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What makes a hymn tune accessible?

Hymn BookOne of the qualities of a good hymn that is often cited is that a congregational song must be accessible.

I wholeheartedly agree with this point: for a hymn to be congregational, it has to be, well, congregational! The congregation has to be able to sing it. In other words, there are some songs that, while very good, just don’t work with particular congregations at particular times (or they’ll never work with any congregation!). There have been several times when I’ve introduced a hymn to a congregation, only to decide later that it just wasn’t working at that time for that congregation. Some other congregation? Maybe. Some other time in the future? Hopefully, if it’s a worthy hymn.

However, when most people talk about the need for a hymn to be accessible, I think what they really mean is that it must be immediate.

There is a difference between something that is accessible, i.e., it is within the capabilities of the congregation, and something that is immediate, i.e., the congregation is able to immediately connect with it and gets immediate satisfaction from it.

The former — accessibility — is a true virtue of hymnody. The latter — immediacy — runs quite contrary to the nature of worship and is instead a product of a consumer society.

A good hymn, while well within the capabilities of the congregation, will be profoundly deep (both in text and tune). These two virtues (accessibility and depth) are not opposites. They are the distinguishing marks of a good hymn.

Immediacy and depth, however, are contrary. Something cannot be deep and immediate. For something to be immediately gratifying, it must be shallow. It must immediately stimulate the senses somehow, and depth doesn’t do that.

A good hymn is like the wine at the wedding at Cana. The first drink certainly quenched the thirst of those at the wedding, but the supply was endless, and it got better as they continued to drink.

A hymn can be accessible, and yet the congregation might not “get it” the first time they sing it. Or the second time. Or the third time. An accessible hymn will likely connect on some level, but to be accessible means that with some time and work, a congregation will eventually be able to learn and sing the hymn. But anything with depth will probably take at least a little time to really appreciate, and the rewards are always greater when time is involved.

When choosing (or writing) hymns for our churches, let’s aim for accessibility and depth, not immediacy.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.

30 Responses to What makes a hymn tune accessible?

  1. Ben Little says:

    I have personally seen what emotional, shallow, new worship songs can do to congregations. Often, they cater completely to the emotional response desired. However, while I can agree with this position that immediacy equates to shallow hymns/songs initially. I am not convinced that this is always the case. I have experienced firsthand the power of timely words (that had theological depth), set to a sing-able tune, hearing it for the first time. Sometimes God has readied an individual to glean the necessary message the first time they hear the song. Does that mean that the text or tune was shallow? Not necessarily.

    Said song could be profoundly deep, yet God uses it to minister to a congregation almost instantaneously (without simply appealing to the emotions). It depends on the condition of the hearts more than the emotional state of mind.

  2. Megan M. says:

    As Ben had said, sometimes songs do click immediately with a person, even when it has a deep meaning. But on the flip side, there are also those songs that do take a while to understand. I’ve had a couple experiences where I had been singing a worship song for months and it never occurred to me what the lyrics were actually saying. When I finally do realize it, it’s like my whole previous understanding of the song has been turned upside down. I start to wonder if the song I’m singing is what I’m actually living out. If I’m not and the song is theologically correct, how can I change my life to live out what I’m singing? I want to mean wholeheartedly what I sing. I get that sometimes, we won’t understand immediately and I’m okay with that, as long as eventually we do understand it.

  3. Debbie Lamb says:

    Thinking about the difference between accessibility and immediacy of a hymn or song brings to my mind a song our church sang a few years ago that had a bridge section that was nothing but la-la-la-la-la-la. It was certainly immediate, and as such had no depth whatsoever. I really appreciate Dr. Aniol’s point that immediacy is shallow and doesn’t lead to depth in worship. Anything that is of value will require more effort, more time, more investment. It doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does take time. I think we often just assume that our congregations want the newest, shallowest worship chorus out there. They may truly enjoy a more challenging worship hymn if we would give them a chance to learn it.

  4. Jiazi Gao says:

    I never thought about the difference between immediacy and accessiblility before. After I read the article and thinking it through, I truly sees how important of these concepts are. I totally agree with Dr. Aniol’s point here that the hymns we’re using in the church does not need to be immediate, but need to be meaningful and depth. By thinking of the purpose of singing in worship, the Words and the theology doctrines involved as the main point. Therefore, the depth of the song is important. There’s no point for the congregations to sing a easy tune and shallow text in a worship. I think we do need to spending times to understand and to learn what we sing in the worship.

