Recent Posts
Kevin T. Bauder God did not create human beings to suffer or die. Nothing in [more]
Fifty days after the exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel arrived at the foot [more]
I wrote last week on the desire to be a pastor, primarily from 1 Timothy [more]
Kevin T. Bauder Human suffering is universal. We all feel pain. We ought to expect [more]
What we have seen over the past several weeks is a dynamic interplay between four [more]

John Wesley on good hymn tunes

Consider Paul Westermeyer’s description of John Wesleys concerns regarding the tunes of hymns:

Like Luther, Wesley knew a body of Christians couldn’t have many continually changing versions of hymns and hymn tunes without creating confusion which endangered their song. . . . Two related concerns were at work here. 1) Wesley knew, again like Luther, that the quality of the texts and music had to be high or the song would be ephemeral and would evaporate very quickly. . . . 2) And he knew congregations had to learn to sing. That knowledge explains his preparation of two manuals of instruction for reading music as well as his admonitions: learn the tunes, sing them exactly as printed, and join the singing even if “it is a cross to you.” It will turn out to be a blessing, he added!

What relevance do Wesley’s concerns have for singing today?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

31 Responses to John Wesley on good hymn tunes

  1. Oh Ya,,,that is a huge relevance especially in the second point.
    As for the first point, I semi-agree with it. Of course it is good to have ample of hymn selection. I think that it does not matter how many millions time you have sung a hymn, you will still fine the hymn tuneful, beauty and lovely. I never feel tired and bore by singing the same hymn for many times. So my point is even there is only small amount of hymn collection it does not matter.
    The second point, we must sing “by the book”. Alternating melody and rhythm will change the meaning, feeling and purpose of what the composer intend it to be. For example, when I was serving in a Chinese church, they just couldn’t sing dotted rhythm; they would sing in all equal rhythm. This changed the liveliness of the song.

  2. Wesley’s concern for the high quality of tunes and texts certainly applies to today. I like the phrase “evaporate quickly” to describe tunes and texts of poor quality. There are many songs written for worship that are ephemeral and evaporate quickly. A song written just 10 years ago can be considered ‘old’ and no one knows it any more. There seems to be a constant need for ‘new’ music in order to stay current. A lot of people truly do not know how to sing and they don’t even get exposed to what music looks like since many churches have gotten rid of the hymnal and only use words on a screen. I think this could be a contributing factor to some of the shallow music today. The bible has numerous references to singing and it is important to God. It needs to be just as important to us.

  3. I am so glad to see these words from Wesley “that the quality of the texts and music had to be high or the song would be ephemeral and would evaporate very quickly”. Strongly agree with that! I think it is very common for modern Christian songs to not have a beautiful melody line. I really wish modern Christian composers would consider Wesley’s idea. It is also very true, that since there is no high quality of the texts and music, today’s worship songs have to be replaced by new songs quickly otherwise, people would be tired about what they are hearing. On the other hand, for those beautiful hymns, it has been sang over hundreds years, not only because of the great texts, but also the beautiful melodic line.

  4. It is important to see that Wesley produced 2 instruction manual or method books for learning to sing. This shows his impression that knowing music was an important factor in worship (not simply learning by rote at all times). Now, most people may have learned them by rote, but at least there was the option for learning the music as well.

    I love what he says about singing whether or not it is exceptionally hard for you, because it will be a blessing in the end. The church today is suffering when it comes to congregational singing. Though it has not become “outlawed” by the clergy, people are struggling with musical literacy and question their ability. When this happens the Body suffers while people do not add their voices to the praise ascribed to God.

  5. It is interesting to see the difference of what mattered to those like Wesley compared to most worship leaders and song writers today concerning congregational singing. While I would not sat that songs used for the church today are necessarily all bad quality, there is definitely a “consumerist” mindset to write songs for the church that are catchy and fun rather than deep and lasting. Also, the congregation is doing a lot less singing and a whole lot more watching and being entertained. I am in no way against a lot of the new songs being sung in the church, but I do believe we need to choose songs that allow the congregation to participate and that are singable and lasting.

  6. A good song is sung by a lot of people and last a long time because it may reflects singers’ hearts to God. I still love to sing hymns that made in hundreds years ago, such as Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee and Nearer My God to Thee. I also agree his though that “congregation had to learn to sing.” If we know more about reading music, including rhythm, notes, and music theory, we could sing more variously.

  7. I love what Wesley says here that “the quality of the texts and music had to be high or the song would be ephemeral and would evaporate very quickly.” The quality of hymn tune is important, but it should be important in a way that not attract congregants away from God. A good hymn tune can bring congregants focusing on worship God. I would like to use the point Steven Darsey states in his book “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”: “music designed by composition and/ or performance style to attract worldly gain to fame for the performer or for the church is consider putting other gods before God—idolatry.”

