Singable hymns

An Anonymous Person was explaining to me why she is not attracted to the worship services at our church. Among other reasons, Anonymous Person said that the hymns that are hard to sing. I asked: Hard to sing how? Anonymous Person replied that they were too high. And the more I think about it, the more I think she’s right.

In the current Unitarian Universalist hymnals, the hymn tunes typically fall between middle C and high E-flat (i.e., C4 to Eb5, with male voices transposed down an octave to C3 to Eb4). This is a comfortable range for sopranos, and if transposed down an octave, for tenors as well. But what about those of us who have alto voices, like Anonymous Person, or bass voices, like me?

Let me speak for the bass voices among us. If my voice is fully warmed up, and if I concentrate on technique, I can reach E-flat above middle-C (i.e., Eb4). A trained bass voice should be able to reach that note regularly; but mine is not a well-trained voice, and if my allergies are acting up, or if my voice isn’t warmed up, or if I’ve just finished preaching a draining sermon, I’m lucky to hit middle C (i.e., C4). Even when I can sing that high, the most comfortable and powerful part of my singing voice is well below that, from the B-flat below middle C down to the G below low C (i.e., from Bb3 down to G2).

Thus today at church, even though I wasn’t preaching, my allergies were acting up, — so when we sang hymn #114 to the tune of St. Gertrude in the key of E-flat, I had to drop out on those high D and high E-flat notes. It would be great if I could sing the bass part to #114, which is comfortably pitched for my voice and is lots of fun to sing, — but I’m not a strong enough singer to sing it on my own, and hardly anyone sings in four-part harmony any more; sometimes I can follow the bass line on the piano or organ, but today our music director was improvising the accompaniment to #114 which meant I could not follow the bass voice line on the piano. So I sang the soprano’s melody line down an octave, dropped out on the high notes, and didn’t have much fun singing.

While I was struggling my way through hymn #114, it occurred to me that the way we sing hymns is the result of institutional inertia rather than good musicianship. A hundred years ago, our hymns were all written and pitched to be sung with four voices:– sopranos took the melody, and altos, tenors, and basses sang harmony parts. Today, not many congregations can sing in four-part harmony confidently. What usually happens is that all of us try to sing the melody part, which is pitched for soprano voices — yet only about one fourth of us have soprano voices. Most tenors can adjust pretty well by singing the melody part down an octave, but that still leaves half of us, the altos and the basses, unable to sing any of the hymns comfortably.

Even if you’re an alto or bass who can sing four-part harmony confidently, you’re still out of luck much of the time. The new Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, doesn’t have four-part vocal arrangements;– and perhaps a third of the hymns in the older Singing the Living Tradition lack four-part vocal arrangements.

I can understand why we’d drop four-part vocal arrangements (so few people can sing them), but if we’re dropping four-part singing, then why is every hymn written as if only sopranos are going to sing the melody? The two interlocking answers to this question are: (1) institutional inertia, i.e., “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way”; and (2) poor musicianship, i.e., the arrangers and editors of hymns haven’t replaced four-part singing with a musically sound alternative.

Now some churches get past this problem by using over-amplified music. If the amplified praise band drowns out your voice, it doesn’t matter if you sing the notes or not, because no one’s going to hear you (you won’t even hear yourself). This is a sociologically astute solution, because most of the population is accustomed to a relatively passive consumption of over-amplified music. However, if you believe that congregations are not passive consumers but active participants in worship, over-amplified praise bands are a poor solution indeed.

I don’t have the ultimate solution to this problem. But here’s one short-term solution: ask the accompanist to transpose the key of all hymns down somewhat. I served in one church where there was an astute music director who did just this — he had a good sense of the average voice, and pitched the hymns downward accordingly. It would also make sense to occasionally choose hymns with a narrower range * — the narrower the range, the more likely it will be that average voices can sing them successfully.

What are your solutions to this problem? How can we help people with average voices, and no musical training, have fun singing in church?

