Preparing a Hymn

Editor’s Note: Leading and enhancing congregational singing is an art to which the organ is exquisitely well-suited, when played in ways sensitive to the particularities of the text and the needs of the singing assembly. In the videos below, organist Thomas Murray walks us through some foundational issues in preparing to play a hymn. Each video concludes with the hymn played and sung through with choir and congregation at a Sunday liturgy at Christ Church, New Haven.*

(Click title for hymn PDF)
#411 in The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal)


(Click title for hymn PDF)
#284 in The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal)


Production Credits
Sachin Ramabhadran, producer/editor
Jeff Hoyt, director of photography
Mateusz Zechowski, audio recordist


*The organ at Christ Church is the William G. Kibitz Memorial Organ,  built in 2005 by Lively-Fulcher Pipe Organ Builders. The 59 stop, 63 rank, and 3752 pipe instrument is named in honor of Fr. William Kibitz, the eighth rector of Christ Church, who served from 1950-1978. The organ specifications are online here.

Thomas Murray is the Yale University Organist, serving on the faculty at the School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music. His performing career has taken him all over the world. The American Guild of Organists named him International Performer of the Year in 1986, and the Royal College of Organists in England awarded him an FRCO diploma honoris causa in 2003. In 2007 the Yale School of Music awarded him the Gustave Stoeckel Award for excellence in teaching. He is artist-in-residence and principal organist at Christ Church Episcopal in New Haven.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Murray, Thomas. (2014) “Preparing a Hymn 1,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 15a. Available at:

Recommended Citation: Murray, Thomas. (2014) “Preparing a Hymn 2,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 15b. Available at:

View article as a PDF: Preparing_a_Hymn-Thomas_Murray

[It may be Lord our voice is suited now]

It may be Lord our voice is suited now

only for irony, onslaught, and the minor hierarchies of rage.


It may be that only the crudest, cruelest transformations touch us,

gauzewalkers in the hallways of a burn ward.


I remember a blind man miraculous for the sounds of his mouth,

every bird rehearsed and released for the children to cheer.


Where is he now, in what icy facility or sunlit square,

blackout shades and a brambled mouth, singing extinctions?


Christian Wiman is the author, editor, or translator of nine books, including My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013). His new book of poems, Once in the West, was released in the fall of 2014. His spare, precise poems often explore themes of spiritual faith and doubt. For ten years, he served as editor of Poetry magazine; in 2013 he joined the faculty of Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Wiman, Christian (2014) “[It may be Lord our voice is suited now],” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 19.
Available at:

View article as a PDF: It May Be Lord Our Voice is Suited Now

Have Hymnals Become Dinosaurs?

This essay is an edited and adapted version of the Kavanagh Lecture, entitled “Have Hymnals Become Dinosaurs?: The Costs of Extinction,” delivered on October 24, 2013 at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Three scenarios — all of them real — can set the stage to address the question of the “extinction” of hymnals.

A congregation oversubscribes the cost of buying new denominational songbooks that contain a mixture of old hymns and recently-composed songs. The congregation’s minister approaches a pastoral colleague assigned to a smaller, struggling congregation, and offers her the surplus money for a similar purchase. “No, thank you,” she says. “We no longer use books since the lyrics are projected on the screen along with the other texts for worship. Although we are small, this is a forward-looking community. We are not interested in print books that are a relic of the past. Besides, we don’t want to be encumbered with books to hold because we prefer to be free to lift our hands or clap as we sing.”

In speaking about resources for worship, the pastor acknowledges that he never uses the denomination’s hymnbook. “I like having the freedom to choose music from any source. Of course, we have our CCLI [Christian Copyright Licensing International] and licenses. I find songs that best fit the theme of the day and that can get the congregation really ‘in’ to their worship. Hymnals are far too restrictive.”

A student in my introductory worship course, upon learning that the day’s session will focus on music in worship, comments in class: “I hope you aren’t going to talk about hymns and hymnals. They really are irrelevant to today’s worship. The music is old fashioned and the words are often boring. I’d like for us to talk about ‘contemporary’ music and music that is produced individually or collaboratively by people in an emerging-style congregation. That really would be more helpful for us as future pastors.” Although the Masters of Sacred Music students in the room cringe at that remark, they are a minority compared to the heads nodding in affirmation of the student’s request.

We are all aware of churches where the blue, red, black, or green hymnal remains safely tucked in the pew rack for the duration of the Sunday liturgy. In some instances, denominational leaders have encouraged hymnal-using congregations to lay their books aside in the name of growth and “relevance.” Indeed, some of these churches have experienced growth in numbers after giving up their hymnbooks. Even in Catholic churches, the Gather or equivalent songbook collects dust while the monthly rotation of “missalettes” is used. So it is a bit of a surprise that, in 2013, two new denominational hymnbooks were born: the joint publication of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America presented under the title Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs; and Glory to God, from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. In response to the trends of the times, both of these books are available in hard-copy and electronic forms. Lift Up Your Hearts comes in multiple digital formats that include schemes for projection, printing, and reading. Glory to God is offered in a web-based electronic edition that is searchable and includes audio clips. What some declare to be a dying life-form has been acclimatized to the digital age. 

What some declare to be a dying life-form has been acclimatized to the digital age.

Is this simply a last-ditch effort to save the hymnal from extinction as a species? Should hymnals go the way of the dodo and the dinosaur, given the changes in today’s worship climate? Most certainly they should, if one considers the comments of many church leaders, worship leaders, laity, and seminarians. Yet, it is clear that the leadership of these three Reformed denominations had a different perspective when confronted with the choice between reinvigorating the hymnal — helping it adapt to a new environment — or to letting it pass away. The “Theological Vision Statement” (2009), written by the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song and included in the back of Glory to God as Appendix I, succinctly articulates their logic for the continuation of the hymnbook genre. I state it here in full, for it provides a foundation for a more fleshed-out discussion of the costs of extinction.

Collections of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs give voice to the church’s core beliefs and theological convictions. Their texts are “compact theology,” and the selection of hymns and songs, the order in which they are presented, and even the ways in which they are indexed shape the theological thinking and ultimately the faith and practices of the church.

Previous hymnals have responded to the needs of the church and the world by highlighting the rhythms of the church year, the centrality of the psalms in the prayer and praise of Reformed churches, the corporate witness of the church to the world, the seeking of God’s peace and God’s justice, and the rich musical and poetic resources of world Christianity. All these motifs remain important and should be retained, in one way or another, in this collection.

This collection of hymns and songs, however, will be published amid different conditions than those that molded previous hymnals. It will be offered in a world in which trust in human progress has been undermined and where eclectic spiritualities often fail to satisfy deep spiritual hungers. It will be used by worshipers who have not had life-long formation by Scripture and basic Christian doctrine, much less Reformed theology. It is meant for a church marked by growing diversity in liturgical practice. Moreover, it addresses a church divided by conflicts but nonetheless, we believe, longing for healing and the peace that is beyond understanding.

To inspire and embolden a church facing these formidable challenges, the overarching theme of this collection will be God’s powerful acts of creation, redemption, and final transformation. It will also bespeak the human responses that God’s gracious acts make possible. In other words, the framework for this collection of congregational song will be the history of salvation.

This theme of salvation history answers the needs of the church and the world in the following ways:

  • The priority placed on God’s acts offers hope to those whose faith in human efforts has been undermined.

  • A focus on salvation history reminds a church and world riddled with anxiety, frustration, and conflict that love has come to earth and that the risen and ascended Christ is alive and active.

  • The emphasis on God’s provision for us invites our grateful response. It makes a place for expressions of corporate commitment as well as personal devotion.

  • The framework of salvation history is widely inclusive. It has places for existing hymns and invites the writing of new words and music to supply major omissions. It makes room for the whole of the biblical witness, not only psalms and the Gospels that are already well reflected in hymn texts, but also the segments of the Scriptures that are not. It incorporates the events of the Christian year, the sacraments, and the mission of the church throughout the world as Christ’s living body.

