Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Ward Music Guild 6: Interpretation of Music (Tempo)

The Ward Music Guild 6: Interpretation of Music (Tempo)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 05, 2014

Sixth Guild Meeting: March, 1944

By Dr. Frank W. Asper
Tabernacle Organist and
Member, Church Music Committee

Tempo, or pace, is common to all mankind. Yet, as the heartbeat varies in different persons, so the degree of tempo feeling differs, too. Psychologists point out that there are variations in responsiveness to movement in music according to the age, the country, the race, and the century.

It is a well-known fact that the metronome mark on some compositions are not correct, especially of the masterpieces written before Beethoven’s time, for the reason that the metronome was not then invented, and they have been put on by men who have edited the compositions. Unfortunately, most of the metronome marks in our own L.D.S. hymnal are too slow. They do very well in the tabernacle in Salt Lake City, where there is much reverberation and carrying over of tone, but they should be faster in the majority of our ward chapels, where a smaller and less ponderous body of singers tends to create a lack of interest if they sing at the speeds indicated.

Preparing the Choir

Before attempting to accomplish much with the choir by way of tempo change, the leader should stress more accurately the time values of notes and rests. Even among the best singers, there is a marked degree of carelessness in this regard, and usually this is due to indifference or ignorance on the part of the conductor. The full value should be given to each note, except when it is slightly shortened in order for the singer to get a “catch breath.” If the leader beats time accurately, it will help a great deal in singing such places the way they were intended, but a better guarantee is for the conductor to be on guard during rehearsal and observe the time values conscientiously. After the technique of precise attack and release is mastered, more attention may be given to fluctuations in tempo.

A hymn should be played through with solid organ tone after it has been announced, and at the correct speed to set the pace for the whole congregation. The entire service can have a good or bad spirit according to the way the first hymn is announced.

The words are, of course, the first consideration, and the hymn should be taken at the speed at which they may best be spoken clearly and distinctly. Solemn hymns should necessarily be taken slower, and brighter hymns faster.

The size of the chapel and its acoustics must also be considered. In a larger building it will invariably be found that more time must be allowed for the sound to carry. The size of the congregation is a factor. A large group is more difficult to bring into line than a small one and one would also not expect so quick a response from older people as from those of younger age.

The hymns should always be played in such a way that all listeners will be eager to join in and sing. Singing is one of our most potent ways of worshiping, and it is the only active way in which most people can take part.

Increasing the Participation in Hymn-Singing

At the end of the announcement of the hymn on the organ, the congregation or choir and organ should begin promptly on the first note, without hesitation. In playing the hymns with the singers, the organist should avoid all sudden and abrupt changes either in tempo or volume. The first induces raggedness and will eventually stop the participation of many people in the singing. Changes in volume can be equally fatal. If a member of the congregation suddenly finds himself singing louder than his neighbors or with but little support from the organ, it is but a short time before he is frightened into silence and his self-expression through the singing of the hymns is stifled.

Sometimes the congregations take the liberty of making holds, as in Edwards’ “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” at the end of the first and second phrases. In “How Firm a Foundation,” the second verse, beginning “As thy days,” the first syllable comes as a surprise and is unlike the other verse. If this phrase is taken in strict time, most people will omit the first few syllables, weakening the sound of the hymn and dampening their enthusiasm. But if a slight pause is made, then going on, giving each word a quarter note, the leader will be assured of whole-hearted singing.

Playing accompaniments is a give-and-take proposition, and one must learn to give a little here and there so that the structure will not be weakened.

All hymns should be phrased on the organ in the same sense in which the accompanying words would be recited. After all, the main thing in a hymn is the words; the music is there to give the words emphasis.

It is especially imperative that the organist hear the different effects and the various volumes of tone on the organ from the rear of the building when it is filled. When he is playing at the console with singers shouting in his ears, it is impossible to judge balance and blend correctly. They can be achieved only by having someone else play, and listening to the hymn from a distance. Such a procedure will improve his use of the organ.

Questions for Consideration

1. Sing the examples of hymns mentioned in the article.

2. Sing, and then discuss the difficulties of “Lead Kindly Light.”

3. What happens when hymns are sung too fast? too slow? Discuss.

4. Review the course of six lessons as time allows. The first lesson concerned the planning of the ward music program for the year; the second treated congregational singing; the third was on functions of the church organist; the fourth on choral singing; the fifth discussed the nature of music for worship; and the final article comments on tempos for hymn singing.

This is the last of a series of six meetings for Ward Music Guilds throughout the Church. We hope that benefits have been derived from the material presented and the discussions that have been held.



  1. “Unfortunately, most of the metronome marks in our own L.D.S. hymnal are too slow.”

    How about adding this to the bottom of every page of the hymn book?

    Comment by Mark B. — March 5, 2014 @ 8:15 am

  2. Is there someone you’d like me to share this with, Ardis?

    Comment by Carol — March 5, 2014 @ 8:53 am

  3. One more marking for people to ignore, Mark!

    Carol, I’ll send you a list of contact info for just about everyone in my stake. How’s that? :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 5, 2014 @ 8:59 am

  4. “What happens when hymns are sung too slow? Discuss.”

    What happens is that it induces feelings of uncontrolled rage in otherwise good-hearted people. Ha!

    (Good article! Brother Asper did a fine job, here. Maybe this article should be glued into the inside cover of every hymnal . . . or at least pasted to the organ bench.)

    Comment by David Y. — March 5, 2014 @ 10:40 am

  5. The “holds” in “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” have now been formalized in the hymnal via fermatas. But in Mexico (at least when I was there in the mid-nineties) the congregation still sings it as straight quarters, which caught this accompanist totally off-guard the first time around.

    My favorite local adaptation, though, was singing the last phrase of “Come All Ye Sons of God” as a drag triplet.

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 13, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

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