Tag Archive for hymn tunes


This is the 19th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

When I sit at my desk, a large sign stares me in the face, shouting this reminder: Simplicity. It’s a reminder I constantly need. Simplicity is a discipline, and a challenging one. Yet it is vital to effective congregational song.

Congregational singing involves people from a broad range of ages, cultures, stylistic preferences, and personalities, all singing together. Most have little or no musical training and usually no rehearsal. Further, the music must be easy enough to be sung comfortably and naturally, leaving the singers free to focus on the words. The music must serve as a vehicle for the text.

What happens if the tunes fail the simplicity test? At best, the tune soaks up so much attention that the words are ignored. At worst, the singers grow frustrated and fold their arms in stony silence.

Often the problem is trying to use performance songs as hymns. Lacking the discipline of simplicity, such songs are more suited to be performed by a well-rehearsed artist than to be sight-read by a highly diverse, untrained congregation.

With performance songs, the leaders are counting on people’s ability to sing back almost anything they hear, no matter how complex. Go to an artist concert, and you’ll hear it happen. Fans will sing along with the band or soloist, no matter how intricate the song. But that doesn’t make the songs congregational. Devotees can join in songs they have heard many times. But what about the people not immersed in such styles? They cannot follow. They are left out. And eventually, the ever-changing music scene will leave the songs unsupported by constant recorded exposure. Complex songs, when not heard regularly, ultimately prove too forgettable.  Left unexposed, and by then out of style, most of the songs will die.

Hymns must cross barriers of time and culture to serve the diverse and enduring Body of Christ. Musical simplicity is a must.

Does that mean that the styles themselves are unsuitable for our hymnody? Do we have to abandon popular styles and limit our hymns to traditional styles? Absolutely not! Down through history the Church has regularly enriched its hymnody by adapting popular music. But our congregational songs must submit to the discipline of simplicity. Our hymns must appeal across cultural and stylistic lines, and they must endure beyond the recorded support provided by popular music.

If you are choosing and leading congregational songs, consider your entire congregation. The Church has a wealth of quality hymns in a wide range of styles. It may take some looking and careful thought to integrate them into your service. But approach the task prayerfully, and the Spirit will faithfully enable you to do what He wants you to do.

For you writers, accept simplicity as a creative challenge. Composers have usually had to write within the limits of their own situation. Such limits have often become a creative stimulus rather than a hindrance. Many great masterpieces have flowed from narrow circumstances.

No, it isn’t easy to compose hymn tunes that are expressive and musically interesting yet comfortably singable by a diverse group of untrained singers. Yet for two millennia now, the Holy Spirit has been helping Christian composers do that very thing. If you want to compose hymn tunes, do what successful composers have usually done:

  1. Prepare yourself musically. Learn the basics.
  1. Learn from the best. Go through a good, diverse hymnal and study the tunes that are the most expressive, memorable, and broadly-used. Note their use of form and repetition. Look at how they balance predictability and surprise. (Hint: many current congregational songs lack predictability and thus are too complex.) Immerse yourself in the finest tunes. Absorb their qualities.
  1. For now, forget being published and just write for your local situation. (Many of my early hymns were written for my Sunday School class.) Listen to how people respond to your hymns. Be your own toughest critic. Learn from your successes and your failures.
  1. Practice, practice, practice. Writing is like basketball or playing piano. It requires skills that come only through repetition.

Be bold! Write hymn tunes in a variety of styles. But submit to the discipline of simplicity. Keep the tunes easy and enjoyable enough for the Body of Christ to sing together.

Divine Coincidence

Have you discovered that Almighty God wants to take part in your daily work? Here’s one example from my own experience.

Matching a hymn text with the right tune can be tricky, painstaking business. But years ago I began receiving tune ideas from the Lord. Sometimes I would hear an original tune in my head. Other times I would feel prompted toward a folk or classical tune in one of my sources. I would set the tune aside in my “pending” pile, put it out of my mind, and go on with my work.

Then within days the Lord would give me a lyric idea separately, from my Bible study or from an audio book I was listening to. Sometimes it happened the other way around. The text idea would come first, then the tune.

What was amazing was how often I’d find the perfect match for the text or tune there near the top of my “pending” file. I had forgotten about the first one until the second showed up and I went looking for a mate. The two had come to me entirely separately, though in the same time frame.

At first, I considered it mere coincidence. But it began to happen so regularly that I coined a term for it: divine coincidence.