  • As such, this framework both encompasses and enriches the liturgical practices that exist in the church. It includes the christological rhythm of the liturgical year, from Advent to the Reign of Christ, but also places the liturgical year in the wider framework of God’s covenantal acts in creation and toward Israel. It challenges all users, whatever liturgical patterns they use, to shape their worship by the full extent of the biblical narrative.

  • The rich narrative of salvation history — with the life stories of people like Abraham and Sarah, Eli and Samuel, Boaz and Ruth, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch — makes audible the manifold ways in which God engages people of different ages, nationalities, races, and genders.

  • The framework of the history of salvation offers a theological rationale for asking us to learn songs that come from cultures different from our own: Pentecost teaches us to speak and hear the gospel in many tongues and languages and only thus, “with all the saints,” to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18). We do not sing hymns and songs because they were birthed in our culture; we sing them because they teach us something about the richness that is in God.

  • Likewise, the notion of salvation history invites us to bridge the divide between different musical styles and traditions. As scribes who have been trained for God’s reign will bring out of their treasures “what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52), so musicians are invited to lead us in songs both old and new, in praise of a God who is the first and the last, the ancient of everlasting days, and the Lord of the new creation.[1]

To address the question of whether or not hymnals are outmoded, it is necessary to consider their functions and purposes. First, we will focus on the hymnal as a theological primer, and then consider the hymnal as the repository of the church’s witness through the ages. Finally, we will look at the hymnal as a witness to the present age and the age to come.

The Hymnal as a Theological Primer

The Presbyterian “Theological Vision Statement” makes it clear that, above all, the hymnal encompasses layers of theological reflection on the Christian faith. By the “compact theology” found in each hymn, pieces of the narrative of God’s salvation and the hymn writer’s interpretation of them are provided. They are then, in performance, knit into the larger fabric of the doxological and liturgical event. No single hymn or song is capable of conveying the full story of salvation. As we know, some are better at articulating basic Christian beliefs and experiences than others. Ideally, the text and tune of each hymn or song serve as a memory aid, reminding the singers of the broader narrative of God’s work in creation and in human life. What is expressed in a hymn is, by design and of necessity, incomplete.

To speak of hymns, however, is not necessarily to speak of hymnals. The pastor previously described was quite happy to retrieve the sung repertoire of his congregation from a variety of sources and not just out of a single, discrete publication of texts and melodies. Positively put, such an approach may provide greater musical flexibility in worship planning and practice. In addition, communities may engage new musics as they emerge rather than wait for months or years before they are approved for a collection. Congregations, and especially worship leaders and pastors, are free to develop their own repertoire. But what is seen as beneficial may be also regarded as problematic. The freedom to develop a repertoire might mean that certain aspects of the narrative of salvation and the experiences of Christian life are overlooked or, at the other extreme, over-emphasized. Preachers often have their favorite homiletic axes to grind, and a musical repertoire of limited theological content may be used as an aural lubricant to ease the delivery. Along with the problem of a truncated range of songs of faith, there is the dislocation of the repertoire of a congregation from the wider song of the church. Hymnal committees, slow though they may be, select songs to speak to a broad constituency. Through a system of checks and balances, a representative committee also gives attention to theological diversity and integrity. The loss of such diversity and integrity can be registered as but one price that would be paid for the extinction of hymnals.

The Presbyterian Statement acknowledges that hymns articulate the faith of the church, and that the organization of the collections themselves does so as well. The Presbyterian committee was not the first to make this observation. Almost 230 years earlier, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote in his Preface to the voluminous Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists (1780) that the book was “large enough to contain all the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical” and that the contents were not “carelessly jumbled together, but carefully ranged under proper heads, according to the experience of real Christians.” The book was “in effect a little body of experimental and practical divinity.”[2] Thus the value of hymnals is not just that they conveniently contain the repertoire of words — and often music — to be used for Christian worship and devotions. Hymnbooks or songbooks, by their contents and by the method of their organization, teach the faith of the Church — and, in the case of denominationally authorized books, convey the particular doctrines or theological emphases of that branch of the Christian tradition. Between two covers, the lex orandi and the lex credendi stand together.

Between two covers, the lex orandi and the lex credendi stand together.

Because hymnals are intended for the congregation, they are, in effect, the liturgical and theological books of the people, who are thus enabled to articulate their praise and thanksgiving. Since these books are literally “at hand,” their contents — the words of hymns and the theological shape of the entire collection — can (ideally) be more readily assimilated and “owned.” What is “confessed with the lips” therefore can both reflect and shape what is “believed in the heart” (Rom.10:9).

While hymnbooks, by their organization, offer a theological framework, this structuring cannot be identified as a systematic theology. As the hymnologist Paul Westermeyer observes, the arrangement of hymns should be identified more as a “synthetic” theology than one that is systematic. Hymns are usually multivalent and so can fit under more than one heading typical of a systematic theology; indeed, the “individual parts and their whole draw together many connections in a totality about the Christian faith that is fundamentally doxological and cannot be easily systematized.”[3] This is one reason why it is difficult to locate a particular hymn by using a topical index. But the absence of a systematic theology and the utilization of a synthetic theology do not mean that there is no theological coherence or flavor to a hymnal.

To return to John Wesley’s 1780 Collection “organized according to the experience of real Christians” as an example, we find a hymnal that takes the shape of Wesley’s proclaimed via salutis, or way of salvation, so important for Methodism as a movement within the Church of England. The Collection begins with hymns inviting to repentance, and continues with hymnic prayers for repentance and true faith. The penultimate section provides hymns under the headings “Rejoicing,” “Fighting,” “Praying,” “Watching,” “Working,” “Suffering,” “Groaning for Full Redemption,” “Brought to the Birth,” “Saved,” and, interestingly, given the personal focus of the previous headings but in keeping with Wesley’s missionary convictions, “Interceding for the World.” The final section is designated for the worship of the Methodist society with the headings “Giving Thanks,” “Praying,” and “Parting,” a tripartite simplicity that little indicates the spiritual and emotional intensity of society gatherings. The via salutis structure (in full or in part) persists in Methodist hymnals on both sides of the Atlantic more than two centuries later as a type of identifier for Methodist hymn and song collections. The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) tucks the old via salutis scheme into a broader five-section structure, in which the first three sections are assigned to each person of the Trinity, the fourth section identified with “The Community of Faith,” and the fifth focused on the eschatological “New Heaven and New Earth.” The old via salutis structure straddles the section assigned to the work of the Holy Spirit (beginning with invitation and repentance) and the “Community of Faith” section in a sub-part that is designated “The Nature of the Church,” in recognition that Methodism no longer self-defines as an ecclesiola but as an ecclesia. For Methodists, the preservation of a theological organizational shape within the hymnals across the generations has been a conscious recognition of a particular Methodist identity. This organizational structure also played a catechetical and instructional role for Methodists. Prior to the existence of a seminary education for aspiring clergy of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, assigned books were read as part of a ministerial Course of Study, and on the list was the denomination’s hymnal. An 1860 essay describing this Course indicated that consideration was to be given to the hymnal’s arrangement: “parts, sections, sub-sections, consecutive order of the hymns; as they are all arranged in philosophical order, with headings suggestive of the particular subjects, and specially framed to assist in selection for particular purposes and occasions.”[4] The Preface to the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) affirms this heritage: “Next to the Bible, our hymnals have been our most formative resource.”

