But I Like to Sing Bass...: Why we shouldn't always sing in 4-part harmony

The other day I had parking-lot security duty during our worship service. The person who shared that duty with me used the opportunity to express his frustration about organists who play different arrangements of the hymns on different stanzas. He likes to sing bass and is irritated when organists take off on strange harmonies and lose him. "Why do they do it?" he asked.

I suggested that if he sang the melody on those stanzas, there would be no problem. But he wasn't satisfied with that solution—for a number of reasons. We spent the rest of our time together exploring those reasons.

Organists can show sensitivity to the text of a hymn in two primary ways: through registration (organ stop) changes and through different arrangements of the melody. A third way, often overused, involves changing keys. Changing keys can be an effective way to infuse our singing with more vigor—especially if the final stanza reflects a change in mood (for example, from petition to doxology). But like any special treatment, its power is increased if used sparingly, certainly not in every service.

My friend had no trouble with the concept of registration changes or even changing keys. As long as he could sing bass, no problem. In fact, he said that changing registrations and volume, soloing out the melody, and so on, were very effective in helping him concentrate on the text. He was critical of organists who simply pushed one piston (pre-set stop selection) and played the same for every stanza, no matter what changes oc-cured in the mood and spirit of the different stanzas.

Many of us, like my friend, love to sing harmony—with or without accompaniment—and that should certainly be possible much of the time. But the principle at work here is that different stanzas and different tunes call for different treatment. It is unjust to the text and to worship for an organist to play every stanza exactly the same way, no matter what changes in meaning occur in the text. The musician is directed to lead worship, and that includes communicating different meanings and shifts in a text. An organist playing each stanza the same way is equivalent to a minister never changing his speaking volume or tone, no matter what is being said.

One of the ways in which the organist can provide leadership is though playing alternative hymn arrangements as the congregation sings in unison. I mentioned to my friend that since the Reformation and to this day throughout Europe, pew editions of hymnals contain only melodies (in England, some contain only texts!).

Everyone sings the tune together in a strong unison. The new Episcopal Hymnal 1982 also is published in a melody edition for the pew (a less expensive and smaller book) and in a separate harmonized version for choirs and organists.

I told my friend that I used to automatically sing alto and had done so ever since I learned to read music. But I also admitted that ever since I started studying texts more carefully, I have been moving more and more to singing the melody. For me it is easier to concentrate on the text while singing melody; when I sing harmony, my attention is divided between the music and the words.

The organist should lead the congregation by interpreting the various stanzas of the hymn. In effect, he or she "preaches" the text on the organ so that the congregation can sing with understanding and sensitivity. Until this century, all organists were trained in improvisation; today, organists have many published alternative hymn arrangements to choose from, and the interest in improvisation is returning.

When a different arrangement begins (most often on the last stanza, and sometimes preceded by a transition), the congregation simply all join in unison, sending forth a powerful unified sound of praise. Like singing in harmony, singing in unison with varied accompaniments should arise out of the meaning of the text. The variety should strengthen and deepen our understanding of what we are singing, and should therefore strengthen our worship.

Following are some suggestions to organists and ministers about introducing hymns and playing different hymn arrangements.

The Verbal Introduction (Minister, Liturgist)

If the hymn number is listed on a hymn board and in the bulletin, and your congregation is used to following the bulletin, the minister or liturgist need not include a verbal introduction. However, if the worship leader has a particular reason for choosing this hymn or wishes to highlight a concept in the hymn, an introductory comment would be appropriate. There is no point to the practice of reading a stanza while people are finding the number.

The Musical Introduction (Organist, Pianist)

The musician has several alternatives to just playing the song through. The Psalter Hymnal provides brackets r ] to mark a brief introduction, which is sufficient if the congregation knows the tune. Playing through the entire hymn and then increasing volume on the last phrase as a cue for the congregation to stand is a very restrictive practice, totally unrelated to the musical or textual ideas of the hymn.

I personally prefer the congregation to stand at the beginning of the introduction. If they wait to stand, the last phrase of the introduction needs to be the same as the hymnal version—a musically tedious practice if always done the same way. Varying the introductions allows a musician to truly lead the congregation into the meaning of the hymn.

Many published arrangements of hymns include intonations, the traditional term for introducing a hymn. The accompanying article, with music by Jan Overduin (pp. 16-20), offers some fine examples.

