 2014 at 2:19 PM #

        Zack your response is just what I was thinking too. Bob, ooooh what a great article.

    • Ben Kilcup January 28, 2014 at 8:08 AM #

      Zac, a quick question on a small point– any suggested reading or sources on the theology/rationale of Baroque style that you referred to?

  2. Ken January 23, 2014 at 8:42 AM #

    I so, oh, oh, agree with this post. I’ve passed on a lot of songs for our worship services that had a reasonably good message because of the oh, oh’s and whoa’s in the middle.

  3. Ben Miller January 23, 2014 at 9:41 AM #

    Thanks Bob for this post! I was recently considering whether to teach a certain new song due to its use of “Whoa-oh-oh’s.” It would be the only song in our repertoire with that sort of usage, so it’s probably not a big deal. But I was thinking about explaining these as a sort of “selah” moment to express awe (whoa!!) while reflecting on what has previously been sung. Do you think that while these phrases are still sung and not instrumental, they could still have the same effect as an instrumental interlude?

    • Bob Kauflin January 23, 2014 at 10:04 AM #

      Ben, I think giving instruction before singing something is certainly better than not saying anything. Then people at least know what they’re supposed to be doing/thinking. Again, you have to weigh that against it being a possible distraction. Depends on the song, the history and maturity of the congregation, and the leader.

  4. Michael January 23, 2014 at 10:40 AM #

    Thanks for writing this. I always appreciate and learn a lot from everything you post here.

    This post made me think of “In Christ Alone” from last year’s Passion recording. There are lots of extended “Oh”‘s added, and while adding the time for the “Oh”s, they cut the entire second verse. With all of the recent controversy over that hymn, it seems a little strange to me that while many are upset about the change of the word “wrath” that no one seems to care that the Passion recording just cut the entire verse. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

    • Bob Kauflin January 23, 2014 at 11:06 AM #

      Michael, I don’t know the reasons for cutting the verse, but at best it was very unfortunate and could communicate a desire to avoid controversy. I don’t think that’s what it was, but I can see how people could understand it that way. In an age of increasing opposition to theological clarity, substitutionary atonement, and doctrinal conviction, songwriters and leaders have an even greater responsibility to proclaim gospel truth in a compelling, clear, and consistent way.

    • James January 24, 2014 at 11:41 AM #

      This is the exact song I thought of when I read this article. It annoys me every time I hear it. The “oh’s” are so gratuitous and it seems like the only reason they are there is because the song arranger was trying to make his version unique.

  5. Tim January 23, 2014 at 10:42 AM #

    Doesn’t Whoa mean to stop…???

  6. Bruce January 23, 2014 at 12:02 PM #

    Extremely well written. And if a song-writer can’t get the truth / doctrine across without also making the lyrics work on the song then maybe it’s time for a career re-think.

  7. Paul January 23, 2014 at 1:01 PM #

    I’m glad I’m not the only one with an issue expecting the congregation to get into worship while they sing Oh, Oh, Oh, Lala – de – dada…

    If I have a question if a song will work for us, I try to think of one of my older congregants singing it – For some reason I can’t picture the 65 year old in the 3rd row singing OOO lalala and feeling it as worship… maybe I’m wrong, but I can see that.

    There are some songs that i simply love that contain a bubble gum pop passage or 2 (usually the intro or between verses) so I’ll turn that into an instrumental line, so the notes are still there – just not being sung (uncomfortably) by the congregation.

  8. Andy January 23, 2014 at 1:02 PM #

    Very well put. With some recent worship albums I feel like the most used words in order are ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘whoooooah’, ‘I’ and ‘Jesus’. I shudder when listening to one recent live recording, where the crowd are encouraged to “lift your voices and sing” as they go into an 8-bar “whoooooah”.

    As occasional sparse flavour it can be okay, but give me real words instead please.

  9. Ken S January 23, 2014 at 1:02 PM #

    I can’t tell u how many times my worship has been diminished because of all the “Oh, oh, oh, oh’s and the way some worship leaders try to “teach” the congregation how to worship (stand up, raise your hands, come on and jump, let yourself go, wave tour hands, etc…). Thanks for a great article.

