I hear dozens of new songs for worship every year. Many are uplifting and popular. But how do I know whether a song is good for congregational singing?
My students are always suggesting new songs. One may be the latest release from a popular band. Another may be a beloved song from home. Some students propose songs that align lyrically with a sermon theme, while others recommend songs for the sheer novelty they bring. Not every song is appropriate for us to sing. Nevertheless, every new song submitted is an opportunity to practice discernment in worship planning.
In evaluating a song’s suitability for worship, we might first consider the theology of the lyrics. Does it align with our community’s standards of faith? Does it contribute to a balanced theological diet? Second, we might ask how a song will serve the liturgy. How well does the song help us to praise, confess our sins, listen to God’s Word, lament, or dedicate ourselves to service? Last, we might evaluate a song culturally. How does the song align with our local context, challenge prevailing cultural norms, or promote cross-cultural connections?
When we ask if a song is good for congregational singing, however, we want to assess a song aesthetically. What musical and artistic qualities make a song conducive to congregational participation? What distinguishes a congregational song from a soloistic song? What qualities of a song contribute to its longevity?
In answering these questions, cultural and local variations will naturally emerge. Repetition in a song might render it easily accessible to one community while appearing tedious to another. Similarly, a song’s elevated language may be considered beautiful by one group but come across as too highbrow for another. Despite these variations, using several overarching categories of questions may empower communities to discern what songs resonate best with them.
I am indebted to Debra Rienstra and Ron Rienstra for their valuable insights into “Assessing Songs for Congregational Use” in the appendix of Worship Words (Baker Academic, 2009, 263–64). To facilitate my own discernment and to guide my students, I have curated a selection of their questions and structured them under the acronym STAT: Shape, Tune, Accompaniment, and Text. By examining a song’s STATs, we can effectively determine its suitability for congregational singing.
Let’s consider an exemplary hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” This is by far the most requested song at our hymn-sing chapels at Calvin University. We invite students to call aloud the number in Lift Up Your Hearts of a song they want to sing. Again and again, the students shout, “521!” It is requested so often that I’ve memorized the number and try to listen for alternatives.
One reason this hymn is so beloved is that it is so singable. Let’s explore why.
First, consider the song’s shape or form. What do you notice about the melody? The first two are the same. Let’s call the first line “a” and the musically identical second line “a” too. The third line is different. Let’s call that “b.” Line four returns to the form of the first and second lines, so we’ll call line four “a” too. The shape or form of this melody, then is aaba.
What’s notable about this shape is that it is identifiable. As humans we like patterns because we like predictability. Predictable patterns aid learning and memory.
Moreover, this song’s pattern is repeated over the three verses. It’s reliable. The shape is not going to change in the middle of the song and trip you up.
A song that’s conducive for congregational singing, then, will have an identifiable and reliable shape.
Second, let’s observe the song’s tune. First, consider its range. For “Come, Thou Fount,” the range is an octave—very comfortable for a congregation. It doesn’t go too high or too low. It’s just right. (For more considerations about range, refer to my Q&A “Highs and Lows of Singing” in RW 148, June 2023.)
Next, look for the highest notes in the tune. There are three high Ds in the third line. Often the highest notes in a song signal its climax, the point of most intensity. An interesting melody will go somewhere—it will move towards a point of tension and then release, just like a good story does.
Finally, examine the movement of the tune from one note to the next. In this case it is stepwise or arpeggiated according to the underlying harmony. This makes it easy for the ear to hear and to learn.
A song that excels in facilitating congregational singing, then, will have a narrow vocal range, an identifiable climax, and a stepwise or arpeggiated tune.
Third, let’s ponder the song’s accompaniment—its underlying rhythm and harmony. In “Come, Thou Fount,” the rhythm of most measures is quarter note, quarter note, eighth note, eighth note.
It’s predictable, with a slight variation in the third line, and as with the song’s shape, its rhythmic predictability aids in learning and memory. But a song’s rhythm doesn’t always need to be this simple. A song can have complicated syncopation as long as it is predictable.
