Posted by: rcottrill | March 16, 2010

The Tempo of Congregational Hymns

The speed at which congregations sing hymns and choruses is a subject of some debate. My commenting on the subject is almost certain to bring disagreement, for a variety of reasons. But I think the subject is worth some thought. Christian hymns are sung at a wide range of speeds. So, is there one correct pace? No. But perhaps it is possible to identify a range of speeds that is most appropriate.

The musical term andante (on-DON-tay) means, literally, going. It represents a comfortable walking pace. Musicologist and hymn historian Ellen Jane Lorenz says that most hymns seem to have been written to be sung at approximately that speed, and it provides an appropriate centre point for the tempo. Variations within a moderate range can be effective, but the extremes should be avoided.

A bit of experimentation will show that most hymns suit that tempo fairly well, while some are better at a slower or a slightly quicker pace. (You might try experimenting with this, some time when you are taking a walk. Sing a verse of several different kinds of hymns in time with your footsteps to see what kind of relative speed is most suitable.)

Some general principles.
¤ Take into account the needs of the whole congregation.
¤ Consider the importance of singing the words clearly and intelligently.
¤ Examine the tune for quicker eighth note patterns or moving parts. Set a pace that will allow inexperienced singers a chance to sing these properly.

We have all experienced the extremes. Slow, dragging melancholy singing that seems to make it difficult to remember how a line began by the time we get to the end of it. Or the blazing speed of the song leader intent (it seems) on waking up everyone in time for the message. Or getting us all home as quickly as possible!

In between, there is surely a suitable range of speeds. As in everything else, fashion seems to dictate the pace of our hymns, to some degree. Previous generations often sang more slowly. The more recent trend is to pick up the pace. While this will relate much to tradition and subjective judgment, here are a few reasons why too quick a pace can be detrimental.

1. MEDITATION
Let’s not give the impression that our aim is to rush into God’s presence, and rush around there, anxious to get corporate worship out of the way so that we can rush out again. It seems to be the fashion of the times that everything must be instant access, instant answers, quick, hurry, try to keep up. It is the spirit of the world that we should take pains to resist. Singing should allow us time to think about the meaning and message of the song.

2. MOTIVATION
One reason given for picking up the tempo of congregational songs is that we need to stir up the saints, and build an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. Unfortunately, this may indicate a confusion of emotional excitement with spiritual edification. And it means we are using the tune to create an emotional response. But while feelings have their place, a little of that would seem to go a long way. Our excitement should be generated through a response to the words–which should reflect the truth of God’s Word.

3. MODERATION
When we set a rapid overall pace, there is nowhere to go to make a contrast when the music suits a quicker tempo. And sometimes the penchant for speed ignores the message of the words and the need to adjust the tempo to suit them. Some hymns of serious mediation call for a less lively rate of speed. Or a variation of speed between the stanzas and the refrain, or between one stanza and another.

For example, Charles Gabriel’s tune for his hymn My Saviour’s Love is very singable, and has a tendency to gallop along quickly. But that does not always suit the text. It might be possible to quicken the pace a bit on the final stanza. But I’ve been moved to tears at times, grieving to hear congregations racing in jolly fashion through moving lyrics such as:

For me it was in the garden
He prayed, “Not My will, but Thine;”
He had no tears for His own griefs,
But sweat drops of blood for mine.

He took my sins and my sorrows,
He made them His very own;
He bore the burden to Calv’ry,
And suffered, and died alone.

4. MESSAGE
When songs are sung with extreme slowness, the focus is placed, in order of our general awareness, on:
HARMONY — words — tune — rhythm and tempo 

When an exessively rapid pace is set, the focus would seem to be on:
RHYTHM AND TEMPO — tune — words — harmony

When a moderate tempo is used, the focus would more likely seem to be on:
WORDS — tune — harmony — rhythm and tempo

Take note of where the words fall in each of these. What is it that we wish to have prominence? If it is the message of the words, we will adjust our speed to maximize their impact.

