Hymn Tunes

Hymn Tunes

Playing hymn tunes on the piano and organ

What is a Hymn Tune?
When you think of the word hymn, what pictures come to mind? Perhaps you imagine people standing up in church and singing. Maybe you remember sitting around the campfire singing Amazing Grace?

Basically, a hymn is a song that is usually sung in a worship setting. The words tend to be the focus of those who do the singing. However, as a pianist, you can enjoy a rich repertoire of hymn tunes (music).

These hymn tunes were written to match the meter and syllables of the words. They have their own names, because two or more hymns can be sung to these same hymn tunes. Today, writers often create new hymns (words) that can be sung to familiar hymn tunes (music).

Playing Hymn Tunes

Listen to the hymn tune melody, then listen to the accompaniment part and finally listen to how the two parts sound together.

Probably the most familiar hymn tune that many piano students play is Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy. Another example can be found in the piano book which most of our first year piano students use, Leila Fletcher’s: Music Lessons Have Begun (p.18): “A Thanksgiving Hymn”. The name of the hymn tune is MADRID and it is a Spanish folk melody.

Hymn Tunes in SATB

19 years after Benjamin Carr arranged this Spanish folk melody into the hymn tune MADRID (music), Christian Henry Bateman wrote the hymn (words) Come, Christians, Join to Sing in 1843. Hymn tunes are arranged to be played on the piano or keyboard in SATB style.This means that the notes of the chords are set up so that there is a musical line for each vocal part to sing. These parts are called: soprano (higher pitched women’s voices-also melody line), alto (lower pitched women’s voices), tenor (higher pitched men’s voices) and bass (lower pitched men’s voices). The music for traditional Christmas carols is written in this style as well.

Often in churches, the organ provides the accompaniment for hymns. Piano students who own electric keyboards will be familiar with the lighter touch (less pressure) needed to push down the keys on the organ. There is a more important difference though. The notes played on the organ continue to sustain for as long as you hold down the keys. Because of this, the organ is a great way to help singers to hear and follow the notes of their voice parts.

Spirituals and Gospel Music
As an alternative to traditional hymns and their hymn tunes, the African-American slaves created and sang a large group of songs known as African-American spirituals. These pieces, such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, were learned by rote and passed on from one generation to another. They were sung in many different settings.

The style, form and especially rhythmic feeling of spirituals influenced the development of gospel music. Although there are many different styles of gospel music, the rhythmic energy is a common thread that gets people’s feet tapping. The secular (non-church) outgrowth of gospel music is rhythm and blues.

Lift Every Voice and Sing
Music by J. Rosamond Johnson, 1921
Words by James Weldon Johnson, 1921

This hymn was first sung in black churches across the country, experienced a rebirth during the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1970?s, and entered the Congressional Record as the African-American National Anthem during the 1990?s due to the popularity of a recording by Melba Moore, Stevie Wonder and other rhythm & blues artists.

Listen to Lift Every Voice and Sing sung by the Hartford Street Presbyterian Church congregation accompanied by pianist Diana Mascari.

Ready to start making music?
Take a look at information on our Lesson Programs.