The Problem with Hymnals

Several days ago, I came across a post entitled, “The Hymnal” on the blog, “The Church Curmudgeon” (from now on, TCC.) This post is a response to that post. I would have commented (perhaps more briefly) if TCC did not reserve comments only for paying subscribers. You may find my post interesting even if you are not a church-goer; I promise you won’t find anything offensive here unless you are a person who believes hymnals are superior to contemporary worship songs.

I’ve been singing hymns since I was old enough to sing; I’ve been playing from a hymnal since the age of six. I’ve been a church musician since the age of eight, when I began occasionally accompanying the children’s choir and a young violinist during special music portions of our Sunday morning church service. From seventh to twelfth grade, I substituted when the regular church pianist was out. In college, I was the church pianist. At my current church, I am the music director. I can follow the hymnals exactly, but I can also read lead sheets. I incorporate well-known and not-so-well-known hymns into my classical-style piano meditations, and I also write contemporary worship songs.

For over twenty years now, I have been hearing debates about hymnals vs. contemporary worship songs, usually presented as lyrics on a screen up front in the church’s sanctuary (or auditorium – the label given depends on the church.) Frankly, these are not “debates.” They are complaints–complaints from people who love hymnals too much, who argue why hymnals are better than contemporary worship songs. The arguments are always the same, and the recent post from TCC is no different. I am writing this post because I am tired of hearing “hymnals are better” and, since I have a blog. I have a place to speak my mind.

I am not anti-hymnal at all. Each week, I make sure to incorporate at least two hymns into the songs we sing during the worship service. Most of the time, these hymns come from the hymnal our church uses, so those who are inclined can open up and read the notes and lyrics from the page. Hymnals have a place, but that place is limited. Relying on hymnals alone and communicating that using hymnals is somehow “the right way” (according to TCC) is actually damaging to the church.

Most of TCCs arguments against using contemporary worship songs portrayed on screens instead of hymns contained in hymnals where one can follow along with the notes is really an issue of how new songs are taught, rather than the music itself. Granted, a newcomer may not know the songs. But, neither does a newcomer know the names of the people at the church. Should we all then wear name tags every Sunday? It takes time to get acclimated to any group and the way they do things.

When I introduce a new song, I usually sing through the first verse so everyone can hear the tune and get a sense of how it goes. Then I repeat the first verse and everyone joins in. Sometimes it takes a couple of verses for people to catch on. That’s the way it is. I make a point to do a new song at least two weeks in a row to help cement the tune in singer’s minds. There are ways to make learning new songs easier that do not require the notes being available in a hymnal. (Besides, not all churches have hymnals that contain the notes. Many “songbooks” in pews contain only the lyrics.) If a church is doing all new songs every week, that’s an issue of leadership, not hymnals.

TCC’s best argument for hymnals is that singers can read the notes and follow along with their parts to sing in harmony. However, this requires several assumptions to be in place: First, the singer can read music or at least knows that notes going up the staff ascend in pitch and notes going down the staff descend in pitch; Second, the singer is able to separate out the vocal lines; Third, the singer can hold a tune to be able to sing the harmony without the help of the person in the pew or chair next to them; Fourth, the accompanist is playing the harmony in the hymnal as written. (Cue the argument to not use instruments at all.)

Most hymnals are written in block chords where the noteheads of two voices in each staff are linked with one stem. Music is not easy to read as it is, because the notes move around, unlike words that remain on the same line. Prior instruction is needed to help a person to know whether they should be looking at the top or bottom note of that shared stem. It is not easy for the untrained eye to trace the movement in one of those voices from one chord to another. Additionally, just because someone can recognize that a pitch goes up or down does not mean they know how much it moves. Seeing the notes does not ensure the right harmony is sung. I’ve heard many an “alto” who does not have that skill make up harmonies. This makes it harder for the people around them to sing the actual melody. Shape note hymnals separate the voices into individual lines of music, which makes more sense for TCC’s argument, but they only contain one or two verses under those notes before listing the rest of the verses elsewhere on the page. The singers better memorize their parts real quick!

As a an accompanist for a few community choral groups, I work with about two hundred fifty amateur singers, people who go out of their way to sing in rehearsal each week, preparing for a concert. They sing more than the average church goer who does not belong to a choral group. They receive instruction on how to sing; yet, many cannot read music. Many cannot figure out the harmonies on their own. They need me to plunk out the notes for their part, and they memorize them by rote. Some learn the part quickly; it takes others several weeks of rehearsal before they know it confidently. Many rely on the stronger singers in their section. And this is in a choral group that rehearses the same songs week after week. Did you know that many larger churches with choral groups hire section leaders for these reasons?

Even if a church uses only “37” of the hymns in a hymnbook on a regular basis, at that rate it would take years for the average churchgoer to get confident singing a harmony. TCC’s concern about newcomers is unfounded.