Likewise, harmony is easier to learn when it is predictable. In this song, the “a” lines all have the same harmony, but it changes in the “b” line.
I have one critique, however, of this harmonization. I think it is too predictable and bland. I would prefer to add a Bm chord on measures 9 and 11 in line three to create a pleasing surprise. This would add interest over the course of three verses.
A song that lends itself well to congregational singing will have a predictable rhythm and harmony, but also a pleasing surprise.
Last, let’s contemplate the text. Does it possess an elevated and sophisticated tone, or does it feel excessively lofty or highbrow? Is the language straightforward and easily understandable, or is it simplistic? The language of a text ought to harmonize with its context.
The images in the text of “Come, Thou Fount” are abundant. “Fount of every blessing.” “Tune my heart.” “Streams of mercy.” “Melodious sonnet.” “Flaming tongues above.” And that’s just the first verse!
But what do you think of these images? Do they pique your interest and seem fitting? Perhaps they may strike you as surprising or innovative. Captivating imagery is a key ingredient for aesthetic pleasure and the enduring longevity of a song.
Finally, do the meter and the lyrics complement each other? The meter here is ¾, and the weight of the melody falls on beat one. In verse 1, “Fount,” “blessing,” “heart,” and “grace” all fall on a measure’s first beat. Accenting these words instead of prepositions or unstressed syllables matches the contours of the melody.
A song that is well-suited for congregational singing, therefore, will have appropriate language for the context, interesting imagery, and fitting accents.
First, different song structures are useful for different parts of worship. “Come, Thou Fount,” for example, follows a linear strophic structure. It features a richly woven text that tells a story from beginning to end. Additionally, the entire text is sung to a repeated melody. This structure is good for expressing statements of faith.
Conversely, the text in a cyclical song structure tends to be straightforward and designed for repetition, providing ample room for meditative reflection. The experience is enriched further by introducing variations in the accompaniment with each repetition.
Furthermore, songs with verse/refrain or verse/refrain/bridge patterns have their own inherent logic. The climax of the tune typically comes in the refrain, while each verse, chorus, and bridge exhibits its own identifiable and reliable shape.
Second, armed with the knowledge of song STATs, one should embrace curiosity and guard against any tendencies of snobbery when encountering new songs. It is easy to find fault with popular songs. The imagery in the text may be lacking, or the accent may fall on unimportant words. You may find a harmonization bland (which you can always change) or the tune may have several challenging leaps.
But keep an open mind and explore each song’s potential merits. Perhaps the shape is reliable and conducive to easy learning. There might be a rousing climax in the tune, or maybe the language is especially fitting for your context.
If the pros outweigh the cons, sing the song with a small group and see how it goes. You might also introduce the song during a prelude or offertory and invite feedback. Additionally, don’t underestimate the power of repetition: a song that’s seemingly unsingable in the first week may evolve into a fully embraced piece by the third week.
This reminds me of an enlightening interview with singer-songwriter Wendell Kimbrough on this topic. He reluctantly admitted, “If a congregation wants to sing a song, they’ll sing the song.” So very true. Some songs may lack ideal STATs for congregational singing, but they might yet surprise us—or rather, the congregation might surprise us!
What are the song’s STATs?
What form do you identify?
How is the form reliable?
What is the song’s vocal range? Is it reasonable?
Does the melody have an identifiable climax? Where?
Is the tune either stepwise or arpeggiated according to the underlying harmony?
In what way(s) is the rhythm predictable?
In what way(s) is the harmony predictable?
What pleasing harmonic “surprise(s)” do you observe?
How is the language of the song fitting for your context?
What imagery do you observe? Is it interesting? Appropriate? Surprising?
How does the accent of the words match the contours of the melody?
—Questions adapted from “Assessing Songs for Congregational Use” in Worship Words, Debra Rienstra and Ron Rienstra, 2009, pp. 263–64.