But it wasn’t just texts and tunes that came together so marvelously. Often a thought or scripture would come to me from my daily reading or listening that was exactly what I needed for some current writing endeavor. I hadn’t gone looking for it. It just jumped out at me.

Some would explain such phenomenon as the subconscious working of the mind. And I can’t claim to explain all the workings of this amazing brain the Lord has given us.

But God regularly uses divine coincidence to remind me that He deeply, personally, constantly cares about my daily activities. My work is His work, and He doesn’t abandon me to it. He works beside me all day, every day. The Spirit of the sovereign, almighty, universal God works through me. He will work through you as well. How wonderful is that!

Father, all our work is Your work. Keep us open. Keep us listening. Keep us dependent on You.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21, NASB)

Consider Fresh Sources

What raw materials do you use in your creative work? They may be physical materials, or they might be sources of ideas or inspiration. Have you considered using fresh materials or fresh sources? Let me tell you about my experience.

Though my formal training is as a composer, in my earlier years I primarily wrote lyrics for other composers to set to music. On the rare occasions when I wrote hymns on my own, I primarily wrote them to fit familiar hymn tunes. Of course, I am always careful to only write lyrics to tunes that are already in the public domain. “Public domain” means they are too old to still be under copyright. Thus they are free for anyone to use however they wish.

I still write lots of hymns to familiar hymn tunes. Many congregational song leaders strongly prefer these hymns because they involve no teaching. The congregation already knows the tune, so you just give them the new text, and they’re ready to sing. I try to write a steady supply of such hymns. It’s a way I can serve those congregational song leaders who would gladly use a new hymn if they don’t have to struggle to teach a new tune.

But I enjoy going beyond the finite supply of familiar and well-used hymn tunes. I find it creatively stimulating, and it is an investment in the future. Sometimes I write original hymn tunes myself.

But many years ago I discovered folk tunes. It began with Christmas carols. I realized that many familiar Christmas tunes either lacked Christian texts entirely, or their texts were so archaic that congregations rarely sang them. So I began writing accessible new hymn texts to these tunes. Here are just a few of many: Peace, Peace, Peace; Infinite Lord; Here We Come Rejoicing; Jesus, the Gift of Christmas; and My Soul Exalts You Lord. Our most widely used hymn is one of these: Love Has Come!

Beautiful Christmas tunes in the public domain drew my attention to folk tunes in general. I began buying printed collections of folk tunes and going through them, tune by tune, looking for those that might make interesting and singable hymn tunes. I had had no idea how many multiplied thousands of public domain folk tunes are to be found in various cultures around the world! What an incredible resource! I started a file of tunes that might work as hymn tunes, broken down by tempo (“down”, moderate, and “up”). Most needed arranging. Many needed some degree of revision to work for my purposes, and some needed almost complete rewriting.

But the arranging and rewriting were well worth the effort. This massive body of tunes from various times and cultures provided far greater variety and creative range than a single composer like me could ever hope to match. And because they were written for the common folk to sing, they were often inherently congregational.

In the years since, I’ve written hundreds of hymns based on folk tunes. Here are only a handful of samples: O Living God; All We Need; By Faith; Christ the Lord Is with Us!; and Ephesians 1.

Then I discovered that classical melodies could also be a rich resource for hymn tunes. Unlike folk tunes, they are not inherently congregational. They require more patient searching and more thorough rewriting. But they richly repay the effort. A few of my favorites are: Be Still, My Child; Bless This Seed; Breath of Life; Christ and His Bride; Isaiah 53; Jesus, Full of Truth and Grace; Our Destiny Is Jesus Christ; and The Father’s Face.

But folk and classical melodies have enriched my writing in another way. When I write to familiar hymn tunes, I generally start with a lyric idea, then go searching for a tune to match it. With folk and classical tunes, I’ve grown to enjoy starting with a tune that moves me. Then I write a text that fits it. This change has been creatively stimulating and enriching.

The point is this: whatever your field of creative endeavor, don’t overlook the beautiful, infinitely varied raw materials all around you. You may find them fresh, inspiring, and deeply relevant, no matter what their age. Apply your imagination to transforming what is already available. Give it your own touch. Or let these existing materials inspire fresh directions for your own work.

If the existing material has a copyright notice, or if it was created in the last 90 years, you should probably leave it alone. But don’t be afraid to draw from resources that our Creator has already placed at your fingertips.