* Examples of hymns with narrower ranges (less than an octave), and good keys to pitch them in:
#30 “Over My Head” — range of a major third — transpose down to key of F
#140 “Hail the Glorious Golden City” (tune: Hyfrodol; hymns 166 & 207 also use this tune) — range of a major sixth — transpose down to key of E
#131 “Love Will Guide Us” — range of a major sixth — does not need to be transposed for average voices

20 thoughts on “Singable hymns

  1. Scott Wells

    It can also affect your career or at least your church fellowship relationships.

    My husband and I want to go to a Christian church; so far, we haven’t found an appealing choice. And I want to go to a church with him, because he has a strong voice and can lead me down into in the bass line (even though I’m a tenor). So when I go (or rather, went) to church alone — Unitarian Universalist or not, but always the old mainline — I tend to get sucked into a hymns pitched too high: a hateful and frustrating situation. (Plus, for most new UU hymns, the words get in the way.)

    My singing always ends up:

    verse 1: to listen
    verse 2: to try to sing the tenor part
    verse 3: to try the bass part
    verse 4: to roll eyes and give up

    One of the best singing experience in memory — years ago — was Orthodox vespers with an all (gay) men’s congregation. At least I could keep up with the chanting.

  2. Ted

    If anything, I think you understate the problem.

    I’ve been told that men’s voices voices break down into 2/3 baritones, 1/4 tenor, being basses. Women’s voices are a little more flexible with the difference being whether they’ve developed their head voices or not. One of the best sopranos I’ve ever sung with sang alto until she was about 40. Few untrained women are comfortable in the soprano range.

    This last month, we sang the Black National Anthem on every Sunday. Maybe we should make it into a responsive reading or something. First, it’s a march in 3, which only works for people with three feet. Second, its got a huge range. Third, the unison chorus section is uncomfortably low, while the verse section is uncomfortably high.

    I think that few of us sing as much or as well as our parents , and they didn’t sing as much or as well as their parents. I blame records, radio, TV, cassette players, CDs, videos, MP3 players, and the internet. The untrained human voice has become obsolete.

    The reaction to this trend could be to simplify. Limit the range to from C to C, and have just two part harmony.

    But that would be a real waste of the great organs !

  3. fausto

    It’sot just the key, of course, though there is that. In many cases, especially many of the newer hymns, it’s also the unfamilarity and difficulty of the melodies and the vapidity of the lyrics.

  4. Christine Robinson

    So right on! I wonder if there is a way we can get musicians to post their transposed hymns to make the work load lighter?

    Also…the quieter the hymn the lower it needs to be. The louder people sing, the higher they can sing with confidence.

  5. Dan

    Scott @ 2 — Unlike you, I only last three verses, because no way can I sing tenor.

    And my best recent singing experience was this past summer when I was at a week-long choral festival at Ferry Beach, at the same time a gay men’s conference was there. We sang a lot of music that was suitable for men’s voices, and while I’m sure the few sopranos that were there suffered a little, boy did I have fun singing.

    Ted @ 3 — Yes, I’m sure I understate the problem. But I didn’t want to be accused of exaggerating.

    fausto @ 4 — Yup. Difficult melodies + unsingable key + vapid lyrics = rolling of eyes (see Scott @ 2 above).

    Christine @ 5 — Legally, copyright restrictions would make it difficult to carry out your suggestion. But someone could always start producing Worship Fake Books….

  6. Dad

    I always have had problems singing hymns and feel overwhelmed by the sopranos who dominate the rest of us. Thanks for the discussion of this problem. I guess my fate will always be to pretend to sing in church.

  7. Earthbound Spirit

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now, if I can only get every church musician & accompanist I know to read this post…

    I like chants, myself, that can be taught and sung without music to be read. People can learn an easy chant and let their voices find their own notes to the usually simple melodies. Even my (alto-to-tenor) voice sounds pretty good singing a chant!