  10. Jamie Brown January 23, 2014 at 1:03 PM #

    Will you all be covering “Then shall the virgin break forth into dance” on your new Sovereign Grace album?

    • Bob Kauflin January 23, 2014 at 1:37 PM #

      Jamie, that’s a fantastic idea! Going to get to work on it right now…

  11. zoneofthetrinity January 23, 2014 at 1:37 PM #

    Thanks Bob, for putting this into writing, coming from an African roots, I have a lot to relate with when it comes to syllables.
    Our local language contains many of them, they are used when one wants to substitute saying something but express them to convey deep meaning.
    For instance in giving a warning to a child to be careful about something, one could use the syllable “yooo.” Any child who hears their parent stress a syllable like that knows they got to be careful. The longer it is stressed like “yooooooooooooo” the stronger the warning!

    These syllables are created around different vowels and consonants, examples an expression like “aaaaaa” is a sign of displeasure or dissapointment.
    “eeeeeiii” a sign of shock, “ebeeeii” a sign of great surprise, “agyeiiiii” a sign of pain. And it goes on and on.

    Ok enough of examples sited above, this has been embedded in our dialects for so long we even think they are words.

    I believe whatever is part of the way we communicate can be brought over into music since in essence music is just one way of communicating right?

    I’ve always enjoyed songs that have syllables since there comes a place in our expression to God that words are not enough to fill.

  12. Josh January 23, 2014 at 10:04 PM #

    I can sing an ocassional Oh or Whoa, but I can NOT bring myself to project a whole slide of whoa, whoa, whoa…it looks painfully silly!

    • Jackie February 22, 2014 at 9:46 AM #

      Me too! I can’t do slides full of non-words! Every once in a while a song incorporates syllables in a way to convey the “groaning” of man that the Holy Spirit understands and takes to The Lord, but it is a fair rare song that does this, and I’m still not sure I’d put the syllables on the slides!

  13. John W. Griffin January 24, 2014 at 7:07 AM #

    Poo yie man yeah

  14. Linda January 24, 2014 at 8:44 AM #

    I love the words to Matthew West’s “Hello My Name Is”…but the “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’s” irritate me! And they go on forever, which brings me to another irritant…repetition. I’m not sure if this falls under Jesus’ warnings against “vain repetitions” because that had to do with prayer, but I’m sure it’s similar in nature. When I talk to someone, I don’t repeat what I say endlessly. When I talk to God, whether in prayer or in song, I don’t need to repeat what I say endlessly either.

  15. Rebekah January 24, 2014 at 10:52 AM #

    “Being relevant is helpful until it undermines the message we’re seeking to communicate…” love that. :)

  16. Jim Pemberton January 24, 2014 at 4:36 PM #

    There’s a lot of good discussion here. Talking about nonsense syllables brings to mind music like madrigals, Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus series, scat music, etc. Almost all genres of vocal music use nonsense syllables of one sort or another. Even gospel music often uses Ooos and Ahhs in the choir to back up a soloist (who might also employ them).

    So there are times when nonsense syllables are musically appropriate and times when they are not. One instance when they don’t seem to be is in genres where the focus is on the music, like the Adiemus stuff. Something is being communicated there, but it’s never objectively clear what that might be.

    But I want to address the more common use, such as in scat music or contemporary vocal flourishes. These are designed, as Michael pointed out above, to highlight the virtuosity of the vocalist. As it is, so might a guitar solo. The question is whether we are using a musical break to ponder the meaning of the words in the previous section in glory of God or only ostensibly so in order to glorify the musician instead in imitation of popular iterations of similar genres.

    But then should we only sing music that only has words and never has nonsense syllables or even instrumental interludes? The fact is, that even when the music only has words, such as an “old fashioned” hymn, no one approaches worship music with a perfectly sanctified heart. We all have impure motives that we must repent of. No worship music with or without words can be sung or played other than with a spiritual posture of humility.

    That said, in the context of a corporate gathering, some usage of nonsense syllables may be appropriate depending on the genre. But if it’s done so much as to detract from focusing on the glory of God in the hearts of people there, it’s too much. If it’s generally appropriate and some people are distracted, then it may help highlight an area where some people just need counsel to loosen up because they are too distractable by the means given to us. Legal matters become a false god to many people.

