Two nights ago, our pastors and I attended our state convention’s annual meeting, hearing so many good reports about what Christ is doing among Colorado Baptists.
Part of our time together involved singing many songs regarding our faith in Christ. Many newer songs are gaining traction into the arsenal of our worship songs we sing (for which, for the most part, I’m thankful).
But when songs such as “Come, Thou Fount,” or “Amazing Grace,” or “How Great Thou Art,” or other classic hymns were sung, the volume and power went up fourfold. Sure, these hymns have a running start on these newer songs, but there’s more to it than that.
A parallel exists in the secular world in the area of jazz standards. Jerome Weeks notes that “a song only becomes a standard when enough other musicians respond. They agree, this is worth playing – and re-playing. The ‘forefathers of jazz’ often determined what songs mattered, and if the up-and-coming musicians wished to be hired, they had little choice but to learn these songs. Soon, those songs became part of the jazz canon, and soon became part of the culture of the succeeding generations.
Through time and interia, certain songs rise to the top and transcend the generations–and usually this is found in our hymnody. Certain hymns like the Doxology (1515) are still sung, along with Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Charles Wesley’s (1707-1788), and Fanny Crosby’s (1820-1915) to name a few. Like jazz standards, it’s difficult for a song to break into that ‘canon,’ if you will, because it hasn’t become part of the DNA of the church.
What helps a song become a church ‘standard,’ and what type of modern song has any hope of breaking through?
- Be singable. Many of the worship songs on the radio are written for soloists, not congregations. Thus, the range (are all men tenors now?) and the syncopation make it difficult for some songs to catch on. Most hymns that have lasted last because of their singability, the range and just-enough-repetition in the melody, along with the steadier syncopation of most songs, make it easier to catch on. (One example of a popular hymn which has a troublesome syncopation for most is How Great Thou Art, coming in on the second half of the third beat of a measure–followed by not really knowing how long to wait after “O Lord, my God. . . .” If you go by how George Beverly Shea and many sing this by feel, versus how it’s written in the hymnal, it makes it tough at first. Yet, the climactic chorus more than makes up for any issues during the stanza.)
- Be metrical. Many do not realize that the hymns are actually the texts, not the tunes. At the bottom of the pages of the hymns, you see these interesting little numbers at the bottom, such as 188.8.131.52. or 184.108.40.206., and the like. This stands for the number of syllables in each line, marking the meter. While handy for switching up tunes that have the same meter, it also gives a rhythm to a song that helps a group (congregation) sing together. Syncopation is difficult for a mass audience. For many choirs, they take numerous rehearsals to ‘get’ a syncopated rhythm, unless they have musical training and actual music (which is often absent in congregational settings if the music is new and not notated in a collection). Learning new words is difficult enough–learning new rhythms and new words? Well…
- Be doctrinal(ly sound). By this, I mean that the writer aimed to communicate some significant truth about Christ or some other issue from Scripture. The majority of hymns were written as stand alones, with the music added later. One wonders if today that the modern worship songs have the music written first, with the words added later. Songs that say little will not last long-term. Songs that promote false doctrines will fail before they fly. Songs that possess rich, biblical truth will last.
What think ye?