I grew up with hymns, having been a church chorister, going to a cathedral school and having lessons on classical music theory (on which hymns are based) at music college.

However, for many years I was put off hymns: church choirs do not do justice to the music. The hymns are always sung much too slowly - the congregations always drag and there is a general feeling amongst church-goers that hymns should always be slow and sedate, at least in the Church of England. I played the organ for church services a few times and found that the tempo kept being dragged back by a lot of the singers and it was a constant struggle. There were also never enough people singing the alto, tenor and bass lines so the harmony never sounded balanced. I suppose this is inevitable.

When I got interested in jazz, it was the rich harmonies which I loved, and still do. But here am I at the age of 75 writing something in praise of hymns. Age has got to me!

Let's divide hymn tunes up into the elements: melody and harmony. The rhythm is never very complicated, so I'll discard this, together with the words/lyrics.

With regard to the melody, they are not simplistic, which you might expect. Phrases are quite long, but easily memorable. Compare them with songs from the American song book which rely heavily upon a few notes repeated again and sometimes again in sequence or exact repetition. If you were to put church harmonies to these songs the tunes would sound quite banal. For example, Blue Moon . Now I like Blue Moon , but it' s only because I like to use a lot of altered chords to bring the tune too life.

As a comparison, choose virtually any hymn tune and note the complexity of the melody line. Here' s one : Guide me O thou great redeemer, also known as the Welsh anthem, Cwm Rhondda . Here is a recording of it sung at a Welsh Baptist Church in Cardiff.

This gives me goosebumps, and I'm not even Welsh, although my maternal grandfather's father was a church minister in Wales and I lived in Cardiff for a year - 1/75th of my lifetime. Anyway, notice how the hymn is sung with real gusto, a hymn is after all, a song of praise - it comes from the Greek, hymnos.

The first phrase (the first two lines of the hymn) is 18 notes long. This is repeated. Then we have the really catchy bit - Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven - a sequence repeated a tone higher, followed by the rhythmic repetition of a single note - Feed me now and evermore , followed by a little figure (an arpeggio) for the male voices - a nice touch. These words are then repeated but in another musical phrase to round off the tune.

Choose some other hymns - Who would true valour be, let him come hither, Amazing grace, How great thou art, We plough the fields and scatter, Abide with me and so on. All of them are very catchy if they are sung right.

In comparison, a lot of standards are insipid and predictable. La-te-la-te-la-te-la\... la-te-la-te-la-te -la, etc. When you write a tune you will arrive at the point after the first La-te-las and think to yourself: shall I do what the music suggests I do, even though it sounds too predictable? Or shall I find something else to write but which doesn' t sound quite so natural? So many standards choose the predictable option.

I will be heavily criticised for saying this but to me, a song like S' Wonderful is, dare I say it, quite trite. My biggest criticism of standards though is the unimaginative middle 8s which some have got - I got rhythm , for instance. Gershwin wrote some wonderful stuff - the songs in Porgy and Bess, for example. But be honest, he also wrote some mediocre stuff, as did all the other tune-smiths of that time. Even well-known jazz composers sometimes did not put much imagination into writing the middle-eights (or bridges) of some of their tunes either. This will sound heretical - I'd better confess that I am also guilty of this at times.

The quality stuff to my mind is the music which does not rely so heavily on sequences of just a few notes - things like Gershwin's There' s a boat that's leaving soon for New York, Summertime, I loves you, Porgy, Bess, you is my woman now. The songs of Hoagy Carmichael are gems too. Stardust (verse and chorus), Skylark and I get along without you very well, are fine examples. All of these have the same sense of melodic adventurousness as hymn tunes. Then there are other songs from different genres - Scarborough Fair , Shenandoah, Greensleeves and lots of other folk songs, and some pop songs, particularly the Beatles songs like Fool on a Hill and Yesterday, Hey Jude, Something and Latin songs, particularly Brazilian ones, such as Pretty World and No More Blues. There is in a way a parallel between these songs and hymn tunes.