  8. Vance B

    You put your finger on a problem that has vexed me for years! The root of it is the rarity of singable and meaningful material in our hymnal(s). It’s not only the range, but the complexity and unfamiliarity of the melodies. Take out the ones with vapid lyrics and the list grows even shorter. “Singing the Journey” did very little to help the problem – most of those songs are even more complex and less singable than in “Singing the Living Tradition”. I count about 20 that people can and will sing easily and happily.

    You’d be surprised how many people will sing along to “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”, or “Lean on Me”, even with an amplified band going (not “over-amplified”, however). Unitarians of all ages and persuasions WILL sing, clap and dance along to uplifting music, given a fighting chance.

    I attribute this situation to misplaced priorities among the (well-intentioned) people who put together our hymnals. They’re trained musicians and want to choose music that is exemplary in its sophistication and beauty. But it’s not about the music, it’s about the heart and spirit that the music expresses. And if the congregation can’t sing along at full voice, heart and spirit don’t get expressed.

  9. Steve Finner

    While I appreciate many of the comments here, my small congregation sings hymns lusitly and well as I choose ones which work for them, do a lot of repetition and when the hymn is new, I teach it. I also program hymn/anthems using music of folks like Joyce Poley where my choir sings the verses and the congegation the chorus. Works fantastically well.

    I generally won’t use a hymn that goes above high C.

    I do a lot of chants and rounds, and also music where I teach it and they repeat it on the spot, nothing in their hands, so they are looking at me.

    I also put my choir out in front of the congregation to lead the hymn singing.

    Stephen L. Finner, Ph.D. “Steve” steve @ finner . info
    Minister of Music and UUMN Liaison Northern New England District
    Universalist Unitarian Church of St. Johnsbury VT
    19 Warren Street Barre VT 05641 Phone: 802-479-5571 Fax: 413-391-1013

    My theology and rules of living: ” God is love. We all are saved. Do good. Have fun.” (c-2009 S.L. Finner)

    “If it sounds good, it is good” Edward “Duke” Ellington

    “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing” Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong

    “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you” Satchel Paige

    “When I hear the word, I know God is dead.
    When I hear the song, I know God lives.
    So if you would make of me a believer, sing to me.” (c-2003 S.L. Finner)

  10. Dan

    Steve @ 10 — Thanks for all the excellent ideas! Hey, wouldn’t it be great if you could lead a workshop on improving congregational singing in small churches at General Assembly sometime (hint, hint).

  11. Patty Rubin

    I so appreciate the frustrations voiced here! Even as a trained mezzo (choral alto) I sigh at having to have allergies drugged and voice warmed to get out gently-voiced Ds and Es on a Sunday morning so at least a couple voices can complete the melody. It’s easier to blast out the higher notes a la dramatic opera but it’s neither appropriate nor pleasant nor good vocal practice.

    I would tweak that to “The trained or practiced human voice has become much less common,” and much of my work life, as preschool music teacher, community choir vocal coach and used-to-be UU choir director, is aimed at making that less true. I need to run out to teach at the moment, but I hope to get back to share some thoughts on this later.

  12. David Towle

    Over the last 3 weeks, because of various travels, I’ve attended Sunday service with three geographically separated UU congregations of similar small-ish size. One met in a lovely old (and large) New England church with a beautiful pipe organ: singing participation was certainly adequate. The other two congregations met in contemporary buildings with piano accompaniment. In one, I heard rather timid participation and the hymns were truncated at 2 verses. But in the other congregational singing was wonderful and full. The hymn books were all the heavy gray hymnal. My first conclusion is that there may be a tradition of participation (or not) that is self-perpetuating. So while the singability of hymns is clearly a factor in my own enjoyment, we UUers may need to be a bit braver and sing out!

  13. Dan

    Patty Rubin @ 12 — Thanks for your insights. And yes, people like you can do a lot through education and coaching to improve the quality of singing. Wish there were more of you!