  17. Sandra January 24, 2014 at 7:14 PM #

    I really appreciate that you have put this into words when the rest of us have just been thinking about it.

  18. Aaron Armstrnog January 24, 2014 at 8:55 PM #

    Bob, thanks so much for writing this. You’ve shared something that’s actually been on my mind and heart here for quite some time, but I’ve not quite been able to figure out how to articulate it without coming across like the congregation member who’s complaining about the music (again).

  19. Bill Meyer January 25, 2014 at 9:47 AM #

    Hi Bob, have you ever heard of a Hasidic Jewish musical form called a Niggun? It is form of “wordless singing” that Hasidic’s use to experience a mysitical community connection to God. The other day I was singing an Oh, Oh, Ooh, Ooh, La, La song and I reminded me of a Hasidic Niggun. Interesting you posted this.

  20. Sam Stoltzfus January 25, 2014 at 10:55 AM #

    That is a very refreshing article. We should go back and take a look at why the old Hymns are so meaningful to us.

  21. Shalon Palmer January 26, 2014 at 4:04 PM #

    Awesome! Glad I stumbled upon this. I love posts that really make you think.

  22. Paul in Canada January 26, 2014 at 4:55 PM #

    The “yea-ah” in Revelation Song often gets discussed at our dinner table. I like it if it’s somewhat spontaneous (or planned spontaneity) on the part of the worship leader, but then it’s included in the projected lyrics, which implies congregational participation. That just doesn’t flow naturally to all congregants. Then the same projected lyrics are used the next week by a worship leader who hasn’t chosen to include the interjection at all. Awkward. Bottom line: Not everything on the recorded version needs to make it into Sunday’s service at the local church.

  23. Phil Donaldson January 26, 2014 at 5:21 PM #

    Bob, thanks for such a thought-provoking article. I hope that this gets shared with more worship and church leaders.

    Being mindful of the context for worship is very important. The development of a spiritual theme in a worship set can be very helpful to the worship leader and the congregation. It gives the worship leader opportunities between songs and within songs to remind themselves and the congregation of specific spiritual principles or attributes of God. A primary goal of musical worship is to get people focused on the Lord and prepare them to hear his message, right?

    How about if we begin our process from the perspective of context and theme (and of course prayer)? Would we perhaps see the inherent strengths and weaknesses in traditional hymns as well as contemporary worship songs? Could we then draw from the strengths of both through a filter that helps us to transcend the convenient, mundane and self-centered?

    What has helped me in the past in terms of congregational singing is finding out what the pastor was going to preach on. It would help me to crystallize my thoughts while planning and focus me in on what would make for a meaningful atmosphere of worship. However, there were many glorious times when there was little or no planning, and the Spirit would take care of all of that Himself. :-)

    Anyway, if am to repeat something in worship, let it be “Lord of heaven and earth” (which only appears in the Bible about three times) rather than a string of empty vowels. :-)

    Thanks again. It was a refreshing read. I look forward to reading more of your insights!

  24. Donn Fisher January 27, 2014 at 1:55 PM #

    Thanks for this article, Bob. My opinion of non-word vocals added to any song is that they have to go somewhere. It drives me crazy when they are clearly just filler, like the songwriter couldn’t come up with more words or something. Like, “na na na na na na naaaa….Jesus!” is just ridiculous.

    At the same time, if the syllable leads you somewhere, leads you into a line, into a lyric (such as the times “oh” is used in scripture does, than I am ok with it.

  25. Bill Horn February 18, 2014 at 10:40 PM #

    Thanks for your article, Bob. I think you handled the subject in a very balanced, gentle, and reasonable way. There is a fine line between creating an opportunity for the congregation to sing something simple together like a generic syllable and creating an opportunity for us to feel like we’re being successful because they are singing loudly. it can be very gratifying to hear the congregation sing together loudly. However, that means it can also be addicting and dangerous for leaders if the only moments we see that happen are in singing generic syllables that carry no meaning.

    I think this statement of yours sums the issue up well: “The point isn’t how loud we sing, but why we sing so loud.”

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