Retuning Hymns

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There is something uniquely edifying about singing the prayers and teachings of our foremothers and forefathers. Singing the inherited hymnody of various Christian traditions allows the wisdom and experience of those who have gone before us to shape our worship practice and to shape us. We are able to connect with the community of Christ across time, reminding us that we are not alone in this journey and encouraging us with the hope that the God who sustained our forebears is faithful still. 

But the Bible's songbook, The Book of Psalms, also urges worshippers, "Sing to the Lord a new song." While both hymns that have stood the test of time and new musical expressions can enrich our worship singing, there is a third possibility: Sing an old song in a new way.

There are three main approaches you might take to adapting a hymn or "retuning" a hymn text:

1. Write an entirely new melody for an existing hymn text. Listen, for example, to Page CXVI's new melody for Christ the Lord is Risen Today.

2. Keep the original text and tune but re-harmonize the hymn and even arrange it in a new style. A very well-known example of such adaptation is Hillsong's Cornerstone, which also adds a new refrain to the hymn, "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less."

3. Perhaps the easiest way to "retune" a hymn—especially if you are not an arranger or composer—is to sing a hymn text to a different hymn tune that has the same meter. This strategy can be effective if you want to sing an unfamiliar but fitting text to a more familiar tune. Fortunately, there is a resource in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal to assist you in this endeavor. Beginning on page 819, you will find a Metrical Index of Hymn Tunes. Hymn texts with the same meter are essentially interchangeable. The result is not always equally effective, but there are great possibilities. For example,Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service(#363) can be sung to the well-known tune associated with "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (#334). In this way, poignant words that send the congregation out to serve can be sung to a melody that will readily afford participation. See the section in which both hymn tunes are listed in the photo below.

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Nicholas Zork is a songwriter, musician, and serves as minister for worship and the arts at Church of the Advent Hope in New York City.