Changed or modified theological and liturgical emphases are often indicated in the organization of a denomination’s hymnal. A good example is demonstrated by a comparison of the Congregational Church’s Pilgrim Hymnal (1958) with its successor the New Century Hymnal of 1995, which was produced as the second hymnal for the United Church of Christ, the denomination born from the union of the Congregational Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Missing from the older hymnal is an explicit section-heading that references the liturgical year, though the Preface to the book notes that the hymns mark “the changing yet recurring accents of the Christian year,” and christological hymns pertinent to Advent through Ascension and Reign appear under the heading “Our Lord Jesus Christ.” A new denomination and the influence of the liturgical movement likely encouraged the liturgical year heading in the New Century Hymnal under which includes, quite remarkably for historic Calvinists, hymns for All Saints Day.

The synthetic theological aspect of hymnal organization identified by Westermeyer is especially evident when comparing the 1940 and the 1982 Episcopal Church USA hymnals. Both books include a section of “General Hymns” that contains texts that overlap in content with selections in the other headings of “Daily Office,” “Christian” or “Church Year,” and “Sacraments and other Rites.” The subsections of the 1982 book are far more detailed than that of the 1940 collection, especially under the section “General Hymns,” which supplies subsections in roughly a creedal outline. The placement of service music, which moved from the back of the 1940 book to the front of the 1982 book, speaks of both convenience for practice and of liturgical identity.

Even hymns in collections designed for multiconfessional or nondenominational use are often framed within a theological system. Two books produced in Australia by editorial committees with Anglican, Churches of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Uniting Church members took up the same creedal structure in each book (The Australian Hymn Book [1977]; Together in Song [1999]). Such collaborative work and the repeated structures in the books gave testimony not only to the theological and liturgical sharing of the ecumenical creeds, but also to a type of hymnic ecumenism that recognized the possibility of separated Christians singing many of the same songs together. An example of a nondenominational book is A Hymnal For Colleges and Schools, published in 1992 by Yale University Press, which is organized according to salvation history, from creation to eschaton. Embedded within this scheme, in a section designated “The Faithful Life,” are subsections placed in a sequence corresponding to a liturgical ordo. Though not confessional, this book’s organizational agenda places the worship of an academic community within the narrative stream of the whole church.

With the loss of a hymn and song repertoire demarcated between the two covers of a book — or with the absence of an organizational system delineating theologically the contents of a digital file — the church has lost a key mechanism for teaching the faith both obviously and subtly. A single song text projected on a screen or printed in a worship leaflet dislocates that text from the wider theological and doxological milieu.

A single song text projected on a screen or printed in a worship leaflet dislocates that text from the wider theological and doxological milieu.

While it is true that the single song text may function as a memory aid or mnemonic device, its usefulness may be much more limited when separated from the wider and deeper pool of the hymnal, where a text connects thematically with those before and after it. For newcomers to the faith, a text’s wider theological connectivities might not even be recognized.

My own earliest theological education, besides church school and Sunday worship, came from reading the hymnal. Headings and indices were not neglected as I combed through our church’s hymnal as a way of amusing myself during especially boring sermons. I supplemented my experience of the liturgical year as celebrated in the congregation with hymns under the appropriate headings; the poverty of Advent hymns in our book was not lost on me. As a young pianist and then organist, I routinely played through the family’s copy of the denominational hymnal to put in my fingers what I had read with my eyes. How can my faith-formative experience be replicated to a generation that knows no hymnbooks in the pew or in the home? Such is a cost of extinction.

The Hymnal as the Repository of the Church’s Witness through the Ages

Just as a circumscribed and theologically synthetic hymn and song repertoire is better able to express and convey the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, so too it is more capable of exposing diachronically the lived faith of Christian communities. The inclusion of representative texts and tunes from previous eras and the current one declare implicitly that the church does not in each generation re-create itself de novo, although it is always an ecclesia semper reformanda, offering “new songs” to the Lord (Ps. 144:9; Rev. 14:3).[5] In a sense, a hymnal that includes the song of the church through the ages functions as a poetic and musical witness to the communion of saints, both the triumphant and militant. The diversity of the saints of the church is therefore represented by a variety of poetic texts and musical styles.

The breadth of the church’s tradition of song is well represented in the previously mentioned Lift Up Your Hearts and Glory to God, published in 2013, as well as in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Evangelical Lutheran Worship of 2006. To start at the beginning chronologically, all three of these books include psalms, scriptural canticles, and translations of one of the earliest known hymn texts: the evening hymn Phos Hilaron is attested, in the fourth-century Treatise on the Holy Spirit of Basil the Great, to be an already well-practiced hymn. Each contains texts from successive periods, for example to name only very few: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” from the Liturgy of Saint James; the Venerable Bede’s “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing”; “All Will Be Well,” from Julian of Norwich; “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”; Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”; “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” from Calvin and the Strasbourg Psalter; Isaac Watts’s “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”; Charles Wesley’s “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”; Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance”; Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”; Pablo Sosa’s “O Look and Wonder”; Shirley Erena Murray’s “Touch the Earth Lightly”; “In the Darkness of the Morning,” by the emerging Mennonite hymn writer Adam Tice; and texts by Chris Tomlin and Graham Kendrick, who are known for their contributions to contemporary Christian music (CCM).

The texts of different eras were accompanied by music written in the particular and preferred styles of their age. These musical styles of past generations were in their own time a “new song,” and each functioned to help capture hearts, minds, and voices in conveying the faith — a type of sonic evangelism.

These musical styles of past generations were in their own time a “new song,” and each functioned to help capture hearts, minds, and voices in conveying the faith — a type of sonic evangelism.

The three recent hymnals have incorporated a range of compositions, ancient and modern, into their collections. The previously mentioned Phos Hilaron is, for example, put to two different settings in the Presbyterian Glory to God: one a ninth-century Sarum plainsong (Mode IV), and the other a nineteenth-century metrical tune that is paired with a 2011 translation and versification of the ancient text. These hymnals also contain both music of the classical composers and new tunes by current writers. German chorale tunes, Anglican chant, folk tunes of the various nations and peoples, eighteenth-century English and Victorian tunes, Hispanic melodies, gospel music, the quasi-plainsong of Jacques Berthier and the Taizé Community: all these and more find a place. There is no mistaking the fact that, when the full repertoire of these books is embraced and engaged, our participation in the sonic worship of the saints is diverse indeed.

A chronological accounting of the saints is one way to read the musical output of the cloud of witnesses. Another is to consider their geographic representation. All three of these hymnals are committed to the inclusion of historical and current texts that represent more than North America and Western Europe. They also pay attention to the sounds produced by this geographic spread. Lift Up Your Voice includes music by composers from countries not previously represented in many hymn collections. Settings from the continent of Africa include sounds from Cameroon, Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

The texts of hymns and songs together in a discrete collection provide a time-specific — yet in many ways also ageless — compendium of Christian life and experience: sorrow and joy; repentance and forgiveness; praise, adoration and thanksgiving; communion and mystery; and so forth. These texts and tunes still speak to the spiritual journey and experience of Christian people today, and in most cases the date of their writing is forgotten. How often is it remembered that “Amazing Grace” is an eighteenth-century text written by a former slave trader and usually sung to an early nineteenth-century tune? In our generation, it is a hymn of comfort sung at Christian funerals; and it is embraced widely in American society at times of community protest or tragedy. Another example, the ubiquitous “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” was written in the late seventeenth century and is commonly set to a sixteenth-century tune. The hymnic witness of the past is enduring. Such timelessness and timeliness is also shown in the creation of new texts based on the work of earlier writers. The hymn writer Jean Janzen, born in 1933, often finds her inspiration in such ancient works as those of Julian of Norwich:

Mothering God, you gave me birth in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, source or every breath, you are my rain, my wind, my sun.

Mothering Christ, you took my form, offering me your food of light,
grain of life, and grape of love, your very body for my peace.