A few years ago, I attended a conference during which we sang a few hymns. The fabulous organist, who I truly enjoyed hearing play, decided to use some unusual chords during a couple of verses of the hymn. I had been singing along on the alto part, but when the organist interjected new chords, the alto part became impossible to sing. Not only was it difficult to find the right note, but the “right” note was now “wrong”, creating a dissonance against the harmonies in the organ.

If we are going to discuss singing in harmony, I feel the need to also address the physical act of singing. Most who use a hymnal are holding it close to the chest, elbows next to the body, like they are reading a book. This turns the head downward, kinking the neck (and wind pipe) a little, and is completely opposite to how singers should sing, hindering the communal aspects of singing which is part of the point in church worship. The hymnal should be held out, away from the body, slightly lower than eye level so the neck and head can are held erect, allowing the voice project. Anything less causes the voice to be swallowed up in the book rather than allowing it to ring above, combining with the other voices in the room. Proper singing can be done while holding a hymnal, but it takes training and reminding. Even the community choruses need to be reminded how to hold the music.

Hymnals scream privilege. They are expensive. They are heavy. They take up a tremendous amount of space. Let’s consider the church that needs to do things the “right way” according to TCC. That church must have a permanent building or have members that store or own the hymnals, bringing them to church each week. That church must have a good budget to ensure that all those who want to read the music have access to one. That church must be in a place where books will not be damaged by too much humidity. Can you see how “the right way” might exclude a tiny village church in Africa? In many places around the world, a hymnal (never mind a Bible!) is a precious, rare item. The only person who has one (if they have a complete one at all) is the leader. Even the ancient Israelites did not each hold their own copy of the Psalms. Everyone learned by, you guessed it: listening.

Here’s the thing about worship: what is the RIGHT way must be duplicatible by all believers in all places at all times. This is why Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that worship wasn’t about which mountain people go to, but that his followers will worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Every additional requirement that someone says is necessary to do things “the right way” excludes those who cannot follow that protocol.

I considered ordering new hymnals for my church because I don’t like the one I inherited when I came to the church thirteen years ago. A “new” hymnal is a minimum of $14. I put “new” in quotes because most hymnals have not been updated since 1997, if not before, some not since the 1960s. (There are a few newer hymnals that have updated language to be more gender-inclusive, but honestly the new words often butcher the melody or rhythm of the hymn.) So, for almost twenty-five years there has not been a quality new hymnal on the market.

Think about that. Twenty-five years.

Hymnals are not open to new music. They codify worship. Individual churches are not at liberty to choose new songs outside the hymnal unless they resort to using screens on the wall or paper inserts in bulletins to present lyrics with no sheet music (reproducing sheet music without a license is illegal, by the way.) The hymns in hymnals are chosen by publishing companies.

Many years ago, I read a biography of Fanny Crosby, who wrote many of my favorite hymns. I learned that even in the 1800s, hymnal publishing was a business. The publishing companies were interested in what would sell, and one of the concerns at the time was that it would be a gaffe to include too many hymns written by the same people. To avoid this, some lyricists and composers, Fanny Crosby included, were given pseudonyms. Fanny Crosby wrote many more of the hymns in the hymnals than you or I know!

When music is codified in hymnals that are not updated for decades, what does that say to Christian musicians now? They are not given a place to be part of the worship of the church. Again, they are excluded. Additionally, the “newer” songs in the contemporary style included in those decades-old hymnals sound terrible. This is because hymnals use a chorale style. In contrast, the contemporary style is based on a single melody, and perhaps a simple harmony, but it is not chorale style. Chorale-style music follows specific voice leading and compositional techniques and requires a simpler rhythmic pattern. The contemporary style does not take these into consideration because it is not needed. Turning these contemporary songs into chorales simply does not work; they sound clunky.

TCC argues that new worship songs are worthless because they only last for a season and are thus like “vapor.” I found this complaint rather curious. So what if a new song doesn’t last? Where is the requirement in Scripture that our songs must last? The Psalms encourage us to sing new songs unto the LORD (there are too many verses to reference!) But even more, the Scriptures tell us that our prayers are like incense (Revelation 5:8.) How much more “vapor-like” can we get? Yes, smoke is different from vapor since it comes from burning, not boiling. But, they both waft and dissipate quickly. Are our prayers worthless because they are vapor-like? Why must our songs be more long-lasting than our prayers? Is TCC saying that the only legitimate music (and art in general) is that which is permanent? What lasts and what is burned up will be made known in the last day, and some songs which have fallen into obscurity will be found to have eternal value through the souls they impacted.

(Besides, there’s a simple way to keep contemporary worship songs around a bit longer: print out the sheet music and keep it in a binder or file cabinet.)

I wonder about our blogs, which are “mere projections.” I highly doubt they are getting printed out for posterity. I wonder how people would react if TCC took the same view on written material that he does on music. We have the Scofield study Bible, everyone. There’s no need for any more Bible studies to be written! Magazines don’t last. We don’t need your blog posts that are only read for a short time. Only books matter – and they must be printed, not digital. Do it the right way!

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.