The case for new hymn tunes … and the case for the old ones

The Case for New Hymn Tunes

Before the mid-1800s, hymn lyrics were published on their own, without melodies. For generations, different congregations would sing a hymn to different tunes. Sometimes a match would fit so well that it would gain popularity in a region or even for a generation.

Many of the finest lyrics from the pens of Isaac Watts, John Wesley, John Newton, and others lie tuneless and forgotten in the archives. Since so many tuneless older hymn lyrics are well worth singing, there is a place for today’s composers to search the rich treasure troves of Christian hymnody and compose new melodies worthy of these great, classic lyrics.

There is also a time and a place to give a post-1830 hymn a new melody. Sometimes a lyric still worthy of singing was originally matched with a prohibitively challenging melody. Unless the challenging melody (think “Oh Holy Night” or “And Can it Be”) has become iconic, it may be appropriate to give the lyric a new melody.

The Case for Old Hymn Tunes

Some Contemporary Christian Music songwriters have recognized a lack of solid, sound doctrine in their genre’s lyrics. To their credit, some of them (including Stuart Townend, Keith & Kristyn Getty, and writers affiliated with Sovereign Grace Ministries and Indelible Grace Music) have recognized the rich lyrics in long-forgotten hymns, and have brought hundreds back with new melodies. Despite the fact that our genre has deeper roots in and closer ties to the rich English/American hymn tradition, it is only giving credit where credit is due to acknowledge that these efforts are an example our genre’s writers would do well to emulate.

Yet in their enthusiasm, some members of this movement have gone too far. In their enthusiasm for new tunes, some are not afraid to write new tunes for anything—even “Amazing Grace.”

Several dozen hymns are so widely known and loved that Christians around the world sing them in hundreds of languages. Several hundred more—perhaps 250-500—are widely recognized throughout English-language churches around the world. There is a distinct benefit to the global church if new believers are taught these songs—with their original tunes. 

On the global level, you can walk into many churches around the world and, without being able to understand a word of the sermon, still join your brothers and sisters in Christ in “Amazing Grace,” “It is Well With My Soul,” or “The Old Rugged Cross.”

But even if many new believers will never travel overseas, most will move churches at some point in their life. Yes, with virtually any new church move, learning some new songs is part of the process. But we do new believers a great disservice if we have re-written everything, forcing them to start from scratch if the church sings the original tunes.

Conclusion

Don’t mess with “Amazing Grace.” Sure, it might not be the simplest melody ever written. But you’re doing the Church no favors by changing it.

But take a forgotten lyric from the same author—say, “The Lord Will Provide.” That’s another story entirely; bring it on!


For more Southern Gospel news and commentary—follow our RSS feed or sign up for our email updates!

71 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. I can personally relate to both sides of this as you’ve laid it out. On the case for old hymn tunes, my husband is far from having the English skills to understand the poetry in a lot of hymns. But as he was attending a Spanish ministry when he got saved, he learned the Spanish translations of a lot of those hymns. That’s all that allows him to really worship in our church, where we don’t have a Spanish ministry. He may be “singing in English,” reading words he doesn’t understand, but when he’s familiar with the songs, he can get the gist of the message.

    Also, I had two travel opportunities. I attended a mission during the first where they used old hymns and their translations. I actually ended up playing the keyboard for them, because their regular player was gone during the month I was there! It was definitely of God, and I was familiar with most of the songs. The second time, the mission I had to attend used mostly new songs, and many of the choruses weren’t even in the hymnal. (I bought a hymnal to be able to participate, but it didn’t have music, since most people there couldn’t read it.) I couldn’t even understand a lot of the words, having more limited Spanish skills back then, and certainly didn’t get much out of the song services.

    On the other hand, “The Lord Will Provide” is one of my favorite songs. I learned it out of a century-old Methodist hymnal, and found that melody somewhat unworkable. So I compared meters, and found that it works quite well with “Oh Worship the King.” However, someone did tell me they know “the melody” for that song and like it. I’ve never had the nerve to sing it with my alternate melody (since I don’t know theirs) as a special, but now that you’ve reminded me, that may change!

