sing‘a·ble adj. - suitable for singing;
Over the years I have heard this term “singability” several times. A number of years ago it was often related to the Psalms. Recently it used more often related to the (new/changed) Hymns. People that use this word seem to indicate that a certain song is not suitable for singing, according to the definition above. Begs the question why Psalm and Hymn writers would write songs that are not suitable for singing? I would like to have a look at this term “singable”.
The discussion about unsingable Psalms is not new. Over the ages the singability of the Psalms has been disputed. The result can be found in the hymnals that we find in many churches. The Psalms have either disappeared or diminished in number in most hymnals. Even hymnals in churches of Reformed origin, such as Christian Reformed or Presbyterian, have given the Psalms of David a second place.
When the first immigrants came to North America and started putting songbooks together, many of those hymns were based on the Psalms. The first hymnals were often called Psalters, such as the well-known “Bay Psalter”, first printed in 1640. The Psalms were close to the hearts of the pioneers. Today we have few hymnals with the complete 150 Psalms. Why is that?
The Pioneers did not use the Genevan Tunes, so the loss of the Psalms as the (primary) songs of the church is not related to the music. It has to do with the text. Many people (also some in our own churches) are convinced that not all Psalms are suitable to sing by the church of the 21st century. Many Psalms were not sung or read anymore in the church, not taught at schools, not sung at home, and people became foreign to the language and symbolism in the Psalms.
The notion that these words are not to be sung by Christians of the 21st century, has made them disappear from the church songbooks over time. We are left with Hymnals, with songs that people liked and fit the Christians of today much better.
The singability of the Psalms is closely related to the text and not the melody. In the Netherlands there is a discussion taking place (link) about the Psalms using the Genevan Tunes, where the point was made why we sing Psalm 108 much more often than Psalm 60, or Psalm 100 more often than Psalm 131. These Psalms have the same melody, but the text are different. Some Psalms don’t appeal to us (anymore), and the concern is that this indicates that we estrange from Gods Word.
We could continue the thought about the Psalms – there are Roman Catholics that are convinced that “Amazing Grace” is unsingable. Some Christian Contemporary worship leaders have commented that once there is an emotional connection, and identification, with the text, the most “unsingable song” becomes singable. However, I would like to highlight a different angle on the hymns and focus on the new and changed hymns of the Book of Praise (2010). Some musicians have shared that these hymns are unsingable, i.e. not suitable for singing. Considering that the text is unchanged, the melody must be the concern.
What makes a hymn “singable”?
1. SINGER’S ABILITIES
When it comes to making music, there is a requirement of musical abilities. Church people are generally quite able to sing. Babies are taught to sing by their mothers, children learn to sing songs at school, teenagers “sing” in the sports arenas… and of course we sing every week in church… The question is what a congregation is capable of, technically.
Some organists know “their” congregation quite well and have determined that the congregation is simply not capable of singing a certain tune. One person judges the musical capabilities of a few hundred people, and makes a decision for them. Sometimes the opportunity to learn a tune is also taken away or minimized. The congregation has no voice, and no chance, because it is taken away by the church musician(s). This situation is very concerning. Congregations are dynamic and evolving. New generations bring new skills – things are not the same anymore as in the past.
Fifty years ago the congregation would sing two note values and have a half-note rest at the end of every line. That was fine in that time in history: just after WWII, coming out of a century of isometric singing, and limited musical skills, knowledge and awareness in the churches. Today that is different. The congregation of the 21st century is exposed to a wide variety of music in their daily life, church members have received advanced musical education, (some are professional musicians), we have several choirs, the schools have instrumental and vocal music programs. Most congregations of the 21st century are competent, capable, and motivated singers (especially in the Reformed churches!!). When it comes the musical notation, we should not limit the music (tunes) to the musical abilities of the past.
(We don’t sing isometric anymore… we changed to rhythmic singing. Some Psalms have no rests after certain lines (Ps 41, 48, 52, 56, 81, etc) – we learned to sing through. We don’t sing 9 hymns anymore, we have 85 hymns of different styles and origins. But all of these changes caused emotional reactions at the time…)
2. ACCOMPANIST’S ABILITIES
An important part of the singability of a song is the accompaniment. This starts with the introduction of the song, indicating the tempo and the style of the prelude should refer to the text that is to be sung. When the singing starts the accompaniment should first of all support the singing with solid harmonizations, lead the singing without being ahead, and at times the music can embellish the singing. On the organ there are additional factors on the use of the stops, and on the piano there are e.g. options of using a double bass, repeating notes, or using arpeggio effects.
The accompanist needs (among others…)
- a good understanding of the song text and the context when it is sung,
- understand the tunes and its characteristics well,
- be able to sing the song and understand where the accompaniment can have an impact,
- indicate the best tempo and maintain this tempo,
- play skillfully with no or minimal mistakes,
- be able to produce a fitting prelude,
- be able to provide a strong harmonization,
- play musically, in time with the congregation and adjust to the congregation when necessary,
- utilize the options of their instrument appropriately.
If some of these aspects are lacking when accompanying the congregation, a hymn can easily be classified as “unsingable”. However, the skills of the accompanist could be the root cause of this problem. This problem becomes complex when it is the accompanist who labels a hymn as “unsingable”, while his own abilities could influence his opinion…
3. CONNECTION WITH THE TEXT
The singer should be able to understand the text; they should have an emotional connection to the text, and some level of identification. This aspect could receive some more attention in our churches.
- Why do we sing a certain song at a certain moment in the worship service?
- Why do we sing some stanza’s but not others?
- What is the song illustrating or emphasizing?
- When we sing a Psalm should we consider our Lord Jesus Christ, or should we self-identify with the text?
When this is left to the imagination of the congregation (or the lack thereof) there is a risk of misunderstanding and disconnect. When we sing a hymn, what is the reason for selecting the hymn? When it is not clear, the conclusion could be that it is to create a good feeling, influence the emotion – which would be appreciated by some, but turn off others.
Psalm 22 says: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel“. God thrones on the songs of his people, and therefore our singing and accompaniment are important.
Based on the points above, I conclude that the congregational singing is resting on a three legged stool. If one of the legs is not providing full support, the singing is deficient.
- When the congregation knows why a certain Psalm of Hymn was chosen, and its relevance to the message or the worship service in general, that will provide one strong leg. A short but thoughtful and meaningful introduction of the song by the minister would come a long way.
- When the organist or pianists play skillfully, sensitive to the text, uses appropriate music, and listens to the congregation and responds to the singing: that will add to the experience of the singers and in turn that will make them more aware of what they are singing, and make a connection with the purpose of the song (the first leg).
- The congregation is to be treated as a congregation that knows how to sing. (Many Canadian Reformed people will sing well over 50,000 stanzas in a lifetime in the church alone – talking about experienced singers…!) We are singing in the church musical tradition that started with King David, aware that God thrones on the praises of his people, joining with the song of praise sung in heaven. That provides solid support for the third leg. Historical awareness for Gods works in the church history, and Gods work in the church music history. And awareness for the singing capabilities of the congregation of the 21st century.
Psalms and Hymns in our Book of Praise cannot arbitrarily be identified as “unsingable”. When these three aspects above are considered, Psalms and Hymns, written for congregational singing, are very suitable to be sung.
Post script: This posting does not deal with the reasons for musical changes, but with the objection to sing some hymns (and some Psalms), because they are considered “unsingable”.