Should We Change Musical Settings?

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…

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6 Responses to Should We Change Musical Settings?

  1. Alex Stredic December 8, 2006 at 11:50 AM #

    I sat in your lecture at new attitude on worship, and i felt like it was the one message(well plus eric simmons) that i walked way from new attitude with ,that changed the way i thought about my walk. just wanted to let you know that, as far as this post, i grew up in a family, and community, that sang gospel music. And by that i mean Mahaliah Jackson, and James Cleveland and the mississipi mass choir type gospel music. And i sang in a quartet with three other boys my whole life, and i just cant function inside of music without harmony. Whenver i hear a song, even if its by a solo artist, i immedietly hear potential harmonies to the songs and often times have a hard time singing along to the melody cuz what i hear is the harmony. SO its hard for me to imagine an entire church singing the same part. what is that like?

  2. Scott Hill December 8, 2006 at 4:10 PM #

    While I have musical training I still depend on my ear for most of what I do. I didn’t start learning music until later in life but was taught to sing harmony by my mother at a very young age. So I still rely almost solely on my ear for harmonies.

    That being said, I actually appreciate the challenge of finding harmonies when I hear an arrangement outside the normal harmonies I am used to.

  3. Bob Kauflin December 9, 2006 at 5:50 PM #

    Alex,

    That’s great to hear that you were affected by New Attitude. It’s also great to hear that you sing the harmony. Maybe you should stop by and visit my church sometime and help us out!

  4. Holly Magnuson December 9, 2006 at 10:43 PM #

    Bob,
    Thanks for this. I’m in a church where the Pastor wants to “contemporize” the hymns and where some of my band and worship team, and congregation want the tried and true. Your comments about is it serving the people or just cool chords is SO key. Thanks

  5. Kyle December 12, 2006 at 1:29 PM #

    As an intermediate level guitar player, I find that the greatest difficulty I have is less with harmony than with rhythm.

    In order to sing hymns accompanied by guitar, I need to either learn a much more advanced form of guitar playing, or dramatically alter the rhythm of the song. Syncopated strumming doesn’t work at all with the regular rhythm of traditional hymn melodies, and regular guitar strumming just sounds awful, because it’s the same chord three or four times in a measure.

    So I end up altering the rhythm of the songs, but keeping as much of the musical intervals as possible.

  6. matt blick December 12, 2006 at 8:30 PM #

    I was just reading the introduction to the methodist hymnbook (as you do!) and it said there that the original versions of wesley’s hymnbooks were either lyrics only or purely tunes, with no harmony at all. When you consider that, as Bob said, the tune you’re used to may not even be the original tune surely it becomes a question of “what I’m used to” rather than “what is the ‘correct’ way of doing this hymn?”

    I always thought it is amusing that the editor(?) of the psalms included all those musical directions about the setting/orchestration/tune of some of the psalms only for God in his Sovereign providence to make good & sure that the information about what all those terms mean would be lost & we’d never be able to play them as ‘originally intended’ anyway!

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