Worship Leadership Series (part eight): How to Butcher a Good Hymn

This series will now take an undoubted turn into the more practical elements of worship leading. Upcoming topics include leading a contemporary band, instrumentation, managing worship practices, developing your musicians, and the art of leading a worship service.

One of my favorite things to do is to breathe fresh new life into old hymns. Many have attempted to do this and about half as many butcher the classics.

A word of caution: just because it’s old doesn’t make it good. Many old hymns are just as trite as contemporary music; they just used bigger words while doing it.

The number one way to butcher an old hymn is this: screwing up the rhythm.

It sounds simple enough, but there’s actually a complicated reason for this phenomena. It will require a little history.

Music has two basic elements: meter (rhythm) and melody. European classical music heavily emphasized melody. The timing of a song could speed up or slow down at the whims of the conductor. S/he directs the musicians and they follow his or her timing.

African music, on the other hand, emphasizes rhythm. Drums and percussive instruments provide the foundation for layers of singing and chanting.

Since dancing requires a steady rhythm to keep dancing partners together, and since dancing was considered sinful, church music ministers were prone to resist rhythmic developments taking place in the larger musical world.

Jazz music, for example, successfully blended European and African styles to create a whole swath of new inventions: big band, fusion, jazz proper, and rock and roll.

If you listen to 90% of contemporary worship music, you can count 1,2,3,4 (4/4 time) over and over with the beat. Hymns, however, were written with entire lyrical lines in mind and matching numbers of syllables. This works fine with an organ, not with a drumset. Charles Wesley’s hymn “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today,” for example, is based on 7 syllable lines (Ris’n is one syllable).

Rhythmic instruments simply don’t mesh well with strange meter, but the majority of worship leading instruments are rhythmic: guitars and drums. Piano and bass fit much better with a melodic style of music, but most worship leaders don’t lead from these instruments.

As a result, you will see many odd time signatures in a hymnal: 12/9, 2/2, and so on. These simply are not pleasing meters to the modern ear.

What many worship leaders will do is to try to have the best of both worlds; they’ll sing the old hymn but try to play it with a contemporary worship band. At the end of the line, some people will continue singing the next line like they’re used to, but the band waits until the next measure. Awkward glances ensue, the worship leader tried to hide his sheepish grin.

It simply feels weird. Ask Passion; they did a hymn CD and it was by far their worst recording to date.

You have three possible solutions: (1) lead it as it was originally sung with a piano or organ, not a guitar. The guitar simply does not work with this style of meter. (2) Totally rewrite the music and keep the old lyrics. Don’t try to force the old melody into a new genre, it will frustrate everyone trying to sing along. (3) Don’t sing that song.

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