Mothering Spirit, nurturing one, in arms of patience hold me close,
so that in faith I root and grow until I flower, until I know.[6]

Thus, the decision to forfeit the use of a hymnal or a songbook in effect cuts off a congregation from its heritage and its memory. The loss of a hymnal lessens the likelihood of an awareness of the diversity and unity of Christian experience both chronologically and geographically. It also obscures the truth that “through the church the song goes on”[7] and that “the church in liturgy and song, in faith and love, through centuries of wrong, has borne witness to the truth in every tongue.”[8] As A. Royce Eckhardt, editor of the 1996 Covenant Hymnal, rightly notes:

The vast ocean of Christian hymnody transcends our individual limits and our specific place. The hymnal reminds us that God, the creator of the whole universe, took mortal flesh among us in a specific time and place; and that the hymnal, in both its universality and its particularity, protects us from believing that only the song of our time and our place, is the one that really matters. No, we are part of a much larger, ongoing song.[9]

The Hymnal as a Witness to the Present Age and the Age to Come

Not only do hymnals expose diachronically the lived faith of Christian communities, they also express synchronically — in the present time — the church’s witness. This is indicated by the sharing of an authorized denominational hymnal among the congregations of that denomination and sometimes by congregations outside the denomination. A note at the front of Evangelical Lutheran Worship indicates that the book is commended for use in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, thereby linking those congregations musically and also liturgically since calendars, propers, liturgical settings, and texts for sacraments and sacramental rites are included in the book. Other congregations, and even denominations, may use this hymnal, drawing them into the tight network as well. These congregations are then linked by the work and music of worship — the ordering of the gathering, the proclamation of the word, the fellowship of the table, and the sending forth to mission and service. The Introduction to Evangelical Lutheran Worship makes this point with these euchologically-framed words: “May this book of the church…be [a servant] through which the Holy Spirit will call out the church, gather us around Jesus Christ in word and sacrament, and send us, enlivened, to share the good news of life in God.” The ties that bind by the use of a hymnal locate a single congregation in a broader company, which then allows these congregations to speak together to the present age. Thus, the connections between a local community and the global church become more tangible. However, this is not to suggest that churches engage in an absolute equivalence in worship practice and music selection, since what is expected in most instances is a unity without an imposed uniformity.

Although hymnals under different titles rarely have identical contents, the similarities between them connect congregations, even when words are adjusted by translation or a scrupulous editorial committee and musical settings are not alike. The sharing of a hymnic repertoire unselfconsciously pushes the work of ecumenism forward as a witness to the churches — and to a skeptical world. There is something remarkable about Catholic congregations singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The hymn “Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly” by Roland Palmer that is familiar to Catholics appears in the current United Methodist hymnal — and not in the section on Advent, which is where Mary is typically hidden in most Protestant hymnals.

Hymns in a shared repertoire connect us ecumenically and globally. Congregations in areas that once received the hymns of Western missionaries are now exporting their songs of faith to hymnals produced in countries that those missionaries came from. For example, the South African songs “Siyahamba,” “Thuma mina,” and “Mayenziwe” have become staples in North American hymnals. Spanish-language hymns are sung in congregations where there are no native Spanish speakers. Tunes, as already noted, sound the worldwide aspect of the church and animate the singers in common melodies and rhythms. Hymnals today are multicultural, multiethnic, multiconfessional, global. Perhaps there is at least musical truth when we sing:

In Christ there is no east or west,
In him no south or north,
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.[10]

The repertoire within hymnals is also designed to speak truth to the concerns of the present age and to point to God’s unfolding, yet not fully revealed, future. New texts that speak the faith and utilize the new musics of the age are included to energize the faithful and to entice the lapsed and curious. Issues of common concern are addressed, and their inclusion in hymnbooks is a check against the particular, and perhaps limited, commitments of worship leaders and their congregations. Since the 1960s, hymns that convey urgency for the care of God’s good earth have been assigned a place in hymnals. One text on this theme, written by the New Zealand native Shirley Erena Murray (born 1931), appears today in numerous hymnals worldwide:

Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently,
nourish the life of the world in our care:
Gift of great wonder, ours to surrender,
trust for the children tomorrow will bear.

We who endanger, who create hunger,
agents of death for all creatures that live,
we who would foster clouds of disaster—
God of our planet, forestall and forgive!

Let there be greening, birth from the burning,
water that blesses, and air that is sweet,
health in God’s garden, hope in God’s children,
regeneration that peace will complete.

God of all living, God of all loving,
God of the seedling, the snow, and the sun,
Teach us, deflect us, Christ reconnect us,
using us gently, and making us one.[11]

Not surprisingly, themes of peace and justice are topics for contemporary hymn writers and come especially from the pen of the aforementioned Adam Tice, born in the United States in 1979. His hymns are starting to appear in the newest North American hymnals and give voice to the understanding that the hymnal is a medium of prophetic witness. Tice’s hymn “The Church of Christ” considers the church of the present and of the future:

The church of Christ cannot be bound
by walls of wood or stone.
Where charity and love are found,
there can the church be known.

True faith will open up the door
and step into the street.
True service will seek out the poor
and ask to wash their feet.

True love will not sit idly by
when justice is denied.
True mercy hears the homeless cry
and welcomes them inside.

If what we have we freely share
to meet our neighbor’s need,
then we extend the Spirit’s care
through every selfless deed.

The church of Christ cannot be bound
by walls of wood or stone.
Where charity and love are found,
there can the church be known.[12]


The cost of hymnal extinction is indeed high. A hymnal gives checks and balances to an individual’s or a congregation’s preferences and dislikes, and it pushes a community to consider the wider church in terms of commonalities of faith and similarities of practice. The extinction of hymnals may unwittingly contribute to an additional fracturing of an already broken church. An additional cost of extinction is the loss of a significant means of preserving the fullness of Christian identity and of locating individual and community in the ongoing narrative of the Christian story.

Have hymnals become dinosaurs? The energies put into the publication of recent hymnals by composers, authors, editorial committee and consultants suggest otherwise. Are hymnals an endangered species? The answer remains yes. But, from my perspective, hymnals must have a place in the church’s future, whether in print, digitized, or in some other form. To conclude with the words of Mary Louise Bringle, chair of the editorial committee for the new Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God:

[A] hymnal is like a telephone in ways other than the fact that both bear replacing long before they physically wear out. Like a telephone, a hymnal is also a medium of communication to bridge distances and differences. Old hymns, psalms, spirituals and gospel songs serve to bridge generations far removed from each other, connecting today’s congregations with resources and relatives from centuries past. New songs build bridges, too, honoring the contributions of contemporary worshipers….

Most significantly of all, however, worship songs communicate the adoration of believers to the One who gave breath and continues to inspire words in our minds and melodies in our hearts. Surely, far more important than pleasing ourselves with what we sing in worship is making a sacrifice pleasing to God. And that sacrifice just might mean setting aside our personal preferences in order to sing the heart songs of our neighbors, freshly available to us in new hymnals — even when the old ones have worn so well.[13]


Karen B. Westerfield Tucker is Professor of Worship at Boston University, a position she has held since 2004. She is also a United Methodist elder (presbyter) and a graduate of the liturgical studies doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame. Among her many publications are American Methodist Worship (2001) and (edited with Geoffrey Wainwright) The Oxford History of Christian Worship (2006).  She is currently working on a project examining the theological and cultural dynamics of hymnals. A past president of the international and ecumenical Societas Liturgica, Dr. Westerfield Tucker is also the former editor-in-chief of the society’s journal Studia Liturgica.



[1] Glory to God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), pp. 926–927.

[2] The Works of John Wesley, vol. 7, A Collection of Hymns for the use of the People called Methodists, ed. Franz Hildebrandt and Oliver A. Beckerlegge (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), pp. 73–74.

[3] Paul Westermeyer, “A Hymnal’s Theological Significance,” in Dialog: A Journal of Theology 48 (Winter 2009): 314.

[4] “The Hymn-Book,” in Methodist Quarterly Review 14 (July 1860): 466.

[5] See Westermeyer, “A Hymnal’s Theological Significance,” p. 316.

[6] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), no. 735.

[7] From “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” by Ignaz Franz; Eng. translation Clarence A. Walworth.

