4 Attributes of Classic Hymns That Make Us Love Them (and what today’s songwriters could learn from them)
Melodic and Harmonic Interest
Their melodies have a shape – an architecture if you will. An ascending melody is followed by a skipping descent and vice versa. They don’t hover around three or four notes over the course of an entire verse or chorus. Their interest makes them memorable.
Their harmonies are more involved than a simple chord progression and have colors and shades that have something unique about them.
Theological and Literary Depth
Classic hymns say something significant about God… who He is and what He has done for us. They go further than expressing our feelings about God – they use great poetic devices to paint portraits of God’s character and work. Writing these types of lyrics take time and effort. Writing a song in a short amount of time doesn’t necessarily mean you have been given an oracle from God. It might mean you have written something trite that won’t be remembered very long.
The average church goer is not ready to make every vocal run a contemporary artist can make. Our entertainment culture loves to focus on the abilities of individuals who are exceptional in what they can do. Corporate worship is not about that – it is about the entire body joining together to honor the Lord with one voice. We cannot expect the masses to replicate the vocal stylings of a developed artist. These two can co-exist, but if the song requires them, a congregation will give up.
Recently on a flight home, the flight attendant asked a plane full of strangers to do something strangers don’t normally do — sing. And, you know what we did? We sang with gusto! It was a passenger’s birthday and since we all knew the song, we all sang it. Don’t underestimate what familiarity does to help a congregation sing. New arrangements of hymns are great for the reasons already listed here, but if it is so different that it doesn’t feel familiar, it will have a counter-effect.
What can we learn from this? If you are writing songs, aspire to write songs that bear the first three characteristics. If we do and start singing them in our church, they will obtain the fourth one. If you are selecting songs, look for these. The worship of your church will be enhanced by the selection of the songs that bear these marks.
Mike Harland is the Director of LifeWay Worship. When he’s not directing 30+ employees, you’ll find him leading worship at various churches around the country, writing/arranging worship songs and/or, writing his next book (checkout his latest book: Worship Essentials). In his spare time, he loves playing basketball and spending time with his family (and his two new grand-babies). Visit MikeHarland.com to keep up with all that Mike has going on.