    David Towle @ 13 — Thanks for sharing your observations of three different congregations. You are correct to point out that some churches have a tradition of congregational participation in singing (does make me wonder what they do differently). And yes, we all need to be braver and sing out — but I have to say, it’s easier to do that in churches where others sing out — it can be a chicken-and-egg kind of thing.

  14. Patty Rubin

    For congregational, family, school and the everyday singing life, I really work at supporting and guiding well-practiced voices rather than more technical training. The physical vocal mechanism needs healthy regular practice for singing to be an enjoyed competency, just as being in good physical fitness helps one enjoy casual sports participation, as well as benefiting the overall quality of life.

    #1 is comfort through many ways. An uncomfortable singer is likely to have tense vocal cords, which narrows range and enjoyment even more. Comfort can be encouraged through familiarity of material, good vocal leading, well-paced instrumental support, acoustics that neither overwhelm with reverb nor isolate with absorptive surroundings. Comfort also develops with familiarity with surroundings and people, and with feeling safe and valued in a welcoming group.

    When basic comfort needs are met, then there is more room for growth opportunities, like introducing less familiar or more challenging songs and forms. A technical note for singing either higher or lower then one’s most comfortable range – singing more lightly at those points, with a little smile, helps by allowing the vocal mechanism to stay as relaxed as possible. And, as Steve suggested, singing without book in hand is can be a powerful/empowering experience – again, with proper support. Because 123STLT Spirit of Life is sung at every service at UUFE (MD), I encouraged all to not use the book some years ago, and this is a continuing custom.

    An advocacy note: support the children’s singing life! In RE always, through children’s choirs when possible, through specifically programming child-friendly songs in service and encouraging parents and other adults to help children use the hymnals when they are in service. Because Spirit of Life is sung at every service, I taught the children a few signs for each phrase. We’d sign and sing it together when I met with RE once a month, and when they were in service for the song, invite them to gather with me to sing/sign together. Four years after I had these opportunities, I still see some of them do this on their own.

    My above comment about Ds and Es is not to criticize hymn-providers, but to sympathize with real difficulties and to suggest some ways of overcoming them.

  15. Jackie Shanti

    Well this conversation makes me feel a whole lot better! For years, whenever I found myself as song leader during a worship service, I always half-heartedly apologized for my style of “no fault singing” which means I get to start the song/hymn where I feel comfortable. I’m definitely an alto and agree that much of our hymnal music is geared for sopranos, but I thought it was just me. No more apologies!

  16. Lois Reborne

    Thanks for this observation, Dan. I am in a fellowship where we started out singing a cappella and teaching by rote. Our repertory builds slowly, more quickly since we bought hymnbooks. I lead the singing most often, and I’m an alto. Those who read music and I have come to an agreement about pitch; if I am going to be leading, I have to be able to sing the whole melody. We have tried to use the accompaniment cds to support our singing, but it was a big shock – they are so high and so fast we can’t “do” the hymn.
    I appreciate Steve@10’s solid ideas. I also believe that the emphasis on complexity and what we’d call fanciness sets up a belief that those are necessary standards for good services. I’ve found a rousing rendition of “the more we get together”, with everyone’s eyes and voices up, can be powerful worship.

  17. Dan

    Jackie and Lois — It’s been interesting for me to do shape note singing (a traditional style of hymn singing). When you sing shape note hymns, there’s always an experienced leader who pitches the hymn at what s/he feels is an appropriate range for the group. And after the first verse, fi that person hears anyone straining their voice, s/he may stop the singing and re-pitch the hymn higher or lower.

    I like the fact that both of you pitch your hymns regardless of the key it’s written in!

  18. Lori

    Wow — this has always been a big problem for me, and since the music is a crucial part of my church experience, it’s awful to have to lip-sync the hymns! Thanks so much for bringing this up.

  19. Scott Roewe

    Thank you for writing this. I have a similar range and lead the hymn singing at our church and have been working on my head voice to deal with this problem, but my head voice is not as strong as the chest voice and not a suited for leading. Expecting a congregation to sing four parts seems to not be realistic these days, I prefer when everyone sings the melody.

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