Just some thoughts/musings recently about some older hymns…

I often find myself changing, editing, tweaking, etc. some of my own arrangements of common hymns and songs—songs like “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” “Come, Holy Ghost,” and “All Creatures of Our God and King,” to name a few.  Every time I take another look at them, it seems like I’m taking things out of my arrangement– simplifying them, restoring them to the hymn’s original form.  I might keep a chord change that’s nice, or maybe a descant or harmony that works well, but I keep coming back to the same conclusion: don’t overthink it.

There’s a reason these songs have stood the test of time: they’re well-written!  Why mess with what works? It’s like re-making a classic movie that doesn’t need re-making.

I’m not talking about instrumentation. Anyone can use whatever…organ, guitar, piano, synth pads, harp, strings, brass, lute, banjo, SATB, SAB, SSAA, SSAATTBB, SSSSAAAATTTTBBBB, it doesn’t matter.  When played well, almost any orchestration can find it’s place.

And I’m not talking about creating an entirely new musical piece with some existing traditional lyrics.  (Which I myself have done.  See Hymns)

I’m referring to ‘jazzing up’ that old standard.  Do we really need to do that now?  Much of that was done to add a contemporary feel to traditional music when there wasn’t as much in the way of contemporary music.  But now there is plenty of new contemporary music to go around.

Still sometimes, especially if it’s a song you sing often, it might be nice to try a fresh approach.  The key, maybe, is to maintain certain things before deciding to get all creative. Things like:

1. Lyrics – leave them alone unless writing a new ‘section’ or a slightly different translation.

2. Melody – don’t mess with it, really.  It’s what makes the song. That’s why people know it!

3. Tempo – just make sure it’s singable and fits the melody/lyric…not too fast or slow

4. Chord changes – it can sometimes be helpful to simplify the changes for guitars and bass players.  Allow the music to breathe a little.   Most of these hymns were written to be played on the organ.  Keyboardists are used to tons of chord changes!

A good example of a re-make of a traditional hymn: Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone) by Newton/Tomlin/Giglio.  The lyrics are traditional, except for two things: 1. an added refrain that is completely new, musically and lyrically, and 2. an added verse at the end.  It just works well. It really has breathed new life into that song.  We sing the song in both styles at our parish.  It just depends on the setting.

More with regard to chord changes – some nice alterations can really be effective, so long as they don’t require you to alter the melody. (I’ve heard organists play ‘Amazing Grace’ with standard accompaniment for the first couple of verses, then go into some really off-the-wall harmonizations that made me wonder where I was.  It’s cool as a theory lesson, but maybe not in keeping with the spirit of the song, as people know it.)

All of this is just to say…if you decide to change something in a classic hymn for the sake of variety, make good choices. Your assembly will appreciate not having to relearn something!