Hymn Playing That Works

On a Musica Sacra forum Noel Jones made excellent observations on Hymn Playing That Works which I’ve reproduced below.

Noel’s Basic Chant site has info on his booklet “A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Gregorian Chant” and biographical info.

Noel Jones’ concise observations on hymn playing are, from my perspective (in the congregation), right on key and cover precisely what must be emphasized in today’s milieu with regard to hymns:

If the hymns are not boring for you as a church musician, you are not programming them frequently enough for the people to learn to sing them and eventually love them.

Anyone can star in On Golden Pond in a community theater. Only a professional can perform it daily for a year. There are elements required to get a congregation singing a hymn. It require consistency and repetition. If you follow the rules that are required to make a hymn singable long before it becomes a congregational staple you will be bored with it. And that boredom has to be overcome or at least suppressed if you are truly going to serve the church.


Consistency is essential.

There must be a clear visual guide to what number the hymn is, through the use of a hymn board or a printed bulletin.

Announcing of hymns is an interruption in the Mass that should never be tolerated by a congregation.

The Introduction:

The hymn introduction must start from the beginning and continue to the end. If, and only if, the format of the hymn is AAB, it is permissible to play just AB. But if so, it must always be played AB. This is a clear reminder to the congregation of the melody.

The volume of the introduction must be at the same level as the first verse to be played. This indicates to the congregation the level at which they should sing.

The tempo of the entire introduction must be the exact tempo of the hymn. Slowing down to indicate the end of the introduction is specifically banned. This tells the congregation what tempo to sing.

There should be a pause, in exact tempo, when the organist lifts the fingers from the keys that indicates that it is time to sing at the end of the introduction and each verse.

All elements of the introduction are solely to provide a solid presentation to the people who are about to sing.

An improvised introduction is appropriate only on hymns that the people can sing the first verse of from memory. Once they know a hymn that well, your introduction merely needs to indicate the melody to them. But all other hymns, if you want them sung, must always be introduced in the same manner.

For this reason, it is best if there is only one organist playing for the hymn singing at all Masses, whenever possible. Consistency.

The Hymn:

No fluctuations from tempo are permitted.

Volume levels, through the use of the expression pedal or stop pistons, should occur during the silent pause between each verse. However, the expression may at times increase the volume level during the last line prior to choosing a louder stop setting in the break.

During the last line of the last verse only there may be a ritard or no ritard.

The organ shall hold the last chord without diminishing the volume, instead letting go of the chord with a clear cut off, as a choir would. The organ has its own voice. Hushing it during the last chord is inappropriate.


By the time a hymn is first sung in the church, the organist has played it many times, first when learning it, second when teaching it to the choir. The congregation will have heard it only one time, as it is introduced. It takes at least 10 singings of the hymn before the average person in the congregation becomes comfortable recognizing it and at this point they are still not solid singing it.

Do not sing hymns that cantors and choir members like, instead concentrate only on hymns that the congregation will sing and that are worth spending the time to teach them through repetition.


You must determine if the hymns in your church are congregational or are primarily solos for cantors and choir.

You may schedule a few hymns and get a lot of people to sing them, or choose a lot of hymns to more exactly match the scriptures of the day and have just a few people singing them.

And, special services, such as funerals, require careful attention. Only the most familiar of hymns and chants should be chosen for congregational participation.

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