I have heard at least four different sets of lyrics to Cohen's Hallelujah. But in spite of having very different overall themes, none of them changed the lines "the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift."

Why is that line seemingly too important to change? I realize that it describes its own chord progression, but that fact is generally irrelevant to the theme of each adaptation.

One of these sets I heard in a university. It was a "final project" of two Arts majors. One of them sang it and the other wrote the lyrics. Another I have heard a few times on the radio—a Christmas nativity story. A third one was another Christmas nativity story someone posted on Facebook. And the fourth, I only remember noticing that they kept that line.

  • 2
    Where are you finding these 'four versions'? I know of four 'famous' versions of this. Cohen recorded it twice, with different lyrics, then Jeff Buckley, then Alexandra Burke. Three of the four versions use the same first verse, which contains that lyric. Ref here - rsrevision.com/hallelujah.htm
    – Tetsujin
    Dec 15, 2022 at 15:35
  • Without solid refs, there's little more I could add.
    – Tetsujin
    Dec 15, 2022 at 18:08
  • For those that haven't heard it, there's a wonderful version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in Yiddish on YouTube, which has many quite different lyrics. I have a page with the English translation (which of course doesn't fit the music): Hallelujah in Yiddish by Daniel Kahn. The chord is reduced to "One sings it like this: a Fa, a Sol" (which are a 4th and a 5th from Do). Jun 22 at 2:50
  • … Some of the lyrics feel even more like Leonard Cohen than the original (and they sound much better in Yiddish than in translation), such as verse 5: "*Could be my God isn't there at all, / And love could be a moral monstrosity, / An empty dream, broken and bankrupt. / It's not a cry in the middle of the night, / It's not a reborn zealot awakened, / But a sad, lonesome-voiced hallelujah *'. Jun 22 at 3:02

2 Answers 2


The first thing to consider is that the phrase you reference is from the first verse of the song as it was originally released in 1984 on Cohen's album Various Positions:

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing "Hallelujah"

John Cale's version, which was to popularize (covering) the song dramatically with its new arrangement for piano, also starts with this verse. Jeff Buckley's cover followed, starting, again, with this verse. Rufus Wainwright's interpretation, using Cale's composition, once more, opens with these lines.

In the grand scheme of things ('grand' in the sense that Cohen likely wrote over a hundred verses for it over the duration of 5 years, encompassing the richness of the human condition), this verse serves to set up the entire song, as the "secret chord" that David—also a 'baffled king'—played to please the Lord, can be interpreted to be this song itself, giving it a sense of history and drama.
I think "the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift" also correspond to the song itself, to its many verses and repetition, to its musical and emotional lows and highs.

I found a Christmas version, which indeed only keeps those lines intact:

I've heard about this baby boy
Who's come to earth to bring us joy
And I just want to sing this song to you
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift

With every breath I'm singing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I've been unable to find other popular iterations, so this seems to be the only song that keeps those lines intact while changing others, and the singer is referring to "this song" itself before repeating them.

  • I know it describes the song's music. Do you think that's WHY folks using the melody for a different theme (including changing the rest of the first verse) didn't change those two lines?
    – WGroleau
    Jan 14 at 20:28
  • @WGroleau No, I think it is because they are the words to the first verse that Cohen's original (commercial) version used. If you want a more detailed answer, can you maybe specify what versions you are referring to, and what themes they cover, in your opinion? Because I assumed you were talking about covers, like the ones I mention in my answer.
    – Joachim
    Jan 14 at 20:39
  • Again, they didn't keep the first verse, except for those two lines. And I stated where I had heard them, which also reveals why there can be no citation.
    – WGroleau
    Jan 15 at 0:53
  • @WGroleau You stated you heard them, not where you heard them. You also didn't explicate that the rest of the verse of those other versions was different. And you haven't made any attempt to clarify what those versions are. Are they Cohen's own versions, are they covers, are they remixes, are they using samples?
    – Joachim
    Jan 15 at 1:21
  • I did state where I heard three of them. And I did state who wrote one of them. And two of them may have been Cohen's, but I doubt it, since they were basically the Christmas nativity story. Think three or four verses, with all the words changed except those two lines.
    – WGroleau
    Jan 15 at 1:29

Those lines are arguably the most unique in this much loved and often altered song. There are quite a few other songs about themselves--"Song Sung Blue," "PF Sloane," "This Song," "Your Song," and "Piano Man" among others. But I can't think of a single other that incorporates such a technical self-description into the lyrics, particularly with such artfulness. The nearest analog would be the way James Brown often narrates the structure of a song as he delivers it ("Take it to the bridge!" "Can I hit it and quit it?").

So if you omitted that line you'd have lost the most characteristic aspect of the original. The chorus is beautiful, but it's far from being the only song to repeat the line "Hallelujah" over and over.

  • It may be the"most characteristic aspect of the original" but if someone is writing new lyrics for a different "message," I still don't get why they have to keep a line that is irrelevant to their new "message."
    – WGroleau
    Oct 19 at 15:18
  • There's no definitive answer possible without directly asking all the adapters. But this gives a reason why these lines stand out from all the many others in the song (to the point that an adapter might make special efforts to preserve them). Oct 19 at 15:28

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