What is an appropriate hymn tempo?
Chances are, you will not be a church musician very long before someone comes up to you after the worship service to discuss your choice of hymn tempos. This is a topic on which most people have an opinion and few people agree. However, there are several very practical techniques a musician can use to determine the best hymn tempo.
Many variables determine the choice of hymn tempos. Tempos change depending upon the particular congregation, its size, the time of day, the acoustics of the worship space, the instrument(s) used to lead the singing, the familiarity of the tune for the people, the particular harmonization played, the tactus (natural pulse) of the hymn, and the technical ability of the musician.
Situations that suggest a somewhat faster tempo include dry acoustics, small or medium sized rooms with low ceilings or carpeting, a small organ or piano, a small number of people, or a lethargic assembly. These factors combine to create less musical energy that is needed to sustain solid hymn singing. The sound dies away quickly in a dry room. Small organs or pianos with a few people singing may not create enough energy to sustain long phrases. A slightly faster tempo helps to compensate for these factors. When opposite conditions occur, hymns will require a somewhat slower tempo. The longer a room’s reverberation, the more time it takes for a musical phrase to unfold, especially when a large group of people are singing. The hymns should be played with greater articulation and clarity of sound.
When playing most northern European hymns, it is a common misinterpretation to automatically treat the quarter note as the tactus or primary pulse. More often than not, the tactus is the half note (or, perhaps, the dotted half note in a triple meter). Play the hymn with a half note pulse and see what a difference it makes. Hymns take on a new level of energy, becoming more lively, more forward-moving, even easier to sing, without necessarily going faster.
The musician must always listen to the congregation, take into consideration all the factors at work in the liturgy, and select tempos accordingly. If it is early in the morning or a weekday evening after work, the congregation may be lethargic. A slower tempo with a lighter accompaniment might be needed to encourage singing. If it is a festival occasion, the congregation might be overly energetic and need a strong, steady tactus and moderate tempo to keep everyone together. Use your judgment to select the best tempo that will encourage and support congregational singing. Whatever the selected tempo, stick with it. The congregation needs to be able to rely on a strong, steady tactus.
When you come to the end of a stanza (except for the final one), don’t slow down. Keep the tactus going internally. You may need to stretch the pulse a bit. In some cases you need to add a full pulse or two to what is on the printed page to make a logical transition into the next stanza. Always be sure to release the chord long enough to give the congregation time to breath. Hymn playing is an art, not a science. The connection between stanzas should feel natural. Be consistent so that the congregation knows what to expect and can begin singing the next stanza together with confidence.