The New Song, Part 3 (Composers and Hymn Tunes)
How does one write a hymn tune? I think the best tunes are written for specific texts. So in my view, a good composer chooses a worthy hymn poem, considers its meaning, and identifies its rhyme scheme, metrical pattern and syntax. The composer will want to allow time for the text to work itself into his or her consciousness. A standard or modified hymn form will probably suggest itself on the basis of the text’s pattern, and the composer will be mindful of this in outlining the piece. One seeks to discover the architecture and overall sense of the poem—meaning, metrical rhythm, mood, energy, and pacing—so that fitting music can be fashioned for it.
On these bases a key and range befitting the spirit of the poem are chosen. Keys and modes, by virtue of their physical properties within modern tuning and its corresponding overtone series, have colors and qualities. Some are more powerful than others; some are brighter while others are more melancholy. Choice of key has much to do with the final product. One unfortunate aspect of hymnals whose editors have altered the original key of hymns (usually in an effort to lower the range for our non-singing society) is that the new key may not as well suit the spirit of the hymn. A clear example of this is Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” written in D major, but lowered to C major or even B-flat in many modern hymnals. It simply does not have the necessary brilliance or energy in the lower keys. And it is perfectly singable in the original, where a certain energy inherent in the music is required.
In addition to choice of key, but linked to it, is the melodic range. It is important to pick a range for the melody that can be ably managed by untrained voices. The melody is what the singer will remember most vividly, thus, it should be singable, lyrical, and logical, yet fresh and not overly predictable. The melody should strengthen the singer’s attention to and understanding of the text. Typically, melodies should contain a lot of step-wise motion, with larger intervals approached intuitively.
Several options for time signature and rhythm may present themselves as possibilities after studying the text, but the composer must determine if one draws attention toward or away from the textual meaning more than another. The rhythm also can assist the meter and rhyme of the verse so that these recurring aspects do not result in a hymn that seems trite or commonplace. The text of a particular stanza (not necessarily the first) may suggest a certain rhythm that will work well in all stanzas.
Often a composer will “hear” the harmony while conceiving the melody, but this basic chord structure can be refined once melodic and rhythmic elements are determined. The value of “line” within voice parts should not be underestimated. Too many hymns, for instance, leave the altos with two notes side by side over multiple measures. Hymn composing that follows the rules of good counterpoint, while at the same time creating interesting lines for each of the four parts, usually will result in a strong piece of music.
Once written, the whole work should be examined and proofread multiple times, leading to further subtle changes in tone or nuance. This process unfolds in the same manner that one might employ to polish a poem or an essay, by selecting a more colorful word or fashioning a more economical phrase. The result should be a welcome addition to the rich repertory of hymns from which we benefit, and perhaps will find resonance in congregations where this living heritage is still valued.
[Some of this material was adapted from my article in The Christian Imagination. Copyright 2002 by Leland Ryken. Used by permission of WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO; and other parts are adapted from my book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publications, 2006. All Rights Reserved.]