The Case for New Hymn Tunes

Before the mid-1800s, hymn lyrics were published on their own, without melodies. For generations, different congregations would sing a hymn to different tunes. Sometimes a match would fit so well that it would gain popularity in a region or even for a generation.

Many of the finest lyrics from the pens of Isaac Watts, John Wesley, John Newton, and others lie tuneless and forgotten in the archives. Since so many tuneless older hymn lyrics are well worth singing, there is a place for today’s composers to search the rich treasure troves of Christian hymnody and compose new melodies worthy of these great, classic lyrics.

There is also a time and a place to give a post-1830 hymn a new melody. Sometimes a lyric still worthy of singing was originally matched with a prohibitively challenging melody. Unless the challenging melody (think “Oh Holy Night” or “And Can it Be”) has become iconic, it may be appropriate to give the lyric a new melody.

The Case for Old Hymn Tunes

Some Contemporary Christian Music songwriters have recognized a lack of solid, sound doctrine in their genre’s lyrics. To their credit, some of them (including Stuart Townend, Keith & Kristyn Getty, and writers affiliated with Sovereign Grace Ministries and Indelible Grace Music) have recognized the rich lyrics in long-forgotten hymns, and have brought hundreds back with new melodies. Despite the fact that our genre has deeper roots in and closer ties to the rich English/American hymn tradition, it is only giving credit where credit is due to acknowledge that these efforts are an example our genre’s writers would do well to emulate.

Yet in their enthusiasm, some members of this movement have gone too far. In their enthusiasm for new tunes, some are not afraid to write new tunes for anything—even “Amazing Grace.”

Several dozen hymns are so widely known and loved that Christians around the world sing them in hundreds of languages. Several hundred more—perhaps 250-500—are widely recognized throughout English-language churches around the world. There is a distinct benefit to the global church if new believers are taught these songs—with their original tunes.

On the global level, you can walk into many churches around the world and, without being able to understand a word of the sermon, still join your brothers and sisters in Christ in “Amazing Grace,” “It is Well With My Soul,” or “The Old Rugged Cross.”

But even if many new believers will never travel overseas, most will move churches at some point in their life. Yes, with virtually any new church move, learning some new songs is part of the process. But we do new believers a great disservice if we have re-written everything, forcing them to start from scratch if the church sings the original tunes.

Conclusion

Don’t mess with “Amazing Grace.” Sure, it might not be the simplest melody ever written. But you’re doing the Church no favors by changing it.

But take a forgotten lyric from the same author—say, “The Lord Will Provide.” That’s another story entirely; bring it on!