    • Thanks for chiming into this discussion! It is great to hear from someone with that multi-lingual experience.

      Yes, back in the day, when many hymns were written in common meter (8.6.8.6.) or long meter (8.8.8.8.), it was fairly simple to swap out one tune for another. And that one will work! 🙂

      • You know, in my travels through that Methodist hymnal, I found that I detested most common meter melodies. I believe we’re just used to longer songs now, and that I’d be OK if they had a chorus. Most of them make me feel I’m on a small merry-go-round and hardly get started before we’re starting again.

        The main exception to that seemed to be “Amazing Grace.” And I have to think that it’s just because of its familiarity. We learn to love those hymns through early exposure, and I wish we would learn to appreciate a lot more of them the same way.

      • Something I’ve seen modern hymn movement composers do – and something I’ve done myself – is take verses in two-verse segments. 8.6.8.6.8.6.8.6. 🙂

      • That’s a good idea!

      • In fact, my church, which uses a contemporary praise band, sings a modern hymn version of “The Lord Will Provide,” that uses 8.6.8.6.8.6.8.6. and isn’t half bad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIAcvpz-XOY

        Am I saying that nobody can come up with a better tune? Well, no, and that’s part of why I linked to it. 🙂 But singing it to that tune is better than not singing it at all!

  2. ‎”Don’t mess with “Amazing Grace.” Sure, it might not be the simplest melody ever written. But you’re doing the Church no favors by changing it.” Right on Daniel!! Don’t mess with Amazing Grace!! You have hit on the “We must make it relevant” topic that so many churches are promoting. It is impossible to make the Gospel more relevant – churches attempt to do that also. Changing the tune to wonderful songs such as “One Day” or “Amazing Grace” is like writing a new tune to Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” – it’s just WRONG!! 🙂 Thanks for tackling a hard topic!

    • And thanks for the comment and the support!

      (And yes, I most certainly was talking about “Amazing Grace My Chains are Gone”!)

      • A soloist sang that yesterday at church. 🙂

      • 🙁

      • I don’t have a problem with Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).” In fact, I kind of like it. Of course, I don’t really have some deep reason for it… I just like it. SG artists put hymns in the middle of their new songs… why can’t CCM artists put new songs in the middle of hymns? 🙂

        Shanna, you mentioned “One Day”… I didn’t even realize that “Glorious Day” (by Casting Crowns) was “One Day.” My dad actually pointed it out and I didn’t believe him (I had to look it up). Again, I like it, although, I don’t have a “deep” reason for it. I just like it.

        I will say this… “Amazing Grace,” “One Day,” “Jesus Paid it All,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “I Stand Amazed in the Presence,” “Come Thou Fount,” “All Creatures of our God and King,” “The Solid Rock,” and many other great hymns had disappeared from the playlist of most of our contemporary churches, and many of our churches aiming for what has been called “blended.” These new arrangements, melodies, and even added choruses, have put them back in these churches. I like that!

        Tomlin, the Gettys, Townend, Crowder, Hall… have helped put an end to the “worship wars” in many churches. They have helped bridge the gap.

        Great topic Daniel! I’m sorry we fall on different sides of it. 🙂

      • Andrew, I think my reply will have to be nuanced. I am glad that audiences are learning these great lyrics, but at the same time I think we are doing them a disservice by not teaching them the original melodies.

      • Thanks! And sorry – it hadn’t occurred to me that you might have not been familiar with that word. If I’d thought of that, I’d communicated my thought with different words.

        I know plenty of rare words, but I’m not like the annoying university professor who uses at least one word you don’t know per sentence, just to prove IQ levels! I try to use words that almost every reader can understand! 🙂

      • I like new words. I’m sure everyone else in here knew what it meant. If not, we all have google. We’ll figure it out what you meant. Keep using them.

      • Well, thanks!

        I just promise I won’t do what university professors do, and use one per sentence! Maybe y’all would be OK with one per day, but I highly doubt you’d enjoy one per sentence!

      • Chris didn’t really change the melody, he just changed the time signature. Then of course added an extra chorus.

        It works, and it’s classy—one of the classiest products of the P&W movement in recent years. But again, I don’t want people to forget the standard “Amazing Grace.”

      • I think we’ll have to disagree on whether it works, whether it’s classy, and whether it’s detrimental to the church at large. 🙂

      • If you’re going to imply that it’s tacky, I would suggest that you reserve the word for something like this:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6d4Nenj13sA

        Levels, degrees, and levels… 😉

      • There is always something worse… 🙂

      • Daniel, are you saying that Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace, My Chains Are Gone” is “detrimental do the church at large?”

      • I will at least go this far: To whatever extent its use is replacing the standard melody, and to whatever extent new believers are being taught that instead, I would not say that the church comes out stronger from the change. 🙂

      • Okay… well maybe I don’t have a good understanding. I think you are saying that a church that uses Chris Tomlin’s version of “Amazing Grace” in its worship services is positively impacted less than a church than uses John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” and you are basing this belief largely off of that fact that the melody is different. Is that a fair summary?

      • I have said “re-read the original post” a few too many times this afternoon, so lest I wear anyone’s patience thin by saying it again, let me quote two pertinent paragraphs:

        “Several dozen hymns are so widely known and loved that Christians around the world sing them in hundreds of languages. Several hundred more—perhaps 250-500—are widely recognized throughout English-language churches around the world. There is a distinct benefit to the global church if new believers are taught these songs—with their original tunes.

        “On the global level, you can walk into many churches around the world and, without being able to understand a word of the sermon, still join your brothers and sisters in Christ in ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘It is Well With My Soul,’ or ‘The Old Rugged Cross.'”

  3. To be fair, people have been messing with the tune for Amazing Grace since the beginning. It wasn’t until Southern Harmony in 1835 that the tune New Britain was put with Amazing Grace. Throughout the 19th century, people put many different tunes with the words. (Like this [Track 5]: http://www.amazon.com/American-Angels-Songs-Redemption-Glory/dp/B0001ADB4Q/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1312814198&sr=8-1 )

    I think it was the turn of the century when things finally got standardized. (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/grace/grace-timeline.html) With it having been almost 200 years since the first pairing, I would agree that one shouldn’t change the tune for congregational singing, although it’s probably fine for performance.

    • Andrew – yes, Amazing Grace pre-dated the era when hymns and their melodies were published simultaneously. Yet it is so widely known under the common tune that it is one of those where, I do believe, my case above is applicable. 🙂

      • Daniel, another great post! But help me clarify something, while I certainly can understand your point, I don’t see why we have to canonize a particular hymn’s lyrics with a particular melody when those lyrics have a history with other melodies. Doesn’t saying that we should only sing the “New Britain” version of “Amazing Grace” limit the our access to other great beautiful old melodies that also share it’s lyrics and would otherwise lie dormant or be forgotten. As a Sacred Harp singer I love many other versions of the Hymn such as “Jewett” and eventually would like to teach them to my own congregation; or at the very least have the choir sing them. I know that some of these older versions are still used by churches today. I just don’t understand why we should limit our patrimony of hymnody. Keep up the good work!

      • I am in favor of exploring alternate or even brand-new tunes for any hymn except those 250-500 whose tunes are most widely known globally, so as to be ubiquitous.

        Yes, I recognize that a number of hymns that are ubiquitous now under a certain tune have been sung to others before, but when a hymn hits a certain point of ubiquity worldwide, I think there gets to be a point when we might as well leave it as it is. 🙂

      • I am behind you 150% when it comes to your points on new melodies. But, I would have a problem saying that those churches such as the Primitive Baptists,Mennonites, Independent Baptists, Brethren churches, who have a long standing tradition and history of singing alternate melodies of those hymns and have been in their hymnals since the 1800’s, should suddenly stop singing them because one version has found more favor and is now found everywhere. I just think that allowances need to be made when it comes to the history, practice, and living tradition of hymns.

      • Surely we are in agreement that some hymn tunes are more ubiquitous than others; the more ubiquitous a hymn tune is, the more I would say that the case in my original post applies. Likewise, the less ubiquitous it is, the less it applies. Fair enough?

      • We are in complete agreement on that.

