Tunes (Part 6)

When a new hymnal comes out, scholarly church members tend to pounce on songs with bad doctrine.  Older congregants might grumble about altered lyrics in the old hymns.  Younger congregants might complain that not enough of their own favorites were included.  What about church musicians?  For us, the most objectionable items in a new hymnal are often the keys of its tunes.

Welcome to Part 6 of the URC Psalmody Tunes series, where we’re slowly but surely weaving our way through some of the most important technical aspects of church music.  While we’ve previously considered meter, time signature, rhythm, and accent, today’s article brings us to the unbelievably controversial subject of key signatures.

For our non-musical readers, the most concise definition I can give is that the key signature of a piece determines its pitch—how high or low it is.  That’s why keys are so important (after all, they are called “keys”).  That’s also why even non-instrumental congregations often begin their songs with pitch-pipes: so the congregation can begin, and hopefully end, on key.

One unique aspect of key signatures is that the key of a tune can be changed.  Meter, time signature, and accent are all inherent to each tune, and altering them is usually ruinous.  Keys, on the other hand, can be raised or lowered at will, and that’s what makes them such a volatile subject in musical analysis—because, although the key of a tune always can be changed, it’s an entirely different matter to decide when it should be changed.

That’s a debate for another day, but in this series I would like to consider some of the ways in which key signature affects a hymn tune.

First, choosing the right key is essential to making the tune sing-able.  The average woman in your church isn’t going to be able to hit a high A, and neither is the average man going to be able to rumble away in the chasms beneath the bass clef.  Each of the four harmony parts in the music must fall within a normal range.

Key signature also determines whether the music can be sung in unison.  Congregants without vocal training sing the soprano line by default, since it carries the melody.  Thus, the melody line must fit within an attainable range for both male and female voices.  The generally accepted range begins somewhere around the B-flat just below middle C and ends at the E one octave higher.

The most significant impact of key regards the tone color of the music.  Each key signature has its own unique color: D-flat, A-flat, and E-flat are warm and mellow, whereas keys like A, E, B, and F-sharp are acute and brilliant; C, D, and G tend to sound bright and brittle, while B-flat and F fall into a comfortable middle ground.

This last property of key signatures can often make or break a particular tune.  Try playing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” (Psalter Hymnal number 318) in E as it’s written there, and then in D as it is commonly found in newer songbooks.  Or try playing “Nearer, Still Nearer” (number 454) in D instead of D-flat.  In both cases you’ll hopefully notice a drastic difference.  While a properly-chosen key powerfully complements the theme of a particular psalm or hymn, a poorly-chosen key makes the music at best colorless, at worst painfully jarring.

With these concepts in mind, let’s turn our attention once again to our ongoing experimental psalm setting, “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.”  In Part 5, we narrowed down our list of potential tune matches to this extent:

CANONBURY, 229
LOUVAN, 249
OLD HUNDREDTH, 280
ROCKINGHAM OLD, 26
TRURO, 122
WINCHESTER NEW, 170
WOODWORTH, 288
CREATION, 282
NAZARETH, 300
SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER, 105

The next question we should ask is this: What color is implied in the text of this versification of Psalm 118?

(1) Give thanks and praise to God above,
For everlasting is His love;
Praise Him, ye saints, your Savior praise,
Forever good in all His ways.

The answers to this question will of course be subjective, since musical aptitude and taste vary from person to person.  (Hence the need for committees in order to publish new hymnbooks.)  However, I think we would mostly agree that Psalm 118 is a song of jubilant praise, with a theme that implies a bright or brilliant tone.  Key signatures that match these qualities include C, D, G, A, and E; I’ve disregarded B and F-sharp simply because they’re extremely difficult keys that don’t often appear in hymnbooks.

Having made this decision, our final step is to comb through the list of tunes above and select only those with matching keys.  Once this process is complete, our list contains the following selections:

OLD HUNDREDTH, 280
TRURO, 122
CREATION, 282
NAZARETH, 300
SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER, 105

Look at that!  Even though we’ve only considered a few elemental aspects of music, our original master list of 60 tunes has already shrunk to the convenient number of five.  Next time, Lord willing, we’ll wrap up this discussion with a few final considerations, and then I’ll reveal my personal preference for the final tune.  Meanwhile, readers, which tune from this “semi-final round” do you think should win?  Cast your votes!

–MRK

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2 Responses to “Tunes (Part 6)”


  1. 1 Reita Julien August 22, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Personally, I am not crazy about the Nazareth tune or the Sweet Hour of Prayer tune. I like the Appleton tune for the ” Give thanks and praise to God above” and played in the key of E flat. The congregations that I have been in sing that tune really well–Psalter # 236–Psalm 119.

    By the way, the Canadian churches (mostly immigrant background) sing mostly unison. Very little part singing in the church services. If I let them sing accapella, you can hear a little part singing coming from “here and there” in the congregation. Singing in our Dunnville church sounds a lot like Synod. you would love it.


  1. 1 Tunes (Part 7) « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 29, 2012 at 11:00 am

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