How to update the sound of a hymn without losing it's heart.
So you have some powerful, theologically rich hymns you’d like to include in your modern worship service, but how do you do so without being inauthentic to the culture of your church?
There are many ways to “modernize” hymns, but these efforts fall into two general approaches: Preserving the lyrics while changing the melody and musical setting of the hymn, or preserving the lyrics, melody, and basic stucture while changing the underlying musical style.
The advantage of keeping the original melody is that it is already familiar to many, which is one of the reasons to include hymns in the first place. The disadvantage is that some melodies sound very dated and can be harder for younger worshippers to pick up on. There are good times to use both approaches, but in this article I will be addressing the latter.
Before talking about the specifics of how to “modernize” hymns, I need to give a disclaimer. Much of playing hymns in a modern context is subtle and stylistic, it is about interpretation. Two technically proficient pianists could sit down at a piano and play the exact same piece of music “perfectly”, yet one could be moving and powerful, the other dry and unappealing. Much of modernization is about interpretation, so the best advice I can give is to become familiar with the piece before you play it. Once you are very familiar with the song, it will start to sound less mechanical and more natural to your own setting and style.
The second most important piece of advice is to play it like you mean it, play it with heart. You must believe in and understand what you are singing. If you are playing a hymn only because someone asked you too but have no investment in the song yourself, that hymn will sound insincere and out of place. How can you sing “here I raise my Ebenzer” with heart if you don’t know what an Ebenzer is?
From a technical standpoint, the process of “modernizing” a hymn is primarily simplifying chords, adding greater dynamics, and relaxing the melodic rhythm. Many hymns are written in homorhythm; a chord on every beat with a melody that follows that rhythm exactly. Since most of modern music has fewer chord changes and rhythmically looser melodies, the older homorhythmic style can sound sterile and unemotional to the modern ear. (Not to mention, playing a chord on every beat sounds much better on an organ than a guitar.) So keep only the chords that must stay to support the melody.
Another attribute common in hymnody is lack of varied dynamics. Modern worship music relies much more on dynamics, or getting “bigger” and “smaller”. Barreling through the whole hymn as loud as possible can make it sound dated and tiring. Add some dynamics; a quiet verse followed by a bigger verse, or a big verse followed by a soft chorus.
As for the rhythm of the melody, since you’ve put some space in between chord changes, the melodic rhythm will have some room to relax just a bit as well. While I don’t recommend hitting the notes whenever you want and leaving the congregation in the dust, your melody can be less staccato and more legato. But always remember you are doing this to help worshippers that are used to modern melodies, not hinder them. If your melody is so rhythmically loose that it is hard to follow, then you have not modernized the song, you’ve just made it into a performance.
If you are playing hymns with a full worship band who is only used to playing contemporary worship, you will need to be very intentional about how you want each member to convey the hymn. While all bands are different, here are a few general tips for band members:
Drums: Many hymns lie outside the comfortable 4/4 time signature. Veteran drummers will probably love the change of pace, but less experienced drummers may have a hard time with the unfamiliar time signatures. I recommend they spend time listening and playing along to recordings in different time signatures until they feel very comfortable with them. Until that time, consider using hand percussion instead of a full drum set. Nothing can derail a song faster than a drummer falling out of rhythm. It will be much easier to play a shaker in 3/4 than a whole drum set, and you’d be amazed how much a well placed shaker can add to a song.
Piano: Worship team piano players usually fall into one of two categories: the tech savvy keyboardist, and the sheet music loving traditionalist. For the former I’d recommend some simple synth pads or a Rhodes style keyboard. Long droning synth pads can add depth to simple meditative hymns and Rhodes style keyboards are great at blurring the line between modern and traditional with a very rootsy yet modern sound. For the sheet music traditionalist, don’t be afraid to add some melodic piano lines to the song, just keep them light and flowing. Nothing will bring pipe organ flashbacks faster than a dominating, homorhythmic piano melody.
Bass: The bass guitar can make or break a song without anyone realizing. For most bassists, keep the notes simple and focus on the rhythm. Stick to the roots and occasional fifths and put most of your effort in driving the dynamics of the song. A more advanced bassist with great instincts and good knowledge of theory can the one to bring more complexity to the hymn. The bass can add in some of the chord changes you have taken out of the guitar and piano, even using the hymnal to pick out a harmony line that fits the style in which you are playing. Be very careful when doing this or you could have a muddy, dissonant mess. Only a very skilled bassist can play these parts with a subtlety that won’t make the song feel dated or messy.
Hymns can and should be a part of the modern church. But they should be so because they are good, theological rich songs, not because they are hymns. They aren’t valuable because they appeal a certain people, or because they are better than certain other music, or even because they are part of a certain tradition. They are valuable because they, along with many other forms of worship, glorify god.
In a church I used to attend there was an woman in her seventies or eighties who worshipped in the “contemporary” service, she didn’t know most of the songs, and could only sing along to a few. When someone asked her why she would go to a service like that, she told them; “I just love seeing all of these different people worshipping, and it makes me want to worship too”.
Play songs that glorify god and help others do the same. For those leading modern worship services, take the hymns and make them a part of what you already do. Make them more than just hymns, make them into worship.