Classic hymn texts, contemporary tunes

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Our church sponsors a chapter of Reformed University Fellowship at the University of Tulsa, and as a result we've had an influx of college age, young singles, and young married couples into our congregation. (RUF is the collegiate ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative evangelical denomination.)

Along with the new people, the RUF connection has brought new songs into our worship service, or, more accurately, new tunes to old hymns by writers like Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton, and Augustus Toplady.

The tunes can be found in the RUF Hymnbook. The RUF Hymnbook Online Hymn Resource provides PDF lead sheets, guitar chord sheets, lyric-only sheets (for overhead projectors), and brief demos (usually a verse and a chorus) in MP3 format.

Kevin Twit is the composer of many of the new tunes, and the RUF Hymnbook Online Hymn Resource is a part of his website, Indelible Grace Music. Twit has a blog on the site as well, and one of his recent entries is "Thoughts on writing a new tune for a hymn text."


See-Dubya said:


You have failed to explain why anyone besides some infernal mephit would ever want to rewrite the melody of a classic hymn. "O Sacred Head" too weepy for you? Think "Jesus Lover of My Soul" would rock more in a major key, and no longer trouble you with those unavoidable goosebumps? Too darn much majesty in "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah"?

Bah. humbug.

psl said:

Yes, and they're absolutely hideous. To take a hymn like "The Church's One Foundation", with its serious and dignified theme and put it to a happy-clappy tune is a travesty. The melody does not match the lyrics and renders the words meaningless. Isn't it enough that they inflict us with sappy Arminian praise songs such as "Shine, Jesus, Shine"? Do they have to ruin the traditional hymns as well?

Thanks for the comments. You'll note I didn't come right out and endorse the music....

The modernizers claim they are recovering the old tradition of putting hymn texts to new music for each generation. In the intro to the online hymnbook, Twit writes, "Putting old hymns to new music allows us to hear afresh the rich theology and emotion that fill these hymns." Put another way, a familiar text to a new tune allows you to hear the words of the text that you may have tuned out from familiarity.

I would counter that using a consistent and singable tune for a hymn, a tune which is a good metrical fit for the text, helps the congregation learn the words by heart, where they can continue to instruct and inspire long after the service has ended. And I agree that many modern tunes for hymns are not a good fit -- yes, you could probably sing "And Can It Be" to the tune for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but you'd do violence to the natural meter of the words, and the mood of the music wouldn't fit the mood of the text.

The newer stuff isn't very singable by congregations either -- not very melodious, no harmony parts for the altos and basses who can't hit the high notes in the melody, and the notes on the page are only rough approximations to the way the tune is meant to be sung. If you sing it the way it's printed, you'll sound like Mrs. Miller singing "A Hard Day's Night". To sound right, you need to bend the pitch and the rhythm just like the recording, and it's hard to get a congregation to do that in unison.

I grew up with the the 1956 Baptist Hymnal (the one with the green cover), singing the revival hymns from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It wasn't until I went off to college that I was exposed the majestic hymns from the 17th and 18th centuries. They were in the old Baptist Hymnal, but our church never sang them.

Were it up to me, I would always use the traditional tunes. Still, I think it's better to use deep hymn texts with modern music than to sing choruses that are almost entirely devoid of content.

Once in a while I lead worship at our church, but someone else picks the songs and the tunes. They call our worship style "blended," a mix of old and new. The RUF online hymnbook will be a handy resource, so I can learn tunes before I have to lead them.

See-Dubya said:

Ah. Well, if it's a choice between the old hymn's words versus a cotton-candy chorus, definitely work in the old stuff.

MAP said:

Thanks for the post, Mike. What a hot topic! I thought I'd add my two cents:

Music is indigenous to culture. Africans have different music than Americans and older people like different music than younger people. With the majority of new Christian music being theologically weak, Indelible Grace music has opened the door wide for a younger generation to worship with beautiful, rich, and powerful hymns. Go to an RUF service (or Grace Stillwater or Redeemer Pres) and you'll see that the hymns are not "meaningless" to the next generation of Christians (and to those congregations). They have deepened their worship.

Your (See-dubya and psl) opinions about the new tunes are solely based on your subjective musical tastes - whether you realize it or not.
I understand that the old tunes bring a lot of people to the throne of God (me included), but the new tunes do as well. You might not like the new tunes, but they have not "ruined" or rendered the words "meaningless." You just don't like them.

Singability is always something to consider when selecting corporate songs. Mike, some of the old hymns are very difficult to sing too. I don't disagree that some of the new ones might be as well, but have you considered that maybe the congregation has not had time to learn the new tunes? Grace Stillwater and Redeemer sing all RUF songs and they seem to sing them just fine. Just throwing out another thought.

Hymn Lyrics said:

Thanks for the great resource - it's an excellent site!

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

The important thing is not the tune. Its the words. Jesus never sang "A Mighty Fortress is our God," He lived it. The song doesn't bring the goosebumps. The Holy Spirit provides them in abundance. Tradition provides an earthly stability, but that stability is nothing compared to the inspiration of young person moving, acting, speaking, singing, worshiping and following God. Remember Psalm 98 Sing unto the Lord a new song... God gave us thinking, resourceful, creative, intelligent brains so that we would use them. Recitation is fine but a new song, a new tune, is refreshing.

Mae B. Stephens said:

I too grew up on the green Baptist Standard Hymnal. I am desperately seeking a copy of it. Primarily, I am trying to find the song "Like A Vessel Fashioned by the Master's Hand". Can anyone help? I come from a large family and we routinely get together to sing and record old hymns. I only know the words to the first verse of this song.

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