[8] From “When in Our Music God is Glorified” by Fred Pratt Green.

[9] A. Royce Eckhardt, “What is a Hymnal?” in The Covenant Quarterly 68 (Feb–May 2010): 50.

[10] Glory to God, no. 317.

[11] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, no. 739.

[12] Glory to God,, no. 766.

[13] Mary Louise Bringle, “Singing from One Book: Why Hymnals Matter,” in The Christian Century (May 1, 2013); cited from


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.

Recommended Citation: Westerfield-Tucker, Karen B. (2014) “Have Hymnals Become Dinosaurs?” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 18.
Available at:

View article as a PDF: Have Hymnals Become Dinosaurs?

International Adoption Agents

One of the joys of traveling is to worship with communities far from home and discover they sing a song you know. A song born in one context can be adopted in another, and both communities can claim that same song as their own. The unity of the body of Christ comes to expression in new ways when we sing the same song together across geographical, cultural, and denominational boundaries.

I’ve been intrigued lately by the concept of adoption as a response to the basic human need to belong, to not be alone in this world. The concept of adoption took on new interest for me when I became the adopted grandmother of an adopted child, now eight years old. Experience as a hymnal editor has also shaped my thinking, as new hymnals embrace more songs from around the globe. We’ve never had so much to choose from.

For centuries, Christian songs migrated almost exclusively from the West to the East and South. Western missionaries brought the gospel around the world, carrying with them not only their Bibles but their psalters and hymnals. As a result, many classic Western hymns are known and loved around the world. But, as the Christian church continues to grow in the global East and South and produces many new songs from communities of faith there, the traffic has begun to flow in the other direction. This article explores a few adoptions in both directions, based on international worship experiences. The examples are drawn from two hymnals published in 2013, Lift Up Your Hearts (LUYH), of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America, and Glory to God (GtG) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Migration from the West

Isaac Watts’s metrical version of Psalm 90, sung to the tune ST. ANNE, is probably the most widely sung setting of that psalm in the world today. My most powerful experience of singing it was in a worship service in Ghana. The service began with a choir processional, and then we all sang

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come.

Something happened to me in Ghana that day. I understood as I never had before, that “they” were not singing “our” song, but that both American and Ghanaian churches have adopted this song from England. Both countries were colonized by England, and both have received “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” by adoption.

At a 2012 worship conference in Indonesia, a festival of favorite hymns was held at which, to my astonishment, I knew almost all of them. They sang Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance”[1] exuberantly. This song, which was so popular In the United States, is known around the world because Christian missionaries shared it. In 2008, I attended a Fanny Crosby hymn festival at the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church in Singapore. It celebrated the release of a song collection and CD entitled Blessed Assurance: Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby, with fifteen arrangements by composers from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Amazing!

An Indonesian Hymn Festival in 2012

The New China Hymnal (1983), the official hymnal of the registered churches in China, holds surprises like the African American spiritual “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian in My Heart.”[2] At the Gangwashi Church in Beijing, I told them that this song had come from African slaves, but it was eventually adopted by descendants of slave owners and finally, in the late twentieth century, made its way into North American hymnals. I wondered with them who might have chosen this song for their Chinese hymnal. Could it have been an American who perceived a connection between this spiritual from suffering slaves and the suffering of the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution? Then they sang it — in Chinese, of course, most from memory, and many with tears. They had adopted this song, and it had become theirs before they had any idea of its origin. By learning where it came from, they came to understand more deeply why it meant so much to them. They were united in suffering with adopted brothers and sisters in Christ whom they had not known before. This song was their song.

The adoption agents in these three examples were missionaries who had brought songs from Western psalters and hymnals. Over the past fifty years however, because of new technologies and globalization, a whole new level of migration has occurred. The Internet and social media have accelerated the process of song adoptions — along with much more of Western culture — around the world. There are adoptions of new hymns in the classic tradition: Carl Daw, for example, has two hymns translated in the Hymnal 21 of the United Church of Christ in Japan. But Western youth culture, via the Internet and social media, is now the major adoption agent. At Beijing’s Haidian Church, near the university district, many students came to an English service, partly out of curiosity and partly to practice their English. As they sang “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High”[3] over and over, I saw many young people take cell-phone photos of each screen projection so that they could take the song home with them.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Christians faced the challenge of adopting musical expressions which, although traditional to local cultures, had been suppressed by missionaries as unsuitable for worship. In a 2004 interview, Dr. A.A. Agordoh, a leader in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ghana, told me that his church was very concerned in the 1970s about losing its young people. After much study and prayer, the leaders decided to move beyond the cultural restrictions taught by missionaries generations ago, and to allow dance and drumming in worship — two aspects of African song that are part of their cultural heritage. That decision was crucial in indigenizing Christian worship in their culture. The same story has been repeated throughout much of Africa and beyond. The church in Africa has witnessed remarkable growth, and an important part of that growth came when the people were encouraged to develop their own songs in their own musical languages.

Migration to the West

The Western church is now blessed to be on the receiving end of a growing repertoire of global songs that offer new life to worship in the West. The hymnals Glory to God and Lift Up Your Hearts added dozens of songs from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, many in the original languages. The process of international song adoption can be documented by comparing the last two editions of these and many other North American hymnals. Although quite new, this process is already in full swing, with songs offered now for adoption at the congregational level. A remarkable Index of Genre and Musical Styles in Lift Up Your Hearts lists twenty-one categories of genres and traditions, including Settings from Africa; Asia and the Pacific Islands; Latin America and Southern North American Countries, States, and Regions; and even a category of Settings from the Middle and Near East. The latter is the area most neglected by the larger Christian church and a place of great suffering today, but it possesses a rich heritage of congregational song.

In general, African songs were the first to be adopted, especially some of the freedom songs from Southern Africa like “Siyahamba/We Are Marching.”[4] A study of the last three editions of North American hymnals reveals that even the presence of African American song is relatively recent in hymnals used by white congregations. We might ask whether the adoption of some African American spirituals now appearing in hymnals paved the way for acceptance of songs from Africa, or if the direction was the other way round. African American songs were first collected in separate publications before being adopted by denominational hymnals; James Abbington lists eighteen such hymnals and supplements published since Vatican II.[5]

The growing number of Latinos in the United States has certainly sparked interest in adopting songs from Latin America. Church-music publishers have provided some separate Spanish-language hymnals, but many Latin American songs with bilingual texts have now been adopted in English-language denominational hymnals. “Pelas dores deste mundo/For the Troubles”[6] is a powerful example from Brazil that helps Christians pray for justice in a suffering world.

Asian songs have been the most challenging to adopt. There is so much diversity, so many languages and cultures, that fewer Asian songs have found their way into Western hymnals. Nevertheless, the vibrancy of an Asian hymn festival led by Swee Hong Lim and Chi Yi Chen at the July 2014 conference of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada had everyone singing with exuberance, especially the Korean song “Jukkeseo wangwiye/The God of Glory.”[7] This song may find its way into many Western congregations long before the next generation of hymnals.

Concluding Thoughts

Even as North American hymnals are starting to include many songs from around the world, local communities continue to wrestle with diversity within their own context. Vast numbers of people are migrating. Refugees, torn from their homelands, are settling in new places, including new places in North America: people from around the world are moving into our neighborhoods, not only in the major urban centers, but also into smaller cities and towns. Sometimes they form their own congregations by language and culture, at other times they show up at traditionally Anglo churches. A lot is at stake when it comes to acknowledging the unity of the body of Christ in ways that move beyond toleration and hospitality to adoption into our worshiping communities.

Perhaps the international song adoption process may also pave the way for adopting more of the maturing body of worship songs from contemporary North American culture. The same kind of wrestling with questions of culture and authenticity that took place in Ghana in the 1970s needs to happen in North America. The us/them divide among and even within some North American congregations is still very deep when considering so-called “contemporary” and “traditional” services. In an effort to help bridge this divide, the contents of both Glory to God and Lift Up Your Hearts have been made available for projection.

