This question was sent in by Juanita:
As a classically trained musician and someone who has sung parts for most of my life, I am confused when I see arrangements for hymns that are completely different from what is traditionally written…Do congregations actually sing songs often enough to get tired of the musical arrangements, especially when there are other options available for freshening up a piece? It seems to me that it can actually be unsettling to a congregation, especially for the musical people in its midst, to have the music, i.e., the basic structure of the music, changing. I actually find it distracting to the words myself.
As Juanita is pointing out, changing musical accompaniments for well known congregational songs can cause problems for some people. They can’t sing the parts they normally sing, and it’s potentially distracting. I want to break her question down into two. Are there any good reasons for changing the harmonies to a traditional song? If there are good reasons for doing so, are there any principles we can follow for doing it wisely?
First, is it a good idea to change musical settings for congregational songs? I believe it is. “Traditional” is what whatever we’re used to. Many of the hymns were first printed in books that contained only lyrics, or a separate section for melodies. It was the choice of the song leader in each church to assign a particular melody to the hymn that was sung. Over time, certain melodies emerged as the most popular, and those are the ones we sing today. That explains, by the way, why some hymns such as O For a Thousand Tongues are sung differently in the UK and the United States. In any case, if people at that time traveled from one church to another, they’d have no idea which hymn tune they’d be singing the words to. Going back further, most of the music sung for worship in the early church for the first thousand years was unison. There were no harmonies to change.
Back to the present. “Traditional” harmonies were assigned at some point by publishers of written music. There is nothing sacred about them, other than that they can be sung for the glory of God. Is it helpful for a church to sing a song the same way every time? There’s certainly benefit in reinforcing the “sound” of singing truth as well as the truth itself, and singing in parts can be both enjoyable and beautiful. But a different beauty and benefit can emerge when instrumentalists change the musical setting of texts.
Here are a few of the benefits. It emphasizes that our focus is on the truth in the lyric, not just the sound of the music. Different musical settings can bring out different emotions in the lyric (for instance, Amazing Grace can be done in way that’s majestic, humble, or celebrative). Alternate chords can help the same words to “speak” to different cultures and generations. It communicates that God’s glory isn’t confined to one kind of music or harmonic structure. In some instances, simpler reharmonizations enable musicians who aren’t as skilled to accompany songs for the congregation.
Those are a few of the reasons that I’ve considered as I’ve changed musical settings for hymns over the years. But it can be done poorly or unwisely. So here are a few principles I’d keep in mind if you change harmonies for familiar songs.
First, if you’re in a church that sings in parts, let people know what you’re doing. You might say something like, “Let’s sing unison on the 4th verse of this song.” Or, “For this song we’ll only sing parts on verse 3, We’ve arranged a special musical accompaniment for the other verses.” Or, “This morning we’re going to allow the instruments to creatively support our voices as we all sing melody.” But don’t expect people to automatically adapt to changes without teaching them.
Second, make sure any new harmonic or melodic setting serves the lyrics and isn’t simply musically interesting to you. I’ve heard some jazz and pop settings of hymns that didn’t seem (at least in my humble opinion) to add any impact to the lyrics, other than pointing out that they could be sung with cool chords.
Third, whatever reharmonization you choose, don’t completely throw out what you’ve done before. We’ve sung Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey” in four different settings. We still continue to use three of them, depending on the context. Reharmonization isn’t always “better.” Sometimes, it’s just different.
Finally, if you’re the one wanting to reharmonize, remember that your role is to serve the congregation, not rule them. If people aren’t benefiting from your new versions, help them , make adjustments, or stop doing it. I’ve done some reharmonizations that haven’t gone as well as others. So we dropped them. As a matter of fact, I’m in a church that doesn’t ever sing in parts. That’s something I’d love to see us grow in. But that’s another post…