  5. Mana Amy Hiroshima says:

    What is the point of singing in la-la-la in congregational worship songs? thesis one topic that I have been thinking about and haven’t gotten an answer or a point yet. In my opinion, worship is a prayer. conversation between God and us. The words are written by full of the power of Holy Spirits, and I think worship song should have deep meaning on it. So I was wondering what is the meaning in singing la-la-la. I asked to my music paster about this question before and he answered. “While you are singing la-la-la, there is no limits on the words. You can talk whatever you want in your own words in your heart.” This question of mine has not been solved yet, but the article of Dr. Aniol would help me with thinking and understanding how the worship songs should be. Accessibility and depth!

  6. Brandon H. says:

    In my experience leading music, it is very clear which songs the congregation sing out to more than others. For obvious reasons, they sing out to songs in which they are familiar with the melody and understand what the words are communicating. While, I can see that immediacy can potentially be a problem, I don’t necessarily agree that immediacy is always a bad thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with someone connecting with a song the first time they hear it. Also, like others have said, I don’t think that immediacy is always associated with being shallow.

  7. Kyu Lee says:

    In order to hymn to be accessible, composer needs to make it simple as possible. I believe that “simplicity” is the key for the congregations to sing and understand. However, the issue is to have depth, within the text and tunes, should fit together. That needs practice and discipline. The congregation might not get it for the first time, but as long as leaders share why, people would respond.

  8. John Gray says:

    I agree that we must use congregational songs that carry the meat of the word of God. It is good for us to think about what we are singing. There are many milk interpretation Christians out there, and they are not being fed meat even from the pulpit. I do not mind using hymn tunes that may be a challenge as long as it is accessible to the particular congregation (wisdom must be used). Though I believe this, I do not believe that the music depth is as important as the theological depth of the hymn text.

  9. Keji L. says:

    Now I understand why to choose accessible songs instead of immediate songs in corporate worship service. I truly agreed with Dr. Aniol that immediacy is shallow and doesn’t lead to depth in worship. Most of the contemporary songs do have attractive melodies and immediate for congregation to sing, however, some of them can not lead people into a depth in worship. As we choosing the worship songs in the future, we should consider the depth of the song and accessibility.

  10. Aeil Park says:

    I think the most important thing to make a hymn tune accessible is that it should be possible to learn. If it is too high level of a song for the congregation, it will not be accessibie. That’s why we have to know the congregation. I agree that immediacy is always a bad thing. but if there is only immediacy in hymnody we can miss out on a lot of good songs; therefore, a person who leads music should know the congregation and choose accordingly.

  11. Leyi Ling says:

    It seems like in this modern century, everything tends to aim for immediacy. Today’s church has the same problem. Cannot remember how many times that some elder who really loved the Lord warn me that there should not be any “shortcut” in church. Same with choosing hymns, many worship leaders tends to take a “shortcut” and choose some catchy and shallow songs for the congregation. Hymns that have depth are usually considered “hard to understand” or “too serious”. I think how serious we choose a hymn or song to sing reflect how serious we treat what we believe, because singing and praising should come out from the button of our heart, not just emotion. A shallow song will not have the depth to express “the button of our hearts”.

  12. ai-chin says:

    If what Dr. Aniol means immediacy is the shallow of lyric but not tune, then I completely agree that immediacy and depth do not go side by side. When I first hear a worship song, the melody is the first thing that I can memorize, then after a many times of singing, I slowly understand the lyric and memorize it. If the lyric is shallow, then I can understand and memorize it immediately.

    I also agree that accessibility and depth are buddies. The example of wedding at Cana makes me think of a Chinese idiom that my family always use, (translated directly from Mandarin to English)–Good ingredients (materials, things) sink to the bottom. The moral of the story is good things always come last. If we keep doing it and don’t give up, we will reach the best. As an accessibility-and-depth hymn, the more we sing it the more we get from it.

  13. Matt Phenix says:

    I like what many other have posted about knowing the limits of the congregation when they chose a song for congregational worship. Besides being able to recognize this the minister should also have a plan of where they would like to see the congregation go in the future.

