Why is “Jesus” sung as a minor third?
I remember hearing the German carol Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine for the first time while I was playing at a local church in college. I was struck by the passage in the refrain that repeats “Jesus” with two descending minor-thirds.
This part of the refrain is a meditation on the name of Jesus, whom the song beautifully identifies as “love’s diadem.”
Later I realized that this same melodic motif appears in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, an early Lutheran hymntune found in several Bach cantatas. In fact in many renderings of the text in English (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star) fit the words “Jesus, Jesus” to the minor third motif in the first verse.
Similar to Joseph Dearest, this passage repeats a V-I cadence pattern underlying descending minor thirds, except that both chords are now major.
That Jesus is most-often represented as a minor-third in music is a dubious claim. After all, in most hymn-like melodies the majority of intervals are thirds and seconds (musical “steps”), of which there are four total varieties. Perhaps it’s the phrase in Joseph Dearest which clearly dwells on the name of “Jesus” using a minor third that creates my own association between the minor third and “Jesus”. The match is very effective. The phrase is repeating using longer notes, contrasts rest of the surrounding melody, dwelling on the name of “Jesus”.
After finding “Jesus motif” in two different hymns, I wondered if Jesus appeared as a minor third in any other hymns. A quick search on hymnary.org gives a clear yes. In fact, some of the most popular tunes and texts of all time, including Jesus, Loves Me and What a Friend We Have In Jesus place the word Jesus over a minor third in the opening phrase.
In most of these examples the Jesus motif is created by the minor third between the fifth and third scale degrees (so – mi). In some cases (e.g. Stand up for Jesus) the interval is created by the first and sixth scale degrees (do – la). Perhaps the most striking example is the opening of the Gaither song There’s Something About That Name, which uses three minor third recitations of “Jesus”.
Why does the Jesus motif seem to appear in so many well-known hymns? Is there something special about a minor third?
In a 2010 study from Tufts University, researchers recorded acting students speaking and noted that more significantly a change in pith at about ~300 cents (a minor third) were strongly associated with parts of the speeches as expressing a “sad” idea.
In his famous lecture series The Unanswered Question, Leonard Bernstein tried to tease out universal qualities of musical, including a “grammar” to explain musical elements like linguists explain language. One salient observation Bernstein makes is that the universality of the minor third as the first musical interval learned by children. Winner (1982) argues that “children in different cultures tend to tease each other by singing a repetitive minor third” (p. 230).
Hence, the minor third may be a more universal interval, innate in spoken communication and is often associated with sadness. It is tempting to extend this idea and suggest that name of “Jesus” (perhaps more accurately, “Christ”) is appropriately paired with a minor third since it represents universal human longing found in the suffering of Jesus, just as the minor third represents a universal human expression of sadness.
But of course the messiah’s name is not “Jesus” in most languages. And most aspects of music are probably not universal outside of Western society. (And humans generally like finding spurious patterns!) An optimistic explanation is that the Jesus motif in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern became an earworm for later hymn writers. Still, there’s “something about the name” of Jesus.