How to Select Hymns

The choosing of hymns relevant to worship requires thoughtful planning and creativity. Here are several principles of hymn selection and use that contribute to an enriched experience of worship.

Choosing music for the worship service is both a privilege and a challenge. The first step is the selection of hymns that reflect the assigned Scriptures. Hymns are the “propers” of the service, textual and musical selections that are appropriate to the scriptural message and to their place in the liturgical year. The first principle of hymn selection is relevance.

Hymn selection requires ongoing Bible study, a thorough knowledge of the hymnal, and an appreciation of and commitment to the task. The process of hymn selection is made simpler for those using the Common Lectionary as the texts are then known in advance. In other cases, however, where the clergy customarily select texts for the service, consultation between the musician and clergy is absolutely essential.

Many hymns have phrases directly quoted from the Bible and their choice is obvious. Beyond that, the Scriptures will suggest certain major themes or topics and these should be reflected in the hymns. The process will be aided by a good commentary and dictionary of the Bible. The hymnal will probably contain useful appendices and indexes, and there are also separately published commentaries that are helpful. Even if your church does not use the Common Lectionary, published guides will help, though ingenuity will be required. Whatever aid these materials may give, there is, however, no substitute for the musician’s own study and inspiration. The hymns for each service should not be a miscellany, and relying on a few quickly chosen “old favorites” results in something much less than satisfactory. Unifying the Scriptures and the music, however, produces a worship service of great emotional power.

Hymns should be chosen to allow maximum contrast. It is not wise to consistently program a loud and vigorous opening and closing hymn. The climax of the service, its emotional power, volume, etc., should be shifted occasionally so that those participating in worship are never able to give in to routine. Palm Sunday, for example, might begin with a big joyous hymn like “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” echoing the acclamation accorded Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, and close with a solemn hymn performed softly in anticipation of the events of Holy Week, even omitting an organ postlude. Nearly every church uses a fairly predictable order of worship; this should not be an excuse for dull routine.

The character of the hymns in each service should be varied. Unison hymns, those in which the melody is the strength accompanied by an interesting organ part, should be mixed with those which are harmonic. Hymns of different metric character should be alternated; a hymn which is more free in meter-like chant might be contrasted with one in a regular duple or triple meter. It is best to avoid triple meter when a choir is processing, however. Narrative hymns, powerful hymns of praise, and prayerful hymns all need to be included in their appropriate place.

Usually all verses should be used so that the entire textual message is conveyed. In earlier times hymns often had a dozen or more verses but today hymnals limit most to four, five, or at times six. Occasionally it may make a telling effect to use only one or two verses. For example, for a hymn before the gospel there may be a portion of a hymn that is particularly relevant to the gospel text.

A pace that is perfunctory, whether routinely fast or slow, should be avoided. While many hymns should be vigorous, others should be measured and solemn. It is imperative to read the words and listen to the heart and let this be reflected in appropriate performance.

Avoiding routine with well-known hymns gives them a new impact. The hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” sung to the tune Nicaea is usually used as a vigorous processional. The text suggests, however, that it is really a prayer, and it will gain fresh impact if used softly at a reflective moment in the service. Conversely, a hymn that is usually sung in a meditative fashion may gain power through the use of a more full accompaniment. Every effort should be made to reexamine the character of the best-known hymns.

While it is not absolutely necessary, with familiar hymns the accompaniment might be varied, especially in the final verse. There are published varied accompaniments if the musician does not feel comfortable devising one. It might be effective occasionally to use a change of key at the end of a hymn verse, transposing up a half or full tone (using the transposition device on certain instruments or writing the hymn out in the new key if needed). The use of the piano, especially for hymns from the praise tradition, is perfectly proper and affords a good contrast.

It is well to plan on introducing new hymns often. The musician should, however, first thoroughly familiarize himself with the new text and music. A new hymn might be introduced with a brief rehearsal after the prelude, before the service. This moment also provides an opportunity for the musician to explain why the hymn is particularly suitable and provide information about the text and tune. It is then wise to repeat the new hymn again as soon as it is appropriate to the worship context. A record of when each hymn is used should be kept. Often it will take quite some time before it becomes familiar, especially for those people who do not attend regularly each Sunday.

Finally, the technique of leading hymns properly on the organ is not at all obvious and should be studied carefully. Since music for worship begins with the congregation, every effort should be expended on choosing the hymns carefully and leading them authoritatively.

Philip Peter

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