    In the main discussion of what makes a hymn tune accessible, it should be something that should be easily taught and from my experience the more repetitive a melodic patter or rhythmic patter is the easier a song can be learned. However, there are also those songs that use different rhythms from what has normally been used in the past with new hymns. One example of this is “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” This hymn uses a 5/4 time signature which makes it significant because this is not a normal time signature for a hymn which makes it memorable for the congregation.

  14. Sarah Teichler says:

    While I completely agree that you have to know your congregation and be mindful of their limitations, I have observed that too many pastors/music ministers underestimate their congregations. It is amazing what musically untrained people can do with good leadership from the front and a handful of people who can lead by example with their voices. This is very true for church choirs as well (my old church often had only one reader on a part, but our director was fabulous and the others learned to listen and emulate). The challenge can be very rewarding as you offer something to God of high quality, rather than simply immediately grasped.

  15. Seung Joon Shin says:

    There is a praise worship at my church on every Friday night. Congregation often has an opportunity to learn new songs. Some of the new songs are learned easily and touch their mind deeply. If a new song is hard to learn the melody, singers cannot focus on the the meaning of the text. Likewise if a song melody and lyric are too simple, so congregation can sing it immediately, it is not a good song because it does not have deepness.

  16. Debbie Lamb says:

    Mana echoes my own thoughts about the purpose of singing la-la-la in worship songs. I like the emphasis she places on worship being a form of prayer. I don’t think I agree with the pastor who says that la-la-la can mean anything. If that is the case, It truly could mean something that does not bring glory to God. It’s important to constantly ask ourselves questions about the music we are singing. That keeps us on our toes!

  17. Keji L. says:

    I like what Debbie said about we should always ask ourselves questions about the music we are singing. It is very important because sometimes we are too “familiar” with the song and don’t even think about what we are singing; we need to remind ourselves to avoid our “sing with lips, but heart are far from God”. Constantly pay attention to what we are singing helps us focus on the text content and apply to our daily life and live a life that can glorify His name. It is important to train the congregation with accessible congregational songs and mature and improve their emotions in corporate worship.

  18. Janis Felts says:

    I have to say that I had never given thought to the contrast between accessibility and immediacy of a hymn for a congregation. I believe in regards to a hymn of depth, that one should not expect to be able to immediately grasp the richness of either the music or the text. However, as Dr. Aniol noted, if the hymn in one worthy of learning, I agree that hopefully the congregation will eventually learn and accept it. Until recent years I was not familiar with the text “Before the Throne of God.” In one hearing of this text, I could have closed the hymnal and perhaps have summarized what I had heard, but I could not have fully explained all that the text communicated or the ways it did eventually minister to my heart. A song of depth is what I believe we should pursue.

  19. ai-chin says:

    I agree with you Brandon. Immediacy does not necessary a bad thing. Immediacy in tune can be a good thing. Worshipers can easily learn the tune and learn about the text. However, as what Keji said, we should not “sing with lips, but heart are far from God”. I noticed that I have to constantly remind myself about this when I praise God with singing.

  20. Ben Little says:

    After reading through the article again, as well as sorting through all the comments, I believe that the title of the article may be somewhat misleading (or at least unclear). Throughout are references to a “hymn” and from the title, one would think that this was referring to the “tune.” However, accessibility and immediacy are more components of the text than the tune (as most comments have alluded to). I’d like to respectfully ask for clarification from Dr. Aniol on what was meant to be communicated.

    To recap what I am seeing in this discussion, as a few of us seem to see it, immediacy of tune is not as much of a problem when compared to immediacy of the text. However, there are times that one can understand the text immediately (i.e. conviction, revelation, etc.) where God is working in a life to reveal truth on an immediate level.

    Correct? Thoughts anyone?

  21. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    I was speaking primarily of tune in the article, but texts could be in view as well.

    Also, to clarify, some appear to have missed the point here and are still using “immediate” when it is clear they really mean “accessible.” I am calling for clarity in terms and objectives.

  22. Seung Joon Shin says:

    I agree Keji’s opinion that many of contemporary song composers try to have attractive melodies and immediateness in their new songs. We should choose congregational songs that are not just charm our ears, but are deep so that they could touch congregation’s heart.
    Accessibility is also important. A couple of months ago, I had a chance to compose a song for a small group members in my church. I devoted myself to compose the song. When it was sung at the group, most old members were not able to sing it because there were many syncopated melody lines. After the composing, I recognized a good congregational song was not made by fancy melody, but by depth and accessibility.

