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Rules for Congregational Singing

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 09, 2009

Alexander Schreiner’s Rules for Congregational Singing —

In the days of John Wesley (1703-1791) the people had hymn books with words only. The music notation, usually handwritten, was only on the music rack of the organist. Wesley’s rules for congregational singing are still valid today. They are interesting as well as instructive.

1. Learn the tune.

2. Sing the hymns as they are printed.

3. Sing all of the hymn. “If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.”


4. Sing lustily and with a good courage.

5. Sing modestly; do not bawl.

6. Sing in time; do not run before nor stay behind.

7. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.



23 Comments »

  1. My wife was a Methodist, and her copy of the Methodist Hymnal has a more complete version of these instructions which we’ve enjoyed over the years. There are some really enjoyable explanations of the rules, edited out of the above copy. You can read the full text here:

    http://www.gbgm-umc.org/bensalempa/wesley.html

    Comment by David Kenison — December 9, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  2. Thanks, David; Bro. Schreiner must have thought we had short attention spans.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 9, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  3. I like the long form best-but I would be far more afraid of singing the songs of Satan than I have ever been in singing hymns.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — December 9, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  4. This particular bit of advice from the long form appears directed at our current state of congregational singing:

    Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep;

    I can only assume that “The Songs of Satan” must be some of those that I sing while playing my guitar. I actually do tend to sing louder at church than when playing.

    Comment by kevinf — December 9, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  5. Item #3 really made me laugh. I notice that the short version is quite different from the longer one. It affected me because I tend to sing words that are (in my view) more egalitarian. For example, there are several Christmas hymns that I edit to “Peace on earth, good will to all.” I don’t sing it “lustily” to impose my opinion on others. Occasionally the person next to me may hear it, but no one else besides God and the angels.

    I’ll have to attempt repentance with the admonition, “If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.”

    Comment by charlene — December 9, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

  6. So we have Eric and kevin singing the Songs of Satan and charlene violatin’ the sanctity of the printed word left and right! Consider yourselves called to repentance. ;)

    So that this conversation will still make sense later if the United Methodist Church website changes, I’ve saved the longer version here.

    And I think I may have discovered (halfway facetiously, halfway seriously) why Bro.Schreiner abbreviated these rules, especially No. 6. All through the years when he wrote a regular column for the Instructor giving aids to organists and music directors, he kept encouraging that this phrase or that phrase, or even the whole song, be slowed way, way, way down to give it dignity and grandeur and emphasis and majesty. Through the influence of the Choir on the whole church, he may be responsible for the ponderous slowness with which we tend to sing so many hymns.

    I say, with Wesley, “it is high time to drive it out from us and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.” Who’s with me on this???

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 9, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

  7. Amen to Ardis, comment 6. I quit singing when a song says to sing joyously and we are plodding along like a funeral procession. My husband actually checks his watch against the metronome setting to see if the music is supposed to be that slow. Usually it is the product of a dreadfully slow conductor AND the MM marking.

    Comment by Maurine — December 9, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

  8. Hooray for a post featuring John Wesley!

    It’s also worth noting that Emma Smith’s original selection of hymns for the early Church was based on her own Methodist hymnal.

    Comment by Christopher — December 9, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

  9. I’m with you and John Wesley, Ardis!

    I’ve ceased looking at the second hand of my watch. But, I sometimes take my pocket metronome to church–it’s the size of a playing card, about 1/4 inch thick, I can slow it down to the glacial pace that we sing, and it saves me having to do mental calculations while trying to sing. I’ve become friends with the music director, and I’m going to start telling her what I discover. I’ve suggested in high council meeting that we buy a metronome for every music director in the stake, and encourage them to use it. I’m still waiting for an ok.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 9, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  10. Now there’s a practical response!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 9, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

  11. I say, with Wesley, “it is high time to drive it out from us and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.” Who’s with me on this???

    Hear, hear! I’m with you, Ardis! There’s a place for slow music — I love slow, dignified music, Brother Schreiner, I do — but there’s a time to kick it up, too! I suspect that a lot of the slow hymn tempos we experience are less a result of the organist’s deliberate aesthetic considerations, as they are a symptom of the organist’s lack of preparation. Zing!

    P.S. Here’s my free advice for any organists out there: when you practice the hymns (IF you practice), make yourself sing along with yourself. If you struggle for air before the end of the musical line, it’s a sign from heaven that you’re too dang slow. (Hunter 1:1)

    Comment by Hunter — December 10, 2009 @ 12:09 am

  12. I completely agree with the need to speed up some of the hymns. I’ve been the organist, having to decide whether to follow the music director’s pace or take off on my own; and I’ve been the music director, trying to lead the music at a good pace but realizing that the organist isn’t following me, then wondering if my arm is going to fall off before we finish the 4th verse. Occasionally, when I’ve accompanied the singing in Relief Society, I’ve erred too far the other way and left everyone a little breathless (but definitely awake). It can be tricky to find just the right tempo. I wonder if some organists could play faster but don’t because they’re intimidated by the organ itself and the way it magnifies the sound of every mistake.

