According to The Guardian, Hallelujah is ‘one of the most famous songs ever written.’ Apparently, it took Leonard Cohen 180 attempts to perfect the song only for the album in which it featured being turned down by Cohen’s record label. Others subsequently performed the song, including Bob Dylan, John Cale and, in 1993, Jeff Buckley (the version featured here), although it really caught the public’s imagination when it featured in the movie Shrek. Since then it has become a classic that almost everyone would recognise.
Here is Jeff Buckley’s version:
Leaving aside the lyrics which, as you would expect from Leonard Cohen, are intriguing and mysterious, what is it about the music itself that is so enduring?
The song is in the key of C major and is in 6/8 time, which you can count as 1-2-3, 4-5-6. Almost everything about the song is simple musically – it is reasonably easy to sing (a single octave – E to E) and easy to play on piano or guitar – but there is one feature that lights up the whole piece and that is the ascent that occurs in the second 8 bars of each verse:
The melody rises up in steps from G to A to B to C to D to E. As you can see from the notation, the melody impatiently pushes ahead of the beat in the middle of each bar, creating urgency, and reaches its climax as the E7 chord shifts the key temporarily to A minor. The piece then returns to the key of C major and settles back down until the next verse.
If this is all too basic for you, then remember it took Leonard Cohen a long time to craft something this simple. It was worth the effort.