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Playing Hymns & Gospel Songs On The Piano: A Treasure-Trove of Riches

Nov 6, 2007
If you're a beginning or intermediate pianist interested in learning and playing hymn tunes -- particularly those relating to the Christian faith -- there are several issues working in your favor. First, as the words and tunes of hymns generally date back to pre-20th century times, most hymns live entirely in the public domain. For this reason, thousands of free hymns and gospel songs in the form of sheet music and music books, both popular and obscure, are readily available from countless publishing sources.

Of course, prospective hymnists will still have to pay for comprehensive, paper-based collections of hymns. However, with the growth of the Internet it is now possible to find extensive collections of free hymns in all corners of the Web.

Meanwhile, before embarking upon a serious study of hymns, it's important for the pianist to build a solid foundation of historical understanding. After all, devotional music goes as far back as Christianity itself. Accordingly, many of the hymns that are played and sung today have long, rich histories, as does the hymnal tradition itself.

As many students of the Bible already know, the origins of the Christian musical tradition are found in the poetic passages of the Bible, specifically the Psalms of David and other poetic portions of the scriptures. The Psalms -- a word whose original meaning comes from the Greek word for "songs sung to a harp" -- are believed by Biblical scholars to be direct transcriptions of chants sung by pre-Christian Hebrews in the Holy Land. Thus, when we play and sing hymns, we are following in a musical tradition that predates Jesus' time.

More modern hymnody has its origins in Gregorian chant, as well as in the works and writings of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and other theologians of the Middle Ages and the Reformation period. Then, during subsequent centuries, as the melodic and harmonic range of music itself expanded, many church hymns developed a higher degree of musical sophistication, including multi-part harmonies, and detailed musical notation.

As Christianity spread to the New World in the 17th century and later, hymnody went in new directions, the effects of which are now heard in churches throughout the world. In fact, the first book published in the Americas was a collection of original translations of hymns by Puritan clergy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Known as the Bay Psalm Book, the collection took the hymnal tradition in new directions, including a standardized rhythmic structure that is now used in many of our favorite hymns, including beloved songs such as "Amazing Grace," and many of our perennial favorite Christmas carols.

This brings us to another issue working in favor of the beginning pianist who is interested in hymnody. The beauty of many devotional hymns lies in their accessibility. That is, as they are designed to be sung by the masses, people who only sing once a week are able to wrap their voices around them. In other words, hymns generally contain few difficult flourishes, and their rhythms and melodic structures are usually as simple as can be.

This simplicity works in favor of the beginning or intermediate pianist. As most hymns are designed for maximum singability, their chord structures are also relatively simple. Depending upon the transcriptions that you find, hymn accompaniments can be as simple as four chords repeated, one measure each, throughout the song. Other accompaniments are designed to provide more emotional and aesthetic enhancement to the hymns, utilizing such devices as more complex chords, or melodies in counterpoint to the sung tunes.

Again, transcriptions of hymn tunes are available for free on the Internet, and from other sources. Some transcriptions require the pianist to be familiar with chord notations -- many church hymnals use such notations -- while other transcriptions use the standard bass and treble clef notation employed by most non-devotional piano books. In short, whatever your piano skill level, a brief perusal of available hymn transcriptions will reveal the perfect hymns for you to play.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular DVD home study course on playing piano titled
"How to Play Praise & Gospel Piano!"
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