From the Inconsequential File: Men Singing the Melody in Church.

I had no idea this was such a huge issue, but over the last two weeks I have been made painfully aware I am a grievous sinner, just short of a puppy killer.

There are a few hymns in the hymnbook where the notes in the bass clef disappear, and only the treble carries the song.  Now, I’m not a great sight reader and while my ear is good its not great, so I usually don’t sing the bass part in the hymn book unless I’m sure I will sing it right (whereas it seems to me 90% of the men in church think singing along on the lowest possible note their voice is capable of producing is equivalent to singing the bass part).  Usually, I sing the melody anyway, because it helps me feel more like I’m part of the song and the congregation.

I always figured that, if I was singing the melody, It was okay to actually sing the melody.  Congregation singing is not a strict four part SATB choir, after all.

However, for the last few weeks, there has been (for whatever reason) several songs where the bass clef vanishes.  I assumed this meant if I was singing the tenor or bass parts, I dropped out.  But since I was singing the melody, it was okay to keep singing.  Apparently not.  I have been informed by nasty looks and rude comments (from women in the congregation) that this means the men drop out entirely.  No men singing at all.

In some hymns, this means up to a third of the message isn’t meant to apply to the male gender, I guess.  Why do they want to exclude us?  And why is it so wrong?  If we were singing in ward choir, I might understand, but I really don’t get it for congregation singing.

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About Ivan W.

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was just shy of 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has five kids and four stