Associations

Has it ever struck you how many memories a tune can carry?  Maybe you’ll always remember a song you heard on the radio all the time as a child, or the theme music from your favorite TV show, or a hymn that you used to sing often in your home church.  I know my mind will always connect snippets of music from the radio with various times and places.  I’ll always associate Psalter Hymnal number 301, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” with the heartfelt singing of the small congregation at Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship in New York City, and I’ll never forget hearing number 298 played on the wheezy old pipe organ at Christ Reformed Church’s former worship location in Washington, DC.  These musical connections may be small, but they stay with us for a lifetime because of the memories with which they are associated.

That phenomenon of association can present an interesting problem for church musicians.  Surely you’ve heard the Irish air LONDONDERRY, often sung to the text of “O Danny Boy.”  (You can listen to an excellent pipe organ rendition of it on YouTube here.)  As a secular song, this tune is perennially popular for all manner of sentimental occasions—weddings, movies, and just about any setting that calls for emotional warmth.  It’s certainly one of the most moving tunes I’ve ever heard.  But have you ever sung LONDONDERRY in worship?  It’s not likely; the tune isn’t included in the blue or gray Psalter Hymnals, nor even the 1990 Trinity Hymnal.  Yet, surprising as it may sound, this tune was once set to the words of Psalm 103 in the 1934 Psalter Hymnal.  In fact, the metrical setting was taken from vv. 2-5 of what is now blue Psalter Hymnal number 204, “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord.”

Now here’s where our question arises: Should such a tune be used in worship?  Some would answer with a confident yes—all good music should be used in the church.  Others might be more hesitant.  Maybe, they would say, we shouldn’t sing a “secular” tune like this in worship.  Their concerns stem from what I just introduced above, the issue of associations: could singing this tune distract the singers from God and focus them instead on their own feelings and emotions?  For now, I’m going to let my own opinions lie silent on this issue, and instead open up the floor for some discussion.  For starters, consider the following questions:

  • Should any music be utilized in worship so long as it is well-written?  Or should the church use only music that it has composed for itself?
  • Should the music of the church be a response to the emotions of the singers, or should it actually evoke emotion in the singers?
  • What characteristics of a melody like this make it more emotionally inspiring than other hymn tunes?  Do we just recognize the context in which the tune is so often used, or is the musical structure itself responsible?
  • What is detrimental about an overly emotional worship “experience”?
  • If “secular” music is to be adapted for worship, what criteria should be in place for selecting and/or modifying it?

As you might expect, these questions have been floating around for centuries.  Arguments, stories, and miscellaneous tidbits of information have all been thrown about at will.  My goal is not to revisit such old battles, but to remind all of us that we should give serious thought to how we worship God through music.  If our desire to follow God’s directions for worship is sincere, there is no doubt that this discussion will be fruitful.  With that said, I hope you’ll feel free to offer your thoughts on these matters!

Blessings,

–MRK

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6 Responses to “Associations”


  1. 1 Villatoro March 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    That verson of “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord.” you talked about was sung at my Grandpa’s funeral. (4 years ago next week.) I like the hymn sung to both tunes, but now when I hear that version I think of him, so I like that one a little more!

    • 2 Michael Kearney March 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      I remember that very well! In fact, that was the first time I ever heard it with that tune. Wasn’t it your cousin Stephanie who sang it? She did a beautiful job.

      –Michael

      • 3 Villatoro March 27, 2012 at 2:58 pm

        She started to, but got too emotional partway through, so Mel VE took over. She sang it once in church a long time ago with that tune, and afterwords my Grandpa came up to her and said, “I’d like you to sing that at my funeral one day.” That’s why she really wanted to, but we had told Mel to pratice it just in case she couldn’t do it. It’s a beautiful song, and they both did a good job singing it!

        • 4 Michael Kearney March 27, 2012 at 3:13 pm

          WOW! I never knew the background to that song choice. As usual, your grandfather was right. Even now, I still remember with a smile his constant queries, “Young man, when are you going to learn to play the organ? Are you playing the organ yet? Young man, when are you going to learn to play the organ?” With that in mind, I couldn’t help but pick Psalm 103 for my performance on the pipe organ at RYS (http://youtu.be/xTgcugj_0Ys). Praise God for the legacy of such a godly man.

          –Michael

  2. 5 Villatoro March 27, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    I knew you played at RYS, didn’t realize it was that song! I know my Grandpa was very impressed by your talent. Every time you’d play in church, he’d say, “Hard to believe a little kid like that can play so well! Can’t wait for him to play the organ.” Of corse you were only about 9 or 10 when he started saying that! He was a special man, I miss him a lot, but I’ll always remember all the things he taught me!

  3. 6 Michael Kearney March 31, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    As I took a little more time to peruse the psalm section of the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, I was surprised at some of the choices of tunes. Here are a few of the notable ones:

    – Psalm 46 is set to the tune of “America the Beautiful.”
    – Psalm 69 is set to a Finnish cavalry march.
    – Psalm 79 is set to the theme of a popular piano sonata by Mozart.

    These are good examples of how a poorly-chosen tune can affect the meaning and association of a hymn. Thankfully, the editors of the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal changed all of these tunes to more appropriate selections.

    –MRK


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