  8. I agree 100% that both the texts and tunes must be high and that congregational singing is endangered. Let me say, first of all, that I am not against singing contemporary songs (as a genre) in church, but most of our churches are bringing ephemeral junk food to the table. A song with “Oh, yeah, yeah,” for the bulk of the chorus – a little more effort on those lyrics, please. Or this one (which we frequently do in chapel and I’m sure in many of your churches): Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies) – many wonderful truths in the text, but such a monotonous melody, and also not in a good range (way too low and way too high) for most people to sing. I also think this song, as with many others, lends itself to excessive repetition in which the worshiper is led to an emotional high (what many call “true worship in the spirit”). How is this very different from orgiastic pagan worship? I think the violent frenzy has been replaced by a calmer emotional response, but both are induced by repetitive music getting more and more intense until “worship” is achieved. Indeed, music has tremendous power to manipulate people’s feelings. I think the reformers were right to fear the influence of music on their congregations. We worship leaders today must not deny this power and must tread very carefully, lest we be guilty of stirring our people’s emotions (passions) by superficial musical means. They will believe they have had a true worship encounter, when in reality, we will just have made them feel good.

  9. I find it interesting that many of Wesley’s congregants were musically illiterate, and basically we have that same situation today. It would be interesting if a worship minister took the time to musically train his congregation and gave them solid music, including depth of text and music with harmonies. I love some of the newer hymns, i.e. “In Christ Alone,” but the average congregation would not know how to read the harmonizations of it. We’d have to go back to the hymnbook because the notes on the staff would not be visible on a screen. But is the hymnbook really a problem!?! I find it interesting that Wesley encouraged people to learn to sing music as it is written, even though “it is a cross to you.” Why couldn’t we encourage our congregants to embrace the challenge?? Wesley did!!

  10. I totally agree with what Wesley’s said that “the quality of the texts and music had to be high or the song would be ephemeral and would evaporate very quickly” The quality of hymne tune is so important because like what Wesley said if the quality of the hymn has poor quality it will be evaporated very quickly. Sadly, a lot of contemporary worhsip song is ephemeral.

  11. I like how Westermeyer brings up that Wesley thought a congregation should know how to read music. I think he’s right. At my home church, whenever a worship leader wants to introduce a new song, they just sing it one Sunday while the congregation just stands there silent and lost as can be. How is that worship? I’ve always felt like something more needs to be done to help the congregation learn the song rather than just playing it maybe once a month. Wesley’s efforts to help people become musically literate are spot-on.

    I also like how Wesley thought you should sing, even if it’s “a cross to you.” It reminds me of the verse in Psalms that says “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” You don’t have to sing every note or every word perfectly! Just sing, because just as Wesley said, “it will be a blessing!”

  12. Like Luther and Wesley they both valued the hymns and tunes. I agree what they valued. I have experienced many times if the text is good but the tunes don’t match with it. It is hard to minister to people when the tunes don’t match with text.

  13. I agree with Kyu.Texts and tunes must coincide with each other if not there is a disjunction. Megan brings up a good point that people should be taught to sing. If people in the modern church remove hymnals, they loose the ability to read music. Even if it is just knowing whether the notes go up or down it is a starting point and helps the congregation sing better.

  14. I agree with Brandon H. I am all for congregational singing. Congregations should sing more. One thing that I like about Charismatic churches is that congregations participate in almost 99% of singing. I have visited a few Baptist churches, congregations’ role are more observers than participants.

  15. I, like Sarah, am not against contemporary music as a genre for worship and do agree that a lot of what is written today is junk. I am just thinking out loud, but I wonder makes a song “junk”? Are there a certain amount of repetitions before a songs is not “high in quality?” I ask this because I love the song “Whom Shall I Fear” and feel like the melody and text are “high and quality”. Maybe we all have different standards for what music is quality music for worship? Who is the ultimate authority for evaluating quality in music?

  16. Brandon, I think that what make a bad contemporary song is not the repetition but a lack of flow that a hymn has to where things flow from stanza to stanza. Another problem with contemporary music is a lot of the happy joy joy that has no depth to it what so ever. Should not we judge the text of new songs by the same standards by which we judge the texts of years gone by?

  17. I’m also very like Wesley’s 2 points here, I think throughout the point views he has made shows his understanding on the essence of Christian’s music in the worship. Wesley requires the quality of the texts and music, I think for church music composers this is the priority needs to be considered. The second point “the congregations had to learn to sing” is as much as important with the first point. I think one of the reasons for pop culture and its music, contemporary music replaced the old hymns is because it is easier to sing, the melody is attractive, the range is narrow. Even though most of the congregations do not have music background, but the congregations have to learn to sing. Because the congregations have to know what they are singing, but not just sing an easy melody, low quality texts Christian songs. I think to deliver the right concept on worship music to congregations would encourage them knowing and to distinguish the difference between the truly worship music and the other kinds of contemporary songs.

  18. I also agree with the congregation had to learn to sing. In corporate worship, congregants should not just be observers, they should all participate. A lot of contemporary worship songs their written music are hard to read or they don’t even have score—they only have chords. Thus, unless the congregants heard the song over and over, they can’t follow it right away during the corporate worship. I think in order to let all congregants sing together, they need to learn to sing, learn to sing with score/ hymnal. I do hope contemporary worship music composers consider more about the corporate worship when they write.

