Singing – The Tunes We Use

A second article in the series on the place of music and singing in a local assembly.

A music teacher once inquired as to the choirs and instruments utilized in “our church,” and when advised that there were none, remarked, “It must sound awful!” There have been frequent occasions when her comment has come back to haunt me, while other occasions when I wish she could have been there to experience the thrill of redeemed souls “singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord” (Eph 5:19).

It is instructive to notice the absence of mention of musical instruments associated with the New Testament assembly. Rather than an emphasis on the instrumental, it is instead on the spiritual (I Cor 14:15) and hence the heart and mind associated with our musical endeavor. Two prominent passages in the New Testament referring to singing seem to emphasize the message over the music. The Ephesian epistle says “speaking” to yourselves, while the Colossian epistle emphasizes the “Word of Christ” associated with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

There are many Old Testament references to musical instruments and playing well or skillfully. Some of the Psalms even include directions regarding the instrument that is to be used. They are never associated, however, with the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of the Most High. Neither do the furnishings associated with that place include musical instruments.

There is little in scripture to give us solid direction as to the tunes to which we put our hymns. There are indications as to the mood of the singers, whether it be the joy of which the Psalmist speaks: “Worship Jehovah with gladness; come before His presence with singing” (Ps 100:2), or the lamentations of Jeremiah and others at the loss of a godly influence upon the nation in the person of Josiah (II Chron 35:25). It is hard to imagine anything but deep feeling and pathos in the little company that made its way out to the Mount of Olives, singing a hymn with the cross looming large on the horizon (Matt 26:30). One would presume that the tune utilized in each of these instances would reflect the mood of the lyrics while at the same time be influenced by the culture of the day.

The tunes that we use in our gatherings are rarely the ones that were originally associated with the hymn. Some of these tunes are indicated above the first line in our Believer’s Hymn Book but are infrequently used. There is a local flavor and affinity to certain tunes and often the same one is used for several hymns of the same meter. While a new tune may breathe fresh life into a hymn, there is potential in an unfamiliar tune for distraction from the intent and message of the words, and the learning of such tunes is perhaps better left to more informal gatherings.

It has been the subject of urban myth that John and Charles Wesley used the tunes of the bars and saloons for some of the beautiful hymns they wrote. That myth arose from the term “bar tunes,” which far from being drinking songs, were in fact tunes that were written utilizing the dividing bars in musical score with which we are so familiar today.

There are tunes that have been borrowed from the secular world with spiritual words applied. While any tune is intrinsically neutral as far as spiritual value is concerned, it would be strange to utilize tunes usually associated with ungodly lyrics to carry the message of the love and grace of God. At the same time there are some wonderful musical compositions that have been graced with words of life.

Three important elements of music are pitch, tempo, and expression. The first two are at the discretion (or mercy) of the brother starting the hymn. It is helpful to a gathering when attention is paid to the tempo or pace that is set by that brother and that tempo maintained. While there is a dignity that needs to be preserved in our gatherings, at the same time there is nothing inherently spiritual about slow, mournful singing.

The pitch of many hymns is critical due to the range of highs and low in the tune itself. It is easy at times to misjudge that pitch (experience speaks). It is appreciated by the song leader when others, who are able make the effort, hit the high notes rather than switch to an octave lower. It is also appreciated when at least two verses of a hymn are read when given out to allow the starter to find the hymn, draw a tune from his memory, and contemplate the pitch demanded.

Expression involves a plethora of elements such as crescendos and diminuendos, pauses, etc. While the use of these elements is essential to choral performances, it is impractical or impossible in congregational singing. Expression will be evident, however, when believers enter into the truth of the words they are singing. Mindless parroting by rote of words that are burned into our memories seldom produces expression; neither does the mouthing of words with a volume that escapes the ears of the brother or sister ahead of you. It is helpful when every individual who can carry a tune joins in with intelligent fervor and interest, yet seeks to blend his or her voice with the gathered company. I have often wondered why participation that is frequently heard at informal sings, (accompanied or otherwise), is seldom witnessed in assembly gatherings.

Congregational singing is choral in nature. As such, the blending of many voices as one is the desired result of such singing. Such unity can be enhanced by holding a note for the full time that is demanded by the tempo. Holding the pitch at the end of a line instead of sliding down the scale to the first note of the next line is another essential in choral music. Harmony that does not override the melody can add a sweetness of expression to words that are rich in meaning.

This article is written with a sympathetic appreciation of the limitations imposed on any gathering by the background in musical training or lack thereof in any company of the Lord’s people. May the Lord encourage us, however, to put our best into the assembly, including the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.