Tunes (Part 7)

At long last we’ve arrived at the other end of URC Psalmody’s “Tunes” series safe and unharmed.  From my first article on the music of the Hebrew psalms, we’ve blazed through the topics of meter, time signature, rhythm, accent, and key.  Along the way, I introduced an obscure setting of Psalm 118 from the 1912 Psalter on which to apply the principles described in these posts.

By the end of our last installment, we had narrowed down the possible tunes for “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above” to five choices: OLD HUNDREDTH (Psalter Hymnal number 280), TRURO (122), CREATION (282), NAZARETH (300), and SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER (105).  Each of these possibilities possesses the qualities we wanted in each area of study.  So where do we go from here?

At some point in the process of selecting a tune, musical intuition must take precedence over musical theory.  Although a deeper study of the nuances of this text might reveal a few more clues, musicians (and hymnbook editors) are eventually left to make an educated choice.  Often the decision is made through trial and error, playing and singing each combination of text and tune in succession.

Also, the final choice will often vary based on personal preference.  For instance, I like either TRURO or CREATION as the tune for “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.”  However, our faithful reader Mrs. Julien, who surpasses me by several decades in musical experience, prefers APPLETON—a tune that I had ruled out fairly early on in my selection process.  Is one of us wrong?  Possibly—and if so, it’s probably me.  But there’s room for personal opinion in choosing church music, just as there’s room for personal opinion in many other minor aspects of worship.

(As an interesting side note, however, I should mention that the 1912 Psalter includes two tunes for this setting.  One is an unfamiliar entry, STONEFIELD.  The other–to Mrs. Julien’s credit–is APPLETON.)

In any case, what matters here is that we apply Biblical principles to all questions related to church music, and guide our decisions accordingly.  Using the criteria that music should be beautiful, orderly, and fitting, we narrowed down our choices by considering various tenets of musical theory.  If extra doses of humility and prayer are included, I believe this makes for a workable and God-glorifying method of selecting church music.

As I look back on these articles, I realize that a seven-part series on hymn tunes may beg the question, “Why?”  Should the average pastor or church member really care about these technicalities?  Are they really that important?

Music is often viewed as merely a carrier for text, as water is a carrier for chemicals.  If this is true, the tune of a congregational song is meaningless.  If this is true, pastors and accompanists need not concern themselves with the details of church music.  If this is true, sacred and secular music only differ in the words that each genre carries.

This erroneous notion permeates the Christian church of today, giving rise to a plethora of problems.  Careless worship practices, poorly edited hymnbooks, the notorious “worship wars” themselves—all are fueled by the basic idea that music doesn’t matter.  How far, how sadly far from the truth!

At the beginning of this series I described music as “the salt of our psalter.”  While that may be a bad pun, I am convicted that there is some truth in it.  Salt, unlike water, has a distinct flavor that inseparably permeates anything with which it comes into contact.  In the very same way, music is a permanent and powerful component of any and every kind of song.  The link between text and tune is so close that the Christian Reformed Church included this principle in the preface to the 1976 CRC Psalter Hymnal:

The music of the church should be beautiful.  Its religious thought or spirit should be embodied appropriately in the poetry as poetry, in the music as music, and in the blending of these in song.  It should satisfy the aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony, design, rhythm, restraint, and fitness which are the conditions of all art.

Carrier or key component?  I submit to you that music is the latter.  And if this is true, our view of music matters tremendously.  Accompanists should learn all they can about music and its theory.  Pastors should choose songs with both text and tune in mind, their decisions guided by the same basic principles.  Even non-musical church members should be aware of the connection between words and music, seeking every opportunity to learn more about this crucial element of worship.

This is why we aim for a regular balance between textual and musical considerations here on URC Psalmody.  Whenever we examine a psalm, we try to examine the tunes that accompany it in the Psalter Hymnal.  It’s also why we endeavor to serve pastors and fellow church members through the Psalter Hymnal Resource Library and other avenues.  Indeed, this is why we’ve devoted a seven-part series to the topic of tunes!

I hope that through this study our appreciation and respect for the songs of the church can in some way be deepened.  God has given us the incredible gift of music; may we know and use it to his glory!

It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

–Psalm 92:1-4 (ESV)


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