  19. I surely agree that congregations have to learn to sing. But when I think about my church members, there are many elderly people. They are not comfortable with syncopated rhythms. Also, there are some members who are not good at understanding music theory and notation and singing high pitches. We should concern about them. Therefore, congregational song should mostly be mild.

  20. John Wesley admonished, “Join the singing even if ‘it is a cross to you.'” Janis, I hadn’t thought of this as meaning it is difficult for musically illiterate people to learn the songs – interesting. I was thinking of it pertaining to people who don’t like to sing for whatever reason. I think congregational singing needs to be led from the top down (that is, the head pastor). If the pastor doesn’t sing, many others will feel they don’t need to sing either, but if the pastor participates fully, the congregation will follow suit. Ai-Chin, in my little charismatic church in college, there wasn’t much skill, but everyone sang with all their hearts and congregational singing was a joyful and beautiful time because of it – we were all blessed. I do think it is important to teach musical literacy, just as we teach biblical literacy. We’re not trying to create professional musicians or theologians, but it is important for the Christian to be literate in both areas.

  21. One of the important things for singing hymns and changing versions of hymns are simplicity and singability. One of the sad fact in contemporary church is, people do not carry their hymns and don’t use them much because Church provides the words.
    But I believe it is important people to look at the notations as they sing hymns.

    I don’t think its a bad idea to changing versions of hymns as long as it fits the mood and doesn’t hinder the meaning of the word.

  22. When choosing corporate worship songs, one needs to consider the quality of the songs that fits the understanding of congregants. To lead the congregants near to God, one should carefully select the text,rhythm, and melody that would help the congregants to draw near to God.

  23. I agree with Brandon and am interested in the answers to the questions he raises. While I see what Matt was doing in response, I am not in full agreement that all hymns that are held in high esteem are completely void of the exact same flaws. The flow from stanza to stanza, or even lines within stanzas, is sometimes very awkward. Hearing “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” it sounds to me very disjointed (this could be contributed to the melody or the harmony). There are also hymns whose stanzas that seem to end out very abruptly of the blue; AUS TIEFER NOT is one of these.

  24. I think Ben is right when he says that congregational singing is suffering today. There is a lack of musical literacy and people do feel insecure about their singing. This makes them more apt to just sit and watch while the worship team ‘does’ the worship. The Bible instructs everyone to worship – not just the professional worship team up front.

  25. Keji, the fun part about having worship songs written with chords is that when you’re playing an instrument (such as piano or guitar), it’s so much easier to learn. Maybe it’s different for other people, but coming from a more contemporary background, if I had to choose to either use a chord sheet or an actual score to learn a song from, I’d pick chords any day.

    The drawback, as Keji said, is that we can’t really teach the congregation to sing note-for-note with chord sheets. Most people in the congregation probably wouldn’t even understand why there are random letters scattered above the lyrics they’re reading. Scores, on the other hand, are easier to read when you don’t have a good understanding of music. Music notes can be more systematic and logical than chords in a sense. (Try sight reading a song you’ve never heard played written with chords instead of with a score. You’ll usually end up unintentionally playing/singing something completely different than the original composer wrote.) So when it comes to actually teaching a congregation to sing, I’d rather have a hymnal around.

  26. Talking about teaching congregation to sing, it makes me truly miss Chinese churches. Since I remembered, almost every church I went to in China, will have a half hour “teaching hymns” time before worship. In addition, on the PPT, or in the old days, on the blackboard, leaders would show the hymns with Chinese music notation, which is really easy to learn. It is such a different worship atmosphere when everyone in the room sing together, maybe no accompaniment, nor harmony, but it is beautiful to see that people came to worship God, not just to sit in a service and observe a worship service.

  27. Leyi, thank you for sharing about your culture! Wow! What a transformation that would be for our churches to have time for “teaching hymns!” Think how much more vibrant our worship could be! Perhaps people would be willing to learn if we took the time to teach them. I am so thankful for a Children’s Music Director for my children that taught a “Hymn of the Month.” For every child that learned the nine hymns through the school year, they were presented a hymnal with their name engraved on it. Maybe we need to start with the children once again. I am thankful for that music director, as well as a home-school choir, because they made a real difference in my children’s lives by teaching them hymns!

  28. As Leyi mentioned, in China many churches would spending times on teaching the worship songs with chinese notation. It really helped the congregations to learn the song. Based on this point, I really agree with Kyu’s point on the important of people singing with notations. In today’s church, mostly there will be only words provided on ppt, I think it gradually affects people’s ability on reading the music notations.

  29. Wesley had a good point. If the tune does not help to support the text, then it may not be remembered. It could easily be forgotten, or not send the message as strong as intended. The “join the singing” even if it seems to be a struggle, shows the value that Wesley had for congregational song. May we follow his lead and place much value on congregational song. This also reiterates the great aid of a good tune.

Leave a reply