    Comment by Tamary — December 10, 2009 @ 7:55 am

  13. I blame the slow tempo not on Rev. Wesley, but the unwillingness of organists to practice enough. Metronomes would be great solution. (This problem may be why the hymnbook includes tempo suggestions in the first place…)

    I have an old LDS hymnal from the 1880s, and it’s a text-only songbook.

    If the church ever replaces the current green edition, I vote that they include Wesley’s rules for singing, right after the 1st presidency message. I also advocate going back to the embossed covers of the old brown edition, so kids in sacrament meeting can learn how to make crayon rubbings. Ahh… the memories!

    Comment by Clark — December 10, 2009 @ 9:30 am

  14. I recall reading an interesting note by Alex. Schreiner about the difference between hymns and the other kinds of music we have in the hymnbook (anthems, etc.). He had a way of stating things simply and understandably. I think I read it in his biography.

    Our ward music director has such an easy-going (read: slow) style, that over the past year I’ve started ignoring her (almost) entirely, and I set a metronome next to my music and play at the highest recommended tempo. It sometimes surprises the congregation, particularly after someone else has filled in at the organ for a few weeks at the traditional dirge tempo.

    I’ve never noticed that playing the music at the top speed has ever negatively affected the spirit of the meeting. On the contrary, it has improved the worship experience.

    Comment by Researcher — December 10, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  15. Good for you, Researcher. That’s great.

    Comment by Hunter — December 10, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  16. No doubt that the Saints eschewed this practice about the time the Church was organized, but it is far easier for human beings to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” if they are standing! When you are seated and attempt to sing, you can’t adequately inhale to get enough breath to carry you comfortably through a verse. (The diaphragm is constrained and cannot move as it should.) This would also increase the volume enough so that the congregation doesn’t sound as if it is made up of asthmatics. This also serves as the religious equivalent of the “seventh inning stretch” in long winded meetings.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — December 10, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  17. I also perfer standing for hymns — the Mormon Tabernacle Choir used to sit while singing, but they stand nowadays — I wish we all stood for every hymn every Sunday, but I’d be happy just to stand for one hymn…

    Comment by ji — December 10, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

  18. Another thought, since I read above about sometime differences between chorister and organist and which sets the tempo — here’s my answer — if you have a professional-quality organist who can play AND follow the chorister, the organist can follow the chorister — but for all other organists, the chorister has to follow the organist…

    Comment by ji — December 10, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  19. It’s worth noting that Mormons aren’t alone in singing slow.

    Most interesting to me, though, is the case of the Amish—for them, the more devout the community (congregation isn’t quite the right word), the slower the singing. We’re talking easily noticeable differences, too—a highly devout community may take fifteen minutes to get through a song a less devout community would get through in two or three.

    Maybe we’re just trying to prove how devout we are…

    Comment by David B — December 13, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

  20. I guess I should take it as a compliment that lifelong members say I conduct too fast in my Atlanta ward?

    I grew up in the Church in the West, and I didn’t know better. But now that I live in the “soulful” South, I try to retain our precious converts by not making them crazy singing so slowly! :)

    Comment by Allison Sullivan — December 25, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

  21. I can sometimes tell when a new organist or chorister (or when visiting another ward) is from Utah. They are almost always painfully slower than the non-Utah born and raised ones.

    Ok, I’ll bite on the metronome setting as listed in the hymn ook. What does it mean? How do I interpret or compute it, or compare it with the second hand on a watch?

    Comment by Bookslinger — December 26, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

  22. Metronome markings? The numbers indicate beats per minute (bpm), just like heart rate. So 60 would be one beat per second. I assume you could compute tempo the same way you compute heart rate: count the number of beats in 10 seconds and multiply by 6 or the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply by 4, etc.

    If you look at the line under the title of a song in the hymnbook, “Now the Day Is Over” (159), for example, it will list a mood for the song (“calmly”), and show the tempo. In this song, a quarter note should be played at 60 to 72 beats per minute. If you’re familiar with the song, it’s quite slow.

    The sacrament hymn in my ward today was “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth” (196). (The same sacrament song for the second week in a row! I found out that all the songs had been changed several minutes into the meeting. Yikes.)

    According to the compilers of the hymnbook, this hymn should be played “solemnly” and a quarter note should be played at between 76 and 88 beats per minute. I play for a fairly small ward and it doesn’t take the priests long to break the bread for the sacrament, so I play the sacrament song at the top of the tempo range, and the priests are usually done before I am. If I were playing in a large Utah or Arizona ward where the sacrament preparation took longer, I might start to play the sacrament songs more slowly so I didn’t have to continue playing for long periods of time between the end of the singing and when the priests were done with the bread. I don’t know how much logistics like this factor into the difference of tempo that you and others mention, Bookslinger, but it is a possibility that it’s at least partly traceable to congregation size.

    For what it’s worth, this is the metronome that I use.

    Comment by Researcher — December 27, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

  23. Don’t know about anybody else, Researcher, but that was a welcome education for me. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 27, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

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