5. MINISTRY
Older people in our congregations do not usually prefer the speed at which the younger ones would like to travel (in anything, as well as in singing). Responses tend to slow somewhat, with age. Seniors cannot easily get the breath to sing quickly (nor do dentures always allow clear diction at such a pace!). In addition, they grew up in an era which was less hurried, and their singing often reflected it. It is biblical to show deference to our seniors, and respect their needs and wishes. It becomes more difficult for us to keep together, when the pace is excessive, more difficult to keep the words clear.

6. MUSICALITY
We cannot fully appreciate the joys of singing in harmony, when the notes rush by at an inappropriate pace. Singing in harmony provides a dynamic example of body life, which both inspires and edifies believers. (See notes on Singing in Harmony.) What a trained choir may do with a piece is a little different. Practice makes a quicker pace possible. But untrained singers, will do well to moderate the speed to suit their abilities.

Whether you agree in detail with my conclusions, I hope that I have prompted you to think carefully about this matter of tempo, and regulate it purposefully.


Responses

  1. My paternal grandfather–who helped influence the publishing of the first hymnal for his church (the Brethren in Christ)–favored lively hymn singing.
    He led singing by directing with his right hand (that prompted one staunch senior lady to opine she wished his hand would fall off, so opposed was she to leading congregational singing). He provided musical leadership one summer for another church, and he wrote that he sparked up the singing with a quicker tempo.

    I enjoyed this very thoughtful explanation of what to consider in hymn tempo.

    • Thank you for your encouragement. Tempo does becomes something of a matter of personal preference or congregational habit. Therefore, it’s hard for me to be dogmatic on the subject. However, if…we…are…conveying…a…message, there havetobesomelogicalboundaries, or communication begins to break down!

  2. This is an excellent article. There must be boundaries regarding hymns. Too often hymns aren’t used and when they are, it’s only the chorus and maybe one or two verses. To add insult to injury, they are hurried through with such a tempo, it’s hardly worth trying to sing them — the WORDS, meaning, revelation or theology of the hymn is lost.
    Uptempo songs have a place in the church, and I personally know many “elderly” Christians who also enjoy them. But, Amazing Grace, or How Great Thou Art played/sung at the speed of I’ll Fly Away (believe me I’ve heard it!)
    is not a beneficial nor a blessing. God bless you, and keep up the excellent work!

    • Thanks for the encouragement. And “lively” is one thing, but the speed I think we both abhor goes way beyond that, and often ignores the text and appropriate mood for the song. Sometimes in such situations I’ve just stopped singing, because I can’t get enough breath to sustain a tone.

  3. […] The Tempo of Congregational HymnsHelpful tips. […]

  4. […] SINGING TEMPO. Is there one correct pace at which to sing out hymns? No. But we do need to consider the matter of tempo, because it has a significant effect on how the message of the songs is conveyed. Check The Tempo of Congregational Singing. […]

  5. […] articles I share a few thoughts about the speed at which we sing our hymns and gospel songs. (See The Tempo of Congregational Hymns.) There can be more variation when a trained singing group is involved, or even with instrumental […]

  6. […] This hymn quickly became extremely popular, and it has been used by both choirs and congregations with great effect. The stirring melody tends to gallop along, and Pastor Lillenas felt that many sang it too quickly. He commented, “A song should be [sung] in such a fashion that the words can be comfortably pronounced without undue haste.” (Amen to that! For more about the pace of our singing see Tempo of Congregational Hymns.) […]

  7. […] The decision regarding a hymn’s tempo is, of course, a somewhat relative matter. It depends in part on what a congregation is used to. However, there are also some practical considerations, and the message of a hymn can be enhanced or obscured if it is sung at an inappropriate speed. For some thoughts on this, see my article, The Tempo of Congregational Hymns. […]


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