Arrangements on Different Stanzas

I am becoming more and more convinced that one of the main reasons congregations have problems in accepting alternative arrangements is the organ's tendency to dominate by sheer volume. No wonder some people have trouble finding and singing the melody: the congregational sound of unison melody is not as loud as the organ! Any choir director would be offended if an accompanist covered up the sound of the choir. And that is exactly what is happening with many congregations: the main choir—the congregation—is dominated by and far too dependent on the organ.

Let a congregation loose on unaccompanied singing once in a while, and they will discover anew the joy of the old Reformed tradition of pure vocal sound. The varied accompaniments of a skilled organist can lift the hearts of the congregation to soaring heights of praise and worship, but the primary sound must come from the congregation.

If you or your congregation have never tried an alternative setting before, I suggest you try one first on the final stanza of a very familiar melody of a hymn that is particularly climactic or doxological. You may also alert the congregation by playing a short interlude before the last stanza.

Sometimes the structure or length of a hymn will encourage singing by different groups in the congregation— one stanza sung by men, the other by women and children, for example. Those directions are best placed in the bulletin in order to keep the flow of worship moving without the interruption of announcements. During those stanzas, which are more likely sung in unison, an alternative accompaniment will also be very appropriate.

One final comment: be sure that your worship committee supports and encourages all organists. Not all are equally gifted, but those that are able to do more should be encouraged in the use of their gifts without fostering any sense of competition or comparison. And remember, with organists, as with preachers, more is not necessarily better: one or two leaders, working together, are often able to provide the strongest and most integrated leadership for the congregation.


My attempts at an explanation for alternative harmonizations helped somewhat. Though my friend still prefers to sing bass, he conceded that it probably wouldn't hurt him to sing the melody once in a while. If s the melody, after all, that we carry with us. It's the melody that we hum and sing on our own during the week. To that he agreed.



All Praise to You, Eternal God
David Busarow; Augsburg
settings for 30 tunes for singing in canon. 16 tunes in Psalter Hymnal (PH)

Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness
arr. David N. Johnson; Augsburg
6 of 15 tunes in new PH; multiple settings for various stanzas of each

The Descant Hymn-Tune Book, Book 2
arr. Geoffrey Shaw; Novello
35 tunes with alt. accomp. and optional descants useful not only for choirs, but great for instruments with organ

Free Hymn Accompaniments for Manuals, Book 1
David N. Johnson; Augsburg
10 of 15 tunes in new PH; multiple settings for each tune

Free Organ Accompaniments to Festival Hymns, Vol. 1
Paul Ensrud, ed; Augsburg
most of 19 tunes in new PH; multiple settings by various composers

Free Organ Accompaniments to One Hundred Well-Known Hymn Tunes
T. Tertius Noble; J. Fischer & Bros.
many PH tunes here, more than in his other volume; many rich accompaniments which sometimes call for a more deliberate tempo than many are now used to

Hymns for Choirs
arr. David Willcocks; Oxford
most of 29 tunes in PH; intended for choir 4-part descants with organ, however, a great source for organ with optional instruments on the choral descant parts

New Settings of Twenty Well-Known Hymn Tunes
arr. Dale Wood; Augsburg
every one in the new PH; each one contains an optional descant for choir or instrument

Ten Hymn Elaborations for Congregational Singing
arr. Karen Keene; Harold Flammer, Inc.
very exciting writing; every tune in new PH; watch for more by her

Varied Hymn Accompaniments
arr. Henry Coleman; Oxford
most of 17 in new PH; several settings of each


Hunnicut, Judy. Index of Hymn Tune Accompaniments for Organ.
The Hymn Society Book Service. P.O. Box 30854, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX 76129. (817) 927608. Part I contains composer/publisher information on collections which include free accompaniments, introductions, interludes, based on hymn tunes. Part II provides an alphabetical listing of hymn tune names with references to the collections in which they are found.

Lawrence, Joy E. The Organist's Shortcut to Service Music.
Ludwig Music Publishers, 557 East 140th St., Cleveland, OH 44111999; (216) 851-1150. A guide to finding intonations, organ compositions, and free accompaniments based on traditional hymn tunes.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 15 © March 1990, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.