Familiar vs. Unfamiliar Hymns

Posted on April 22, 2012. Filed under: General Church Music, Music in Sacrament Meeting, Ward Music Chairman |

Recently I asked my Ward Music Chairman if we could please sing Hymn #197  “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown” for a sacrament hymn. After all it is listed under the topic of “Sacrament” and it is one of my favorite hymns, the only one in our hymnal by J.S. Bach. Due to the changing harmonies I love playing it on the organ. My Ward Music Chairman told me we can’t do it because it’s not familiar. What??? I told her that was ridiculous, that it’s been around since the 1700’s and if it wasn’t familiar to some it ought to become familiar. Then we proceeded to sing a sacrament hymn that Sunday, one that was new to the 1985 hymnal. It too was unfamiliar just a few years ago until someone decided we should sing it once, twice, then it became familiar. That’s how it works.

Occasionally local leaders request that only hymns that are familiar to the congregation be sung in sacrament meeting. The problem is which are the familiar hymns? What is familiar to one may not be to another. To me, “O Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown” is very familiar. It’s the main chorale in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The music is in every Christian hymnal I’ve ever browsed. The hymn text describes the sacrifice of our Savior. It is a message central to our religion. Why then can we not sing it or any other hymn for that matter?

On the LDS Church Music website and in the hymnbook it states:

  • Achieving Balance in the Selection of Hymns: In addition to using hymns already known and loved, members are encouraged to become acquainted with new or less familiar hymns. Try to achieve a good balance between familiar favorites and less well-known hymns.
  • Hymns for Stake Conference: Standard, well-known hymns are often the best choice for stake conference, particularly if hymnbooks are not available for the entire congregation.

Notice that well-known hymns are suggested for stake conference but no such statement is made regarding sacrament meeting. However, achieving a good balance is suggested. I like the 80/20 rule I heard someone mention years ago, 80% familiar and 20% less-familiar hymns. When choosing a less-familiar hymn it is helpful to have the organist play the entire hymn for the introduction. Have the organist play it for prelude music. Have the choir perform it or ask the Relief Society sisters to sing it in their meeting the week before. Then, by the time the ward is introduced to this hymn in sacrament meeting is is no longer unfamiliar.

The Latter-day Saint hymns teach great doctrine. Each hymn is meaningful and sacred. We should strive for familiarity with all of these inspired hymns.

See also How to Choose Hymns for Sacrament Meeting

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7 Responses to “Familiar vs. Unfamiliar Hymns”

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I agree with your sentiments. My ward won’t sing “O Savior” either–but it’s the request of our Bishop, who says that only familiar hymns should be used. Familiar to whom? I wonder. How can we get familiar with hymns if we don’t have practice times anymore, such as we used to have? Some of the hymns we don’t sing are absolutely beautiful and evoke in me a spirit of reverence that often the more familiar ones don’t achieve. We need contrast and balance in our choice of hymns, just as in our organ execution. It may be helpful to have a stake workshop for all music personnel and invite bishoprics — having plenty of Church Handboooks of Instructions for Music available.

My choir just did Lean on My Ample Arm. The congregation is singing it 2 weeks later. I love being both choir director and the music chair who picks the hymns! We already tackled O Saviour Thou Who Wearest a while ago. I love it! The bishopric is supportive as long as its just about 80/20 like you said. I think we’ll do Ye Simple Souls Who Stray next 😉

My first introduction to “O Savior” was when we performed it as a special musical number to the tune of “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” That rendition was so beautiful, but I do love the words of “O Savior” no matter what tune it is set to.

The organists in my ward, me included, don’t like playing unfamiliar hymns because it almost ends being an organ solo or it kills the momentum of the meeting. Since we don’t have hymn practise any more it is the responsibility of the members to spend time at home learning new hymns. They can be given the challenge to learn a new hymn by the bishopric and be prepared to sing it in a future meeting. RS can also have the sisters sing a new hymn in preparation as well. The choir can also introduce a new hymn. Without previous preparation by the members, I won’t play new hymns.

A few weeks ago, two hymns were chosen within the same sacrament meeting which were totally unfamiliar to the congregation, and dare I say, to me as well. I decided to lengthen the introduction, which for one hymn meant playing the entire hymn as the intro. I wanted the congregation to be a little familiar with the melody before attempting to sing. I opened the stops all the way (organ at full volume), loud enough so the congregation probably couldn’t even hear themselves sing. I didn’t want them to feel shy or inhibited at all by singing something unfamiliar. Since the organ was so loud, even if they sang the wrong notes, it would be okay. This seemed to work, or maybe it didn’t. I guess we’ll never know. The organ was too loud to hear people sing 😉

In a previous ward, the ward music chairman would put lead-up announcements in the bulletin when a new and challenging hymn such as “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest” was going to be introduced, drawing the congregation’s attention to the fact that they’d be hearing it in the prelude, and letting them know which date – in X number of weeks – the hymn would be on the sacrament meeting slate. This was a great help in preparing them to sing lesser-known hymns.

The music chairman in a previous ward would alert the congregation via the bulletin when a new/lesser-known hymn would be on the Sacrament meeting slate several weeks in advance. Over several weeks she’d direct people to listen for it in the prelude, add some historical context, make interpretive notes, etc. It was a great help in preparing the congregation to sing a new hymn confidently.


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