Adopting songs from around the world can strengthen our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ in joyful and prayerful worship. The number of songs from around the world that are newly available in North American hymnals and also on licensing lists points to a continuing role for hymnal editors and congregational worship leaders: the role of international adoption agents.

Emily R. Brink recently retired as Senior Research Fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (, where she served as program director for their annual Symposium on Worship. Brink has a Masters degree in Organ and Church Music from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in music theory from Northwestern University. She was editor of four hymnals, founding editor of Reformed Worship, and remains active in the American Guild of Organists and the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, which named her a Fellow in 2004 for distinguished service to hymnology.



[1] GtG 839 in English and Korean; LUYH 363.

[2] GtG 729.

[3] LUYH 610.

[4] GtG 853.

[5] James Abbington, “African American Congregational Song,” in New Songs of Celebration Render, C. Michael Hawn, ed. (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2013), p. 82.

[6] GTG 764; LUYH 663. (beginning at 32:33);



This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

All photos by Emily R. Brink.

Recommended Citation: Brink, Emily R., (2014) “International Adoption Agents,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 17.
Available at:

View article as a PDF: International Adoption Agents

The River of Life

Honan Chapel River of Life


River of Life Mosaic
Honan Chapel, University College, Cork, Ireland (1916)
Ludwig Oppenheimer Ltd, Manchester, England

The iconographic program of the mosaic floor of the Honan Chapel is shaped by liturgical song. The Canticle of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3:51­–90) is quoted in the borders of the mosaic. It is a canticle of praise, calling the whole created world to bless and exalt God above all forever. All the creatures and elements named in the canticle are depicted in the mosaic, though not all have identifying descriptions. Shown above is the river of life, which flows from a sunburst at the western end of the chapel, where the baptismal font is now located, down the center aisle, to the altar.

The Daniel Canticle is sung at the canonical hour of Lauds on Sundays and feast days. Lauds, or Morning Prayer, is an office celebrated in the light of a new day and associated with Christ’s resurrection. In the edition of the Roman Breviary current at the time of the floor’s designing, this canticle was followed by three praise psalms (148–150). In the mosaic, verse 7 of Psalm 148 appears at the point where the western end of the nave meets the central aisle, leading Jane Hawkes to observe that “the decoration of the chapel, and the manner in which it is organized, can be understood within the framework of the celebration of Lauds.”[1]

The Daniel Canticle is of course not merely a hymn to the wonders of nature. In the biblical narrative the song arises from the pure hearts of three young men who were willing to undergo martyrdom rather than practice idolatry. Miraculously preserved from the fire that ought to have burned them to death, they sing this song. Christians have read the story of the three young men as a type or figure of the resurrection, lending an additional layer of theological significance to the song as an expression of eschatological hope. The passage from Daniel describing their trial by fire was included in the Roman Catholic lectionary for the Easter Vigil (from 1570 to 1951) as part of the catechumens’ final catechesis before baptism.

— Editor



[1] Jane Hawkes, “The Honan Chapel: An Iconographic Excursus,” in The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision, ed. Virginia Teehan and Elizabeth Wincott Heckett (Cork: Cork University Press, 2004), p. 114.

Detail from the mosaic floor in the Honan Chapel (1916), photographed by Daniel C. Doolan. Photograph used with kind permission of the Board of the Honan Trust, Cork. See more at the Honan Chapel & Collection online.

View article as a PDF: Honan Chapel_The River of Life


In This Issue

When I was asked to give a talk for a group of musicians recently, my hosts came up with the topic: “Why sing? Why pray? Why bother?”

I never would have thought of that.

To me, singing is like breathing. I can’t imagine life without song, nor can I imagine life without communal sung prayer. But I am not in the majority. Increasingly, song that wells up from a community’s heart and shared life is an endangered species, needing careful tending if it is to survive. Church communities must present a convincing case for communal worship, and perhaps most especially for the assembly’s song. Creating an environment conducive to the flourishing of this profoundly human activity takes work; it cannot be taken for granted.

“I wish someone would write the elevator speech,” church musician Dale Adelmann once said to me, “to explain why those who don’t consider themselves singers should sing anyway.” The default assumption of many today is: “Singing is for singers” — an elite group who possess special skills — “but not for me.” And, if others are able to do it for me, why should I even try? Experts at the International Laboratory of Brain, Music, and Sound Research in Montreal put the number of people who have trouble singing at about 60%.[1] The situation is far different in traditional societies, where singing is practiced from the cradle.

Churches are perhaps the last bastion of communal song in American life. Consider how other streams of shared song have dried up: Singing in the family circle is out of fashion. It’s no longer common for parents to sing lullabies to their children. The National Anthem is sung by soloists at ball games. Even the birthday song has been replaced, in restaurants, by recordings or ditties barked out by the wait staff — with no participation by the patrons expected or required. Is it any wonder that congregational singing in church requires more effort and commitment, if it is to endure?

Yet singing together is a formative experience. It does something for people that can’t be gained in any other way. Its imprint goes deep. When memory fades and cognition falters, song remains.

In light of both the importance of communal singing and its fragility as a human art form, our inaugural issue of The Yale ISM Review is devoted to the theme of song.

Our issue opens with a poem by Chris Wiman. Tom Troeger, in his essay on critical standards for hymn texts, affirms that the beauty of song deepens prayer. From the perspective of human health, Mark Lazenby reminds us that singing is a bodily act with theological consequences. James Abbington describes Black spirituals as sacred folk song. And, finally, Nicholas Wolterstorff, by opening a window on work songs, offers fresh insights into the very nature of song in worship.

The psalms constitute a privileged body of song for those religious traditions formed by the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Thus we have included three short essays on singing the psalms: Judah Cohen provides a reflection from a Jewish perspective, Paul Inwood from a Roman Catholic perspective, and Don Saliers from a Protestant perspective.

The biblical and mystical insight that creation itself sings to the glory of God prompts us to include two additional contributions. John Coburn’s Canticle of the Sun II incarnates the praises of creation as visual art. The floor mosaic of the Honan Chapel sings with the Three Young Men in the fiery furnace.

No less important than the question of why we sing or what we sing, however, is the cluster of issues concerning how we sing. How do we make it possible for assemblies to sing wholeheartedly and well? Ike Sturm reflects on the experience of eliciting song in worship from the perspective of a jazz musician. From the organ bench in Christ Church, New Haven, Tom Murray shows us how he leads song in a more traditional church setting.

The landscape of worship today is changing, as multiple musical styles and new technologies come into play. Three of our contributors help us to understand the challenges and opportunities of this time. In order for people to sing well, physical spaces have to cooperate. Scott Riedel charts the issues of acoustic design in constructing and renovating houses of worship. Emily Brink explores the ways in which new songs find a home across cultural boundaries, fostering relationships in a global church. Karen Westerfield Tucker carefully evaluates the “costs of extinction” of hymnals, those long-lived servants of communal song.

Each issue of the Review will conclude with “A Final Note.” This feature intersects with the theme of the issue from a different direction, inviting us to consider something we may not have noticed before. The final note in this issue belongs to the poet, Chris Wiman, who places before us the existential question: what has become of our voice?

To all our contributors: Thank you. To all our readers: Enjoy.

~November 19, 2014



[1] James Dziezynski, “Singing in the Brain,” in Discover Magazine, July–August 2014, p. 28.

Publisher’s Welcome

Welcome to The Yale ISM Review, a new publication from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music! This biannual online periodical reaches out to parish leaders and practitioners of all kinds who have an interest and investment in sacred music, worship, and the related arts.