That is not to cast aspersions on tunes which play around with simple phrases. All the things you are, for instance, uses sequences of just two notes, but it does so very skilfully so you can't really guess where (ie.what key) it will end up in on first hearing it. There is room for both types of tune.

My complaint against hymn tunes is that they rarely modulate to other keys beside the dominant and sometimes the sub-dominant. But they are constrained by their very purpose - to be sung by church congregations who are there basically to worship, rather than to have a sing-song. Moreover, they do not have the luxury of having rehearsals. The choir might, but they are overpowered by ordinary members of the congregation, many of whom may be tone-deaf and certainly a lot more would have difficulty in negotiating any changes of key.

Now let us look at the harmony. This harmony underlay classical music for a long time until the beginning of the twentieth century, or thereabouts. It is a harmonic system which has certain set rules to avoid " harsh" movement of inner voices by finding formulas for smooth progressions. Hence, parallel octaves and parallel fifths between parts is avoided and contrary motion is used as much as possible between the soprano and bass lines. Even hidden fifths and octaves are forbidden - these can occur when an "implied" passing note would create a parallel fifth or octave. I always thought this was too proscriptive, as did many classical composers. Hats off then to the composers, including hymn-writers, who managed to steer around these archaic rigid rules.

The choice of chords is also limited to triads and dominant sevenths and their inversions and diminished chords (often just a diminished triad) with very occasionally a few additional chords like a major or minor sixth, or a dominant 7th with a flattened fifth (although it is not called this) thrown in if the composer had been downing one too many ales when the tune was written.

Given this very meagre palette to choose from, it is astonishing that so much beautiful music was written. Take a listen to this:

Or you could listen to any pieces of eighteenth and nineteenth classical music, particularly played by a symphony orchestra.

As an exercise, write a tune (the soprano line). Keep it diatonic and end on the tonic. Do not rely upon using simple sequences. Keep it short and do not write a middle 8/bridge. Now work out which diatonic chords - root position and inversions (mainly first) can be used to harmonise each note of the tune. Write a bass line which links these up and is tuneful in itself. Having done this, write out the inner two voices (alto and tenor). Do not use parallel fifths or octaves, but you can double a note if necessary. Finally play it on a keyboard instrument. This exercise is not as easy as you may think, I think you will agree.

Even today when anything goes, as Cole Porter noted, I sometimes can't help wincing when I hear some of the rules broken. This happens in pop music which is largely based on triads in root position and dominant 7ths. When you add more complex harmonies, parallel fifths is somehow not so noticeable, provided there is good voice leading (the melodic line taken by individual parts).

So if you wish to write a passage in an arrangement, or even a complete piece that will sound like a hymn tune, be sure to follow the rules of classical harmony. On the other hand, if you wish to write something more stimulating to add tension, you will need to deliberately break the rules (like this split infinitive).

In hymn tunes, then, evey note of the tune is harmonised with a few exceptions. It might be stemming from my background in hymn-singing that I sometimes have done the same thing in jazz arrangements. For instance, The Best of Friends :

To do this, you need to be conscious of the relationship between the tune and the bass line. A lot of the time, contrary motion is best, but you can use parallel motion, as in block chord writing at times. Work out where you want to arrive at certain chords and work backwards to find ways of getting there - this might involve step movement by the bass in tones or semitones, up or down. Then work out the type of chord that is required and which fits, and then fill out the inner voices. These can sometimes also go by stepwise motion even though it produces unusual chords in the process.

You can also get away from classical harmony by using richer chords,as if writing for a 4-part sax section or trombone section. I did this in a couple of pieces for string quartet. Here is one. It is harmonised like this in the second chorus.

You can't do better than study the analysis of this piece by Kenny Wheeler - the Opening of this Sweet Time Suite. There is so much to learn from this. You will have to cut and paste this link. It is well worth it.


I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial. Good luck and happy listening.

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