Writing effective music for a congregation is one of the great challenges facing a choral composer. It’s difficult to write a good tune at the best of times, let alone one that fits comfortably within the vocal range and musical ability of the average congregation.
Few professional composers manage it and it’s no coincidence that many of the really fine hymn tunes were written by non-musicians – vicars, preachers and the like: Eudoxia by Reverend Baring-Gould, Miles Lane by William Shrubsole, Hyfrydol by Rowland Pritchard, and the many hymns of Father Frederick Faber, for example Faith of our Fathers. And possibly the most famous Christmas Carol of them all, Silent Night, was written by Pastor Grueber.
Vaughan-Williams is a great exception – think of his splendid For all the Saints! But most composers seem to be inhibited by their skill, their subtlety and their very expertise when it comes to writing a good hymn tune.
The effective vocal range of the average congregation is B flat below middle C to D a ninth above. It’s not a very large range, and when you consider how few of the great orchestral melodies lie within a range of nine notes, it’s truly amazing that such superb tunes have in fact been written for the congregation.
Join the Congregation
Before you start writing for a congregation, study congregational music of all types. Compare the great, favourite tunes with those which haven’t quite “made it” and try and find out what they’ve got that the others haven’t. Get off your organ stool or rostrum and make a point of singing regularly with a congregation and see what makes it tick. The more you breathe and feel with the people, the more you will get the hang of what they can and can’t do.
Each piece needs a strong and consistent rhythmic pattern – this will impel a congregation forward. I once did a survey of a number of the great Victorian hymns and found that very few had many dotted notes. Contemporary hymns don’t fit into this pattern – why is this? The rhythms have been changed by people’s continuous access to the world of rhythmic pop music. This has greatly influenced contemporary hymnody away from the old, user-friendly, four-square rhythms and given it a new and vital dimension.
The congregation needs to breathe, so ensure that there are plenty of breathing spaces. They need to know where to come in and on which note to enter. In this respect the accompaniment is of great importance.
What words should you choose?
Central to all this is the question of texts. If you’re writing a Communion Service or a Mass there’s no problem but when it comes to hymns and Gospel songs it’s another matter. There are thousands and thousands of words to choose from. Aim to choose texts which people can relate to, texts which speak in a modern way and use contemporary theology.
You can always go to the Psalms – these are a treasure trove. The possibilities with Responsorial Psalmody for a congregation are very challenging, but the right text is vital.
The members of the congregation need to feel the texts in their souls and relate emotionally to what they are singing. This is the foundation of a successful hymn. There are far too many second-rate texts already so don’t add to them! If you can team up with a first-class wordsmith, so much the better – and if you can write your own words that’s better still.
When you choose a text do bear in mind the question of copyright! If you want to use a copyright text get in touch with the owner or its publisher and check if they have any objections. At the same time find out the terms on which you will be allowed to use it. There shouldn’t be any problems but you need to make absolutely sure, as it could affect your hymn’s chances of being widely performed or included in a hymn-book. Remember that though the original may be out of copyright, a translation or rewrite may not be. Much more on this subject in Composition – for choir or congregation.
Steer clear of obscure words – or texts full of military similes. They aren’t really appropriate to contemporary belief. Beware of soldiers, fighting, potentates, battles and the like – I await the first hymn which talks about Cruise missiles and weapons of mass destruction!
Always ask yourself: “Does this text speak to me?” and “Can I put my heart into it?” If you can answer yes to these questions go ahead, but write from your soul as well as your brain. It helps to imagine the wonderful sound of a large and enthusiastic congregation singing your piece as you write it.
You need to consider carefully the role of the accompanying instruments. Whatever instruments you write for, they must support and not distract people. The congregation will always need a clear, firm and unambiguous lead. If you’re writing a Communion Service, Mass or Responsorial piece the organ part is vital. If you don’t get it absolutely right your composition won’t work!
If you’re writing responsorial music, ensure that the choir or cantor sections lead into the congregation’s response. The response must have a really good tune, so keep the vocal range in mind while you allow it to spring from the depths of your soul.
The cantor or choir part needs to be simple and catchy. If you’re using a cantor, restrict the vocal range to the same as the congregation – though you can add the occasional note outside this range. Most cantors are good, or not-so-good, amateur singers – you’re not writing for Pavarotti! It’s just your ordinary parish singer – who will probably be affected by nerves – so don’t be too demanding and make your music lyrical.
There’s always a demand for new and exciting music for congregation, and people do love a good tune. Who’d have thought the Dambusters’ March would become a popular hymn? Experiment, find out what works and, who knows … you might one day write a hymn which outshines old favourites like Abide with me or The Lord’s my Shepherd.
These articles may also be of interest to you:
Funeral Music (Family) – Funeral Music – a Guide for the Family
Choir Development Skills – Forming a choir – the skills you need
Choosing your Wedding Music – Your Wedding – how to choose the Wedding Music you want
Funeral Music (Organist) – Funeral Music – a Guide for the Organist
Catholic Hymns – Catholic Hymns