Monday, May 24, 2010

Reworking Hymn Settings

The use of traditional hymns in conjunction with praise and worship songs is the mark of a blended worship service. The lyrics of the familiar hymns often add great depth and richness to the music's theology. Musically, the two styles often find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, never to meld together into an unified whole.

What is the pianist to do? One option is to completely rearrange the hymn setting, making a new composition that barely resembles the original in order to make it fit the more contemporary style of the service. Often this results in modified melodies and rhythms, creating confusion for the singers. Additionally, these significant changes eliminate the familiarity of the hymn and the sense of tradition for which the blended service is searching.

Many churches have found that only two options are possible. Some have separated their worship time in half, using only traditional hymn settings in one section followed by contemporary praise music in the other. Other congregations find the choice of music so divisive that the only way the issue can be resolved is by conducting two separate services, distinguished by the style of music used.

I find both of these options unacceptable. As a young person, I draw strength and increased faith from the heritage expressed in the great hymns of the church. The songs of today are giving new voice to these same concepts in a manner that speaks to our modern society. How sad that we sometimes feel as though we must choose one mode of worship over the other. The Psalmist recognized the importance of looking to the past when he stated "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread" (Psalm 37:25). Earlier in the Psalms, David also instructs the people to "Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy. For the Word of the Lord is right and true; He is faithful in all He does" (Psalm 33:3-4). By examining the worship of ancient Israel (especially in the Davidic era), the traditional Jewish music existed alongside the new songs of praise that flowed from the hearts of worshippers. Oh, that our times of worship would be unified expressions of adoration to God rather than statements of our musical preferences!

As a church pianist, it is our responsibility to work with the minister of music in order to explore ways that the hymn settings can be updated (when necessary) in order to allow them to fit seamlessly into the blended worship service. Here are two basic techniques to get you thinking - both having positive and negative aspects.

Option one is to alter the rhythmic structure of the hymn. This can be as simple as altering the speed of the song. Many times, I have found that singing a familiar hymn slower than normal forces our minds to focus on the lyrics and helps us discover truths expressed there that we have missed for years. Alternately, moving a slower hymn along a bit can have a similar effect; "Blessed Assurance" can be an anthem of security (sung at a stately tempo) or a personal statement of confidence (at the traditionally slower speed) - it all depends on the tempo.

Altering the rhythmic structure can be a bit more advanced as well. Consider the hymn "At the Cross." The traditional setting is in 4/4; with a little imagination, the hymn can easily be altered to 12/8, creating a lilting beat with only the slightest modification to the vocal line's rhythms.

Altering rhythms will sometimes meet with some opposition from the traditionalists of your congregation; they may say that the new rhythms throw off the hymn's structure. With a little time, the congregation will get used to the new rhythms and will even be able to move effortlessly between the traditional and the "new" version. I encourage you to explore your hymns; often you can change the rhythmic pattern of the accompaniment without altering the vocal lines at all. These can be especially exciting for the musicians and congregation alike. How neat would a jazz setting of "Victory in Jesus" be if included in next Sunday's worship set?

A second approach to reworking hymn settings involves re-harmonizing the hymn itself. Be warned....this will cause your praise team intense frustration unless you write new parts for them and allot ample time to learn the new progressions. While the harmonies work quite nicely, they often do not follow traditional voice leading techniques and do not go where your singers expect. If your congregation mainly sings in unison, however, this is a wonderful option to provide interest without creating too much stress for anyone involved. One of my favorite aspects of this technique is the freedom we have to emphasize certain words of the lyrics by grasping the listener's ear through the use of interesting chords within the progression. This gets easier with practice, but is definitely worth the time invested. Here's how I first began to explore re-harmonization in my personal church work.

For years, I had loved the "Doxology" because of its amazing lyrics as well as its use during my college days at Pepperdine. Nothing could match the beauty of a capella voices singing this hymn of the church....and such powerful lyrics! When I tried to transfer the hymn into my congregation, however, I found that the simple harmonies that were so effective a capella lost their beauty when instruments were added. Rather than tossing out the baby with the bath water, I went to the piano and began to play around with the harmonies. What I ended up with was a contemporary harmonic sound that remained true to the melodic line of the hymn. It has now become the standard setting of the hymn for my congregation and one that we use on a regular basis.

Here is a basic lead sheet for my harmonization of "Doxology." Feel free to use it (or modify it!) as you like.


Can every hymn be re-harmonized or altered rhythmicly? Probably not. But I think with selective use of these (and other) techniques, our blended worship services can become more interesting and less divided along the lines of musical styles. Above all, remember that our efforts are not only to create something new or to show our skills on our instruments. As David reminds us in Psalm 29:2, our goal is to "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness."

With a heart of praise!