      • Great!

        If we agree on the underlying principle, the discussion is a lot simpler – all it comes down to, really, is how ubiquitous a given hymn is. 🙂

      • Right, my only real point was that those churches who maintain a tradition and living legacy of more than one version should not be prevented from singing it. I was not speaking for congregational singing in the wider church. Although culturally speaking I think that we need to keep some of the older tunes alive because of their historical cultural value. But that’s what Shape Note Singing Conventions are for. 🙂

  4. I’m glad you’re addressing this topic, Daniel, because as both a musician and a student of theology I feel strongly about singing the old hymns.

    I’ve been re-watching an in-depth DVD series about “how to listen to and understand great music” and it’s reminding me once again that there are tunes that are singable and tunes that aren’t – and tunes that are congregational singable and tunes that aren’t. And tunes that are doleful and minor (which seems to be most of the modern ones) and tunes that are joyful and uplifting. And there are real mechanical, musical reasons for that, it’s not just somebody’s opinion.

    Our society has become so individualistic that we’re losing the idea of corporate anything – corporate worship (aw, just stay home and watch a sermon on the internet), corporate prayer (aw just join a facebook group for prayer), corporate charity (aw just volunteer your time or money whenever it’s convenient for you) and yep – corporate music.

    Our music has become geared to soloists. Odd rhythms, too many words on one note, meters that change from verse to verse, unexpected bridges between verses, disjunctive melodies that are hard for people to sing as a group, and so on. These songs are beautiful when sung by a soloist or small trained ensemble. But a congregation, perhaps faced with the song only a few times a year, struggles with the rhythms and melodies. And with good reason.

    The old hymns have several benefits for congregational singing. (a) Conjunct melodies – meaning melodies that are fairly predictable and move easily from one note to the next. (b) Four parts – which means that anyone with any voice range can easily hit “their” notes. (c) Steady meters and good poetry – once again, making it predictable in a good way and also helping it to stick in your mind.

    An old-time hymn requires people to work together to make the song sound the best – think about the parts to Wonderful Grace of Jesus. This is a beautiful picture of how the body of Christ should interact – not everyone doing the same thing as the soloist, trying to fit their particular talents into a certain arbitrary mold, but rather each of us contributing the thing he or she does best and making a wonderful whole out of the parts.

    I’m ready to go back to the robust, harmonious, congregational singing I knew as a kid!

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather! Great point!

      As a side note, your mention of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” brought a smile to my face – it was one of my first exposures to vocal counterpoint, and I’ve stayed hooked ever since!

  5. On Tomlin’s version of Amazing Grace…this is my understanding and someone please correct me if I’m wrong. He was asked to put something together using Amazing Grace as the basis. His first reaction was no, that song is to sacred to touch. However he did some research and found Amazing Grace has been changed and rewritten and added to so many times it wasn’t as sacred as he thought….and therefore, in my mind produced one of the best songs in the Christian Music gene…which is why my wife and I sing it in Church.

    One example is the last verse of Amazing Grace was maybe added after the first 3 verses. Notice how the first three are written using “I”, “my”, etc. While the fourth verse changes to “we’.

    Am I imagining things or is the above true? Sorry if I’m a little off topic….

  6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IliVc9JqW0I&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    Looks like I was pretty much right…also looks like Tomlin’s version is closer to the original than our untouchable version.

    • Hey, we have no need to debate or discuss charges of historical revisionism. Here is a direct link to a scan of the page of the original hymnal in which John Newton published the lyric:

      http://books.google.com/books?id=CGw9AAAAcAAJ&dq=john%20newton%20olney%20hymns%20I%20shall%20possess%20within%20the%20veil&pg=PA38#v=onepage&q&f=false

      Lo and behold, it does not have the chorus which Chris Tomlin added. Case concluded. 🙂

      Yes, the melody we sing it to was not added until 75-100 years after the original writing. Fact is, though, multiple generations of Christians worldwide sang and sing it to that tune. And rather than copying and pasting what I said in the original post, let me just refer everyone back to that, for reasons why it is beneficial to new believers to teach them the standard tune. 🙂

    • You misunderstood JSR. He was trying to say that Tomlin found the original last verse. The “When we’ve been there” was in fact a later addition. Tomlin brought back Newton’s actual conclusion, “The earth shall soon dissolve.”