One of  the two founding benefactors of the ISM, Mrs. Clementine Tangeman, was deeply devoted to those who are actively engaged in these pursuits, as you are. Through her role as hymnal co-editor of the Disciples of Christ (Christian Hymns, 1947), her support of the Union School of Sacred Music, and, of course, her and her brother’s (J. Irwin Miller’s) bequest that founded the Yale ISM, she showed her commitment to a mission that remains vitally important today: “We hope that, in this new Institute, the function of music and the arts in Christianity will receive new strength through the preparation and training of individual musicians, artists, and teachers who understand their calling in broad Christian terms not exclusively within the limits of their disciplines.”

And so we extend this invitation to you, our readers, to “receive new strength” and enjoy the breadth of vision reflected in the writing and media you will find here.  The Review will offer you a window through which you will see some of the activities the ISM sponsors throughout the year. But even more, we believe you will find tools and insights that will help you in your work: as you accompany congregational song, unlock the Scriptures, celebrate the liturgy, minister to the sick, bring images to life through story, color, form, and verse. This is not a how-to manual; in fact, we hope it will complexify, rather than simplify, issues that you face for the sake of voices who are not easily heard in a world filled with the noise of the mp3’s, video games and television advertisers.

You will not find alumni news here, though you may hear from alumni. You will read work of faculty, but in a way that bears on practices of living communities of faith. And you will meet the many friends of the ISM who stand with you in the daily work you do to give hope, life, and health to those God places near you. Innovation will converse with tradition, practice with theory. As we do this work, we stand in the company of Christian communities across time and space, and we converse with our relations in every faith tradition.

As I invite you into this conversation, I do so with thanks for all those who have set the table: my faculty colleagues in the ISM who continue to shape the content, our beloved staff and editorial committee who support and nurture the process, and, of course to Rita Ferrone, our visionary and intrepid General Editor, who will be your primary guide through the material.

Though we reach out to you through the electrons we sometimes despise as a culture, we will savor the image of you reading these pages in your home or study, on the porch, under a neighbor’s tree, or at the altar of your parish. Pray for us as we prepare what we hope you will receive as a gift, and give us, in return, your thoughts and feedback as this publication continues to grow.

Enjoy — and may God bless you.


Director, Yale Institute of Sacred Music
November 19, 2014

On the Cover

ISM.REV.COVERDetail from the mosaic floor in the Honan Chapel (1916), photographed by Daniel C. Doolan. Photograph used with kind permission of the Board of the Honan Trust, Cork. See more at the Honan Chapel & Collection online.

Cover design: Maura Gianakos, Yale Printing & Publishing Services




Acoustic Challenges in Worship-Space Design

Worship is a multisensory activity, employing sights, sounds, scents, and tastes that immerse individuals in both personal devotion and communal action. Particularly during sung and spoken parts of a service, the assembly actively participates together in prayer and praise. This shared experience of speech and song builds community and draws all into the closer presence of God and of each other. Song gives an added dimension and artistic rendition to texts. It has the capacity to connect worshipers not only with each other in the here and now, but also with others across time and space.

For song to happen during worship, a great company of individuals must contribute to the interaction. These include not only the worshipers and leaders joined together at the moment in a hymn, psalm, or canticle on any given Sunday. The great company also includes composers, text-writers and poets, printers, publishers and editors, instrumentalists, singers and directors, instrument makers and tuners. These and a host of others all have added their contribution, even from across decades, so that a hymn can be sung in the great “today” of the liturgy.

Why Buildings Matter

A key element in giving life and vitality to song and to creating an environment that invites and encourages all to sing (even those who may be reticent) is the architectural-acoustical space that envelopes assembled worshipers. An architectural environment and its acoustical character can inhibit or encourage song. An environment that distributes sound energy evenly throughout a room and that has a reverberation period that blends sound energy and allows all participants to hear each other can inspire and magnify song. It opens up new dimensions of participation. An environment that obstructs, separates, and absorbs sound energy away from the assembly, on the other hand, can stifle, dampen, and deaden the song, even of those most inclined to enthusiastic participation.

The creative designs of architects and acousticians thus have the potential to make music and song an inspiring, community-building part of worship. The geometric form and size of a room, the location of furnishings, instruments, and people, and the interior finish materials (sound-absorbing, -reflecting, or -diffusing) all contribute to the success or failure of song-supportive acoustics. Long and tall “shoe-box”- shaped rooms with generous cubic-air volumes remain key ingredients in acoustic success [see Figure 1]. Round, conical, “fan,” pyramidal, and square geometric forms with limited air volumes are typically not conducive to good song and participatory acoustics. The placement of musical instruments, leaders, and assembly, so that sound can be projected directly and without obstruction to and from all, is also important to acoustic success. An appropriate ratio of sound-reflective and sound-diffusing materials in a room for a “live” reverberation is also necessary, as is the absence of intruding noise and acoustic anomalies. Given these many variables, the task of achieving a good architectural and acoustic design can be difficult. In addition, there are often societal and functional challenges to achieving a song-supportive worship space today.

Figure 1: Christ Presbyterian Church, Madison, Wisconsin

Example of a well-proportioned geometric form and air volume. Interior-finish surfaces are primarily reflective and diffusive of sound, with an approximate 2.0-second reverberation period that enables liturgical song. Ensembles that lead music in both traditional and contemporary styles sound originate on the long axis of the room.

View toward Chancel
View toward Chancel
View toward Traditional Music Gallery













Negotiating the Challenges

The first challenge may be the apparently reduced societal interest and aptitude for involvement in song. Communal singing, in either secular or sacred settings, is less frequent today than it was in our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Music is more often heard and observed than participated in. The public even seems to have difficulty singing “Happy Birthday” in tune! Music education is often one of the first victims of school budget cuts. Given these realities, it is essential that the church find ways to support and enhance the song of the faithful. The biblical directive to “sing unto the Lord” is clear, and the inspirational and community-building benefits of group singing and speech during worship are obvious. Communities that fail to support worship and song with commodious architectural and acoustic environments place the heritage and future of corporate worship at risk. Mary sang when her cousin Elizabeth greeted her as “blessed.” The angelic host sang at Jesus’ birth. The angels sing around the throne of heaven. The disciples sang a hymn before they went out. We must do likewise.

Another challenge is the current nature of congregational song itself. The standard and traditional hymn form, while very much alive and well, is not the only musical style used in worship by many congregations today. Gospel, spiritual, contemporary, jazz, ethnic, and call-and-response, are but a few of the musical forms used in worship — often by the same congregation in the same building and during the same service. The diversity of styles, instrumentation, and tempi represented in congregational song today become scientific and design challenges. Although the goal of facilitating musical participation by the assembly remains the same across the stylistic soundscape, the reality is that these musical types require different reverberation periods and settings for best rendition. Up-tempo and percussive music will need shorter reverberation periods, while melodic and organ-oriented hymnody is best with generous reverberation periods. Some instruments are “acoustic” and resonate with air, such as organ pipes, strings, woodwinds, and brass. Other instruments, such as electric guitars and keyboards, require electronic systems to create tone. Variable environments, with movable sound-reflective or sound-absorptive features that can shorten or lengthen the reverberation period in a room and shift the distribution and diffusion of sound, are helpful tools in meeting diverse musical and acoustic needs in a room [see Figure 2].

Figure 2: The Community Church of Vero Beach, Florida

Wall and ceiling treatments are primarily sound-reflective and sound-diffusing, so that the room is supportive of congregational song. Retractable draperies increase or decrease the reverberation period to tailor the room to different musical styles and occupancy rates. 

Acoustic Drapery Retracted
Acoustic Drapery Exposed

















Negotiating the Challenges

Lack of understanding or appreciation and funding challenges can often work against supportive architectural and acoustic settings for worship. Attitudes such as “It doesn’t matter. Who can hear or appreciate good or bad acoustics anyway?” or “Good acoustics are for the Carnegie Hall crowd, not for us” or “It only needs to be ‘good enough for church’” all lead to less than noble or functional worship spaces. The fact is that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. The worship of the Lord should receive “first fruits.” Lost opportunities do matter and can be harmful by diminishing inspiration and not being inviting. The reactions and future choices of a visitor or “seeker” at worship can be significantly influenced either by dull and lifeless, or by vibrant and active liturgy and song. Long-term church members may not be able to verbalize their reactions to liturgical song, but dull or vibrant perceptions indeed have an effect. It may be easier to exclude these factors from building budgets because acoustics, music, and liturgical song are ephemeral, unlike bricks and mortar.