  23. Brandon H. says:

    To further comment on your post Ben, I do think that it is important to make the distinction between immediacy/accessibility in the text and immediacy/accessibility in the tune. There can be a potential danger in singing too many songs that are immediate in reference to the text because of the lack of theological depth that would be presented to the congregation. With that being said though, I still don’t see the problem when one connects with a song immediately and gains immediate satisfaction from it. When comparing immediacy/accessibility with the tune, I wonder what makes a tune deep? If deep is the opposite of immediate, then does that mean that a deep tune is one with more complicated rhythms and a more diverse melodic line and an immediate tune is one that is more than likely simpler, catchier, and something that one will like right away? To me this can be confusing. I also wonder whether a tune of a hymn can be immediate (one gains immediate satisfaction from it), while the text of the hymn can be deep?

    Maybe this all sounds confusing, but these are just questions that have come into my mind in relation to this topic.

  24. Aeil Park says:

    I agree with Sara’s opinion that you have to know your congregation and be mindful of their limitations. If the music minister or pastor don’t know the congregation and chooses the song by himself, it might be hard for the congregation to follow musical notes and they will not understand the meaning of the sentence in the hymn. I think the melody helps the congregation to easily understand the meaning of the sentence. In other words, the hymnal tune is the music speaking. From a good music minister who understands the congregation, it will be accessible.

  25. John Gray says:

    Brandon, I believe you have hit on a important issue. When speaking of only the tune of a hymn, should it be considered a negative if it is immediate? I believe it is a must for a hymn tune to be accessible for the congregation. I would go so far as to say it may even be beneficial for them to be pushed a little musically. This being said, I agree that Brandon is right in his view that immediacy of tune is not a bad thing. If someone gains immediate satisfaction from the tune then they can quickly focus on the text (hopefully showing the meat of scripture). I would say it is one hundred percent possible to have a immediate tune with theologically deep text (ex. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross). Then the question is does this hymn carry an immediate tune, “the congregation is able to immediately connect with it and gets immediate satisfaction from it.or accessible tune?” l think this depends upon the congregation. I think Ben and Brandon have brought up some very interesting points in this matter.

  26. John Gray says:

    In my previous post Dr. Aniol’s quote does not include my words of ‘or accessible tune’. Sorry for the typo.

  27. Leyi Ling says:

    Reading through this article again, an interesting thought came to my mind, for different people group this “accessibility” and “immediacy” might be a different story. Last week a missionary came back from China shared her story in our church. She said that in the minority groups she served in China, people loved singing so much that they could keep on singing a day and night without repeating a song. She prayed that in the future God would send people who could sing the Bible to them, since a large number of them do not know any written language. For a congregation like that, I think “accessibility” and “immediacy” would be different with what this article discussed. If one day God called us to serve this people group, what hymns should we choose? What kind of hymns should be defined “accessible” for them?

  28. Jiazi Gao says:

    I also think that if the congregations cannot sing the music, then it will be hard for the people to think deep of the meanings of the text. I feel sometimes the music itself first grasp our heart, even for those musically untrained people. Most of the people in the church are not musically trained, but some musics and hymns still touches their heart. So the accessible song for congregations is important and fulfills the right purpose in a corporate worship. Choosing the proper music to use in the worship could help the believer to become a mature followers of Christ, and declares the glory of God.

  29. Kyu Lee says:

    During the service, worship leaders should lead congregations to the God’s presence, which means that leaders must consider the accessibility of hymns. The accessible doesn’t mean immediate satisfaction of text and tune to the congregation nor doesn’t mean complicate and hard. It takes time for congregations to be accessible with the tune and with the text. The important matter is when leaders sing the immediate hymns, with the right text and themes with a service motivate congregations to be awaken their inner man. I believe that the accessible doesn’t mean complicate, it gives clear understanding of who God is and who we are in Christ. A good hymn has to be simple and deep meaning of the gospel.

  30. Megan M. says:

    I do think that the songs we sing should definitely be accessible to the average worshipper. It doesn’t have to be overly simple though. You can choose to lead the congregation in a more advanced song, as long as you know they are able to learn it. Nothing has to be immediate, despite what our “I want it now” culture says.

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