      Chris’s arrangement is very good, but I’m a little alarmed to see it replacing the original in hymnals, and I think he wouldn’t really want that either.

      • Yes, that verse isn’t original. Of course, plenty of people through the years have still recorded the original last verse, and included it in plenty of hymnals, so it didn’t take too much searching to find it!

        My objection is taking the addition of that verse and going from there to, in Tomlin’s view, describing the song as “changed and rewritten and added to so many times.” That’s why I included the link to the original. 🙂

  7. Another song that has been messed with to the detriment of the song is “Come Thou Fount” Also when a hymn placed in the middle of a song – tune unchanged and it fits the song – I don’t mind. It’s when they change the tune, many times to something lacking in melody.
    I have strong objections – Biblical objections – to the “Praise & Worship” movement in churches. No person leads me into worship of my Lord. No person – standing up front with hands raised – as if they are telling me how I must worship my Lord. Ps. 100 tells me what worship is. It is not at all about our feelings, out experiences, our trials. Worship is the adoration, thanking, and praise of Who God is despite of what goes on in our world. That is never dependent on us. God never changes – we do. So it is not just about the style of music, that is very individual, it is all about the content and the word. Do they match up with Biblical theology? The rest is just preference.

    • In many churches that sing hymns, the song leader is referred to as the “Worship Leader”. This is not just specific to P and W churches.

      • That’s largely bleed-over from P&W, though.

      • Have to agree to disagree on that one…

      • Where I come from, we have “song leaders”. The Holy Spirit is our worship leader! 🙂

      • It’s all about what the church that is making the title wants to make it….to me a title has nothing to do with what the person leading is doing….leading “singing” or leading “worship”…semantics….

      • There is, indeed, a sense in which it could be considered semantics. However, if you call someone something, over time, they are more likely to consider themselves to be whatever you call them then if you do not call them that!

  8. Oh, and BTW, we sing the traditional version of Amazing Grace probably about 20 times as much as Tomlin’s version. However, I will say that the chorus about my chains being gone does more for me spiritually than the rest of it….whom the Son sets free is free indeed…I used to be a slave to sin…I still love to rejoice that by the amazing grace of Jesus my chains are gone.

    • I agree with you on the chorus…how anyone can sing about my chains being gone and my soul being set free and find a fault with that is beyond me….

      • May I politely suggest re-reading the original post. That’s not the point.

        I’m all for a song about chains being broken. Write a new song. 🙂

      • I was not saying anything about the original post…maybe i should have worded the reply differently…

      • Yes, but what you said does tie into the original topic – whether or not we should re-write the best-known hymns of the church. 🙂

        I’m all in favor of a song about chains being broken – a new song. I think Amazing Grace has touched enough people – deeply enough – over the years that there’s nothing lacking in its message that requires an additional chorus to be supplied.

  9. I once again have sparked a controversy. It seems best for me to return to my corner. Sorry, Daniel.

    • JSR, I apologize if I have been too polemical in my responses!

      Anyhow, even if you are quieter today, you’re welcome and invited back when we return to normal programming tomorrow!

  10. Okay I have a HILARIOUS story about this song. My friend Crystal at church was going to sing this song and wanted me to play the piano for it. So I played the song and such – and she sang. After she got finished and after church one of our “Little old ladies” looks at us and says: “Those are some pretty words you added, it sounded good” – so maybe the best way to sum it all up is “to each his own”. I personally like the addition of “My Chains are Gone” anytime that I talk about this song I ALWAYS write it as “Amazing Grace” (My Chains are Gone) – Of course I do have one question I must ask – yes “Amazing Grace (MY Chains are Gone) but here is a question Mr. Mount. What about the song “Shoutin’ Time”, because it uses “Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy”? Luther Presley added the “Shoutin’ Time” chorus to it. The Inspirations made a huge hit with it before the Hoppers. There are a LOT of people who are not as many more fans of the Inspirations who would probably be more upset about “changing” a hymn than those of the Hoppers. I am not wanting to argue by no means just trying to make case and point.