A common current practice is that of “value engineering” a design after a project price quotation is received. To lower project costs, under a “value engineering” plan, apparently unnecessary features are skimmed away from a design. The thick and dense gypsum board walls that reinforce low-frequency sound energy, the hard-surface flooring that aids in reverberation, and the lined HVAC ducts that suppress background noise might be replaced with lower-cost thin walls, carpeted floors, and hard ducts. The result is a room that has poor musical presence, suppresses liturgical song, and magnifies unwanted noise. While realistic budgets are essential, so is the need for a worship environment that meets its functional goals.

Inappropriate reliance on technology can also create challenges to congregational song. A worship space might be viewed mistakenly as only a lecture and concert hall, where the single acoustic goal is to deliver electronically reinforced speech and music to the “audience” in the “auditorium.” Extensive systems can be designed and installed to accomplish high-energy sound projection. To be sure, the speech of sermon, lessons, prayers, and instrumental and vocal music must be well presented to worshipers. Often forgotten in this approach, however, is the fact that the congregation’s interaction in liturgy and song is fundamental to worship and community. The members of the assembly must hear each other well and not be only recipients of spoken and sung presentations [see Figure 3]. Further, the assembly must not be overwhelmed by excessive amounts of “lead” sound during their participation. While electronic room-reverberation simulation technologies have been invented, these systems cannot replace the truthful sounds of human voices traveling, blending, and reinforcing each other in the life-giving air of a reverberant architectural space. More speakers and microphones cannot supplant human interaction and participation.

Figure 3: Harvey Brown Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Kentucky (second photo by Eric Wolfram)

Reverberation period was too low and singing diminished before renovations; carpeted flooring and soft-wood ceiling materials absorbed sound energy even though the geometric form and air volume were good. The building redesign with hard-surface flooring and sound-reflective ceiling treatments increased the reverberation period to be song-supportive. Pews are now canted to draw worshipers together.













Best Practices

What are the architectural and acoustic factors that enable and enhance the song of God’s people at worship? Important ingredients, in appropriate proportion and relationship, include:

  • A generous cubic air volume
  • An enhancing and enveloping geometric building form
  • Good proximity and location of worshipers, leaders, musicians, instruments, and furnishings
  • An appropriate ratio of sound-reflective and sound-diffusive interior finish materials and surfaces
  • The control and absence of interrupting noise and acoustic anomalies
  • Appropriate use of electronic technologies
  • A means and methodology of accommodating differing musical styles and forms within the same room
  • Realistic project goals and budgets
  • A keen appreciation of corporate worship, prayer, praise and song as a prized heritage, present gift, and future investment for a community.

Whatever the size of a worship space or the stylistic music leanings of a faith community, there is a fundamental biblical and liturgical need for worshipers to participate together in song. The architectural and acoustical design details that facilitate this participation are what distinguish a worship space from other places of public assembly. In the worship space the assembled faithful are not just receivers and observers of speech and music; they are active participants in sung and spoken liturgy. It is therefore a high priority to design a worship environment that has the capacity to support and encourage the singing of all. Recognition of this priority, and careful attention to the acoustic-design factors described above, can result in functional, elegant, innovative, and inspirational environments that encourage faith communities to worship with songs of prayer and praise.


Scott R. Riedel is president of Scott R. Riedel & Associates, Ltd., an acoustics and organ design consultation firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (, specializing in sacred space projects nationwide. He has served as Organist-Choirmaster for Lutheran and Episcopal parishes, and taught the course, “Science of Acoustics,” at Columbia College in Chicago. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Architecture and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. His memberships and/or leadership positions include the American Guild of Organists, Royal School of Church Music, British Institute of Organ Studies, Acoustical Society of America, and American Institute of Architects.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Except where noted, all photos by Scott Riedel.

Recommended Citation: Riedel, Scott R. (2014) “Acoustic Challenges in Worship Space Design,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 16.
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Great Art and a People’s Music

Ask directors of amateur Jewish choral societies to name great pieces of “Jewish music.” Chances are, their answers will include several psalm settings: from selections of Salomone Rossi’s 1622–23 Songs of Salomon, to Louis Lewandowski’s 1870s showpiece arrangement of Psalm 150, psalm settings by prominent Israeli composers such as Tzvi Avni and Yehzekel Braun, Leonard Bernstein’s 1965 Chichester Psalms (Pss. 100, 108, 2, 23, 131, 133), Robert Starer’s Psalms of Woe and Joy (Pss. 6, 136, 148), Benjie Ellen Schiller’s Psalm 150, and even, as a crossover curiosity, Franz Schubert’s late 1820s setting of Psalm 92. Featuring Hebrew texts, these settings connect singers with traditional canons of Jewish knowledge. At the same time, they represent “art” as long-form examples of melody, harmony, and form.

Ask congregants what psalms they know from the liturgy. Some might offer numbers (150, 145, 92, 23), or substitute Hebrew names (“Halleluyah,” “Ashrei,” “Mizmor Shir”/”Tzaddik Katamar,” “Hashem Ro’i”); some might identify specific liturgical moments for introducing sets of psalms (Kabbalat Shabbat, P’sukei D’Zimrah, Hallel). But to most, psalms instead integrate deeply into Judaism’s ritual fabric: as a spiritual “warm-up,” as part of the liturgy’s emotional trajectory, as spiritual sustenance when preparing a body for burial, as a marker of spiritual time, as a medium for private reflection. For most worshipers, psalms are one part of a multilayered liturgy, alongside prayer texts, biblical and rabbinic writings, praise songs (piyyutim), and vernacular-language readings. Worshipers include psalms in their musical knowledge, whether in near-silent prayer, lined-out, read in interpretive translations, or sung with full-throated melodies. But, for the most part, Jewish worshipers don’t “sing psalms.” Rather, they pray, using all of the textual and musical sources available to them in a single worshipful package.

In my years of studying cantors, I have seen the psalms receive respect as part of a larger body of Jewish prayer materials. But I don’t recall hearing students or cantors give the psalms their own category, or hearing the psalms singled out as a unique genre within Jewish worlds of music.

Look closer in all of these settings, and you’ll see an internally consistent system at work. The act of singing psalms in concert offers a means for Jews to connect to broad social and spiritual conversations. In 1963, Washington, D.C. cantor Sholom Katz led a “Choir of Cantors” on a two-LP album of psalm settings, where he noted that “the Psalter has become the hymnbook of humanity because it is an inexhaustible and indispensable expression of the human spirit.” Fifty years later, the Zamir Chorale of Boston released its album Psalmsensation, presenting prominent psalm settings by Jewish composers alongside settings by William Billings, Charles Ives, and other international artists, to create “a multiethnic concert experience.” Follow many of these same singers into personal and communal prayer settings, however, and the psalms will change their role accordingly. Such is the flexibility of a canonical text, both liturgically and musically. Through whispering or recitation, monophonic or choral singing, Jews thus mediate the psalms’ foundational place in Judeo-Christian tradition with their own specific traditions of spiritual practice.


Judah M. Cohen is Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Musicology at Indiana University. He has authored The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment, and Sounding Jewish Tradition: The Music of Central Synagogue. Recent publications include the “Jewish Music” article in the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, and the Music entry for Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies. He is currently at work on a study of World War II-era narratives in musical theater.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Cohen. Judah M. (2014) “Great Art and a People’s Music,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 9.
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View article as a PDF: Great Art and a People’s Music