Music in Church (IV): The “How” of Hymn Playing

In previous articles we have taken some brief penetrating looks at one of the fundamental elements of the corporate worship of God—the hymn, its tune, its text, its Biblical precedent as a vehicle for praise. But simply an intellectual awareness of these facts is not enough to call forth from an assembled congregation, weary and hungry, a spontaneous, joyous response of praise, or an intense and meaningful sung prayer, or a quiet hymn of meditation. Someone must be present to “stir up the gifts” of praise within them, opening wide the floodgates so that “rivers” of praise may flow up and out through their lips into the sanctuary all together making a “joyful noise” to the Lord!

Upon whose shoulders does this responsibility rest? To a large extent, it lies on the “conductor from the console,” the organist. For the organists, the accompanying of hymns for congregational singing is the most serious and solemn task for the day. It takes precedence over preludes, offertories or postludes. The very life of the music (text and tune) flows through their spirits and fingertips. The organists have the key with which to open the praise gates or lock up deep thoughts and emotions which struggle in the human breast for expression. If all church organists, professional and amateur alike, would see their task in this perspective, they would kneel in humble prayer each week, entreating the Father of all mercies to let the truth of each hymn pass through the crucible of their own souls so that they might, with vigor and vision, transform perfunctory duty into prayerful delight. Spiritual preparation is the first and basic requirement. Without it both player and people languish.

But spiritual preparedness must express itself within the context of musical competence and technical skill. Church organists who have been duly impressed with the seriousness of their calling will search diligently for ways to improve their music ministry. The following paragraphs are written with the prayer that they may be used to give guidance particularly to the many church organists who have been pressed into service without the benefit of extensive training. To these dedicated people the congregations owe a profound debt of gratitude.


The first decision facing the organist on each hymn to be sung concerns the choice of organ sounds, called registration. It is impossible to be specific in recommending organ registration for hymn playing because every organ has a different stop-list, every sanctuary has a different size and shape, and every service has a different number of people in attendance. All of these factors influence the organist’s choice of stops to be used. There are, however, certain principles which can serve as guidelines.

There are two main classes of stops (ranks of pipes). The flues produce sound by means of the vibration of a column of air inside the pipe. These are subdivided into four categories: Diapasons (or Principals); Flutes and Gedacht; Strings (or gamba tone); Gemshorn (a hybird family). The second main class of stops is called the reeds in which the sound is produced by the vibration of a tongue or “reed” within the pipes. The reeds are subdivided into two categories: Chorus reeds (brass, trumpet tone) and Orchestral reeds (woodwind tone). The organist should check an organ technique manual to find out which specific stops belong to each class and division.

When the organist understands the classifications of sounds and recognizes representative sounds of each, he or she is ready to combine them into a substantial and artistic accompaniment for congregational singing, often varying the combination for each hymn or even each verse by varying the quantity of tone (degrees of loudness) and quality of tone (various pitch and color combinations). Variety is important in maintaining the interest and enthusiasm of the congregation. But extremes must be avoided at all costs!

First, avoid sixteen-foot couplers as well as loud, oppressive, muddy or “thick” stops which drag down the tone and pitch level.

Second, use reeds—but sparingly. They provide a brightness which heightens the climax of a hymn thought, but they can be overdone, causing a shrillness which is irritating instead of edifying.

Third, never use tremulo for congregational singing. The “wibble-wobble” hinders a steady and decisive pitch, causing uncertainty and hesitancy in the singers.

Fourth, do not underplay. With ample volume the congregation feels secure. With insufficient volume each singer fears he or she will be heard individually and will stop singing.

As a fifth rule, never make abrupt or extreme changes in volume or registration during the playing and singing of the hymn. It shatters the confidence of the congregation. With vigor they have sung: “Jesus Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea; unknown waves before me roll, hiding rocks and treacherous shoal; chart and compass come from Thee; Jesus, Savior, pilot me.” Then lustily they launch into: “As a mother stills her child, Thou canst hush the ocean wild” only to find themselves singing a solo, the organ having dropped from a roar on “hiding rocks” and “treacherous shoal” to an imperceptible pianissimo on “stills” and “hush.” The singers freeze in their tracks, clamp their lips shut, opening them only slightly for weeks and even months to come. Make changes, but make them subtle and only along the broad lines of the hymn, catching the mood and spirit of the poem and not each phrase individually.

Sixth, use the diapason or principal stops at the 8′ level, duplicating the pitch level of the singers, with 4′, 2′, 2 2/3′ and mixtures added for brilliance.

And finally, plan the registration for each hymn and pencil it into the hymnal well in advance of the service. Never rely on instantaneous inspiration to vitalize your hymn-playing even though such moments may come at times.




Not only must the church organist plan registration, but also tempo (the fastness or slowness) and the execution of the rhythm. A careful study of the text of the hymn will suggest the proper tempo to the sensitive artist—brisk, solemn, meditative, martial.

Poorly executed rhythm lies at the root of most poor congregational singing and the causes are not hard to trace. In some cases repeated notes of chords are played legato style instead of being distinctly detached. When this happens (and it happens often), the congregation is unable to discern just where they are in a given phrase. In other cases there is a lack of accuracy in playing dotted notes. But the most common factor in the breakdown of rhythm is the failure of the organist to sustain the exact rhythm pattern throughout every stanza 0f the hymn and within each stanza, phrase by phrase. Organists must set the rhythm firmly in the introduction, counting all the while, and then stick to it. If the congregation lags a bit, they will catch up.


Closely related to a failure in rhythmic consistency is a failure to let the music breathe. If a narrator would read, or a preacher would preach, or a choir would sing without ever taking a breath, separating thoughts into phrases and sentences, audiences would be bored and confused. And yet, because most hymns contain no punctuation marks separating the musical phrases and sentences (which correspond to the textual phrases and sentences), many organists assume they must play the hymn without a break from beginning to end of each stanza. Such is not the case. The organist must study the text ahead of time and be prepared to break the melodic line (Not the rhythmic pattern! There is a difference.) at appropriate places with the congregation. Every comma in the text need not be observed, but every completion of a major thought should be recognized by a slight break in the melodic line. This means that in most hymns the organist will have to play the melodic line a little differently for each stanza, remembering at the same time, not to alter the rhythm at all. If the organist has mastered these basic processes, he or she may further enhance the accompaniment with tasteful changes of registration at appropriate places.


Introductions to the various hymn selections also need planning for variety. For one selection, the four parts can be played on manual only; for another, three parts on the manual and bass on the pedal; for another, a trumpet solo stop against diapason accompaniment; and still another could be a combination of any two of these. But in each introduction the entire hymn should be played to set the mood, tempo and rhythm for the congregation. Exceptions to this might be the “response” selections used every Sunday. But regardless of which method of introduction is chosen, the organist should not restrain the introduction and use the last few measures as a green light for the congregation to rise and sing. The volume must be ample and consistent throughout the entire introduction and the congregation should rise when the introduction begins.


There is a pitfall to be avoided when playing for worship services which we have not yet touched on. It concerns modulation. An organist should never modulate from one key to another unless he or she has a thorough understanding of harmonic progression and the technical skill to achieve it artistically. No one need apologize for pausing briefly between two selections. Celebrated organists do this all the time.


Psalm 150 challenges all of us to “Praise the Lord with trumpet, psaltery…harp…timbrel…strings…pipes…cymbals.” The organ is the “king of instruments” with the ability to reproduce many of these sounds. May God be pleased to use the efforts of all faithful organists to “stir up the gifts” of God’s people to His glory!