    • Shane – I don’t recall how long you’ve been reading here, but for my thoughts on “Come, Ye Sinners,” check out this post from January. 🙂

      http://www.southerngospeljournal.com/archives/10336

      • Wow, i fee like a dork LOL! -sigh- yeah, you make a point but eh, I can see both sides. After reading that haha you, make a very logical point (I have been here for about 2 years actually I just wasn’t thinking). I don’t know how much you know of Charles Billingsly but he has written a song entilted: “Christ is Able” using the old lyrics. I agree with you there so eh to each his own I suppose in the matter.

      • OK. 🙂

      • Daniel’s complaint in that particular instance isn’t really relevant. However, it could be argued that the lyric in question is objectionable because of its rather startlingly romantic depiction of our relationship with Christ: “In the arms of my dear Savior, oh there are ten thousand charms.” “Charms” is being used here in the way it would be used to describe the “charms” of a woman. This follows in a long tradition of poetry with that theme.

      • Oh, dear; must we have this same discussion again?

        I believe I stated my case clearly in January, and I’ll simply let that stand and speak for itself.

      • All I’m saying is that the whole witchcraft/magic question is moot because that’s obviously not how the word is being used there. That’s all.

      • And all I’m saying is that we must take the word’s etymology (word history) and primary meaning into consideration when deciding whether it is appropriate to use in this context.

      • All I’m saying is that somebody is a glutton for punishment, as my dad would say! (No offense meant to anyone…hopefully none taken…)

      • Thank you, Amy, for bringing a smile to my face! 🙂

      • A lyric’s time period and literary context must be taken into consideration. A meaning which may be less common today may have been very common several hundred years ago.

        Amy, is that meant for me or Daniel, or both? 😉

      • That’s exactly why I made my case from etymology, from the word’s meaning through the years, and not solely from what it means today.

      • By the way, this is far enough afield from the topic at hand. If there is to be further discussion on “charms” and etymology, let’s move it to an open thread.

  11. “This is a beautiful picture of how the body of Christ should interact – not everyone doing the same thing as the soloist, trying to fit their particular talents into a certain arbitrary mold, but rather each of us contributing the thing he or she does best and making a wonderful whole out of the parts.”

    I haven’t been around much of late – for a variety of peripatetic reasons [2:1 to Daniel]…..

    I consider this a valuable topic and Heather’s comment above highly relevant.

    The experiences and examples of the early Church emphasised the unity of “all together…all things in common” a phrase found often in the Book of the Acts.

    I agree heartily that some of the obscure cadences and variations of, what are otherwise well meant, P&W songs render it almost impossible to have united harmonious Spirit led singing by the whole congregation; which strikes at the unity of purpose of the gathering.

    There are times when I want to hear others sing – better than I can – there are many other times when I want to join wholeheartedly in the depth of the meaning and the melody of a familiar hymn.

    This opportunity for “all together” worship in hymn/song should not be lost to the body of Christ at large, nor – perhaps crucially – should the absence of the opportunity so to do, serve to alienate one generation of believers from another.

  12. By the way, in all fairness, the case I make could be applied just as easily to a praise chorus.

    “Shout to the Lord,” for example, has become rather ubiquitous, known in at least several continents. Now I don’t particularly care for its melody, but even if someone wrote one that was more hymnlike or grand, I wouldn’t advocate changing it.

  13. Hi. Just discovered this blog and was very interested in the discussion. I agree that there is an incredible wealth of hymnody that has fallen into disuse if for no other reason than being set to bland, totally forgettable or just plain bad tunes. Since many of these texts were born out of the Holy Spirit carrying the writer through raw and painful experiences that so many of us face today, we need to rediscover them and make them as relevant melodically as they are experientially. I was led to do this several years ago to the hymn “Blessed Redeemer”, not because the tune was too bland but because it didn’t express the emotion that the text brought out in me at the time. For anyone who’s interested in looking at it you can find it at https://www.finalemusic.com/showcase/myshowcase.aspx.