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High and Low


What makes hymns, in general, easier to sing than most contemporary worship songs?

Some of it is familiarity. Songs you sang as a child until they formed a furrow in your mind and which you have returned to from time to time ever since reach a point where you know them so well it is harder to take a wrong turn than to sing them accurately from end to end. That also introduces a caveat – it doesn’t apply if you haven’t had a long diet of hymns and does apply to other songs that are very familiar. It also partly explains why services that seem to select from Hymns Ancient and Modern using a random number often leave congregations foundering.

Another factor is tunes. Hymns are typically designed to be sung by voices while many modern worship songs seem to rely on a suitable ‘beat combo’ to keep them motoring along. Again, a little unfair but many modern songs seem to have quite interchangeable tunes, chords and even words and the exceptions often end up being described as hymn-like (see O Praise the Name (Anastasis) for a song in that category, which I happened to use at St Clement’s this morning).

Those tunes are often also in a range that seems more fitted to congregational voices; a lot of modern writers seem to like to cover a wide vocal range which sounds great on the records, belted out with their strong, counter-tenor voices, but which can be hard to keep up with. Even if you think it seems easy, you risk being caught out when the forte version of the chorus suddenly calls for you to move the whole thing up an octave!

Of course, there are exceptions. This morning we marked our Harvest Festival so I included Come, Ye Thankful People, Come, which is a classic hymn for the season. It is in the key of G but goes up to a high E on the treble clef which stretches the voice pretty high. Still, it’s a well-known hymn so people are generally willing to go with it and I can float around there reasonably confidently. The only problem is that singing high stretches your voice and so, on our final song (Rescuer by Rend Collective), I started the tune too low with my now huskier pipes! Nevermind, we got up to the right pitch by the end and the nice thing about songs like this one is that raw enthusiasm makes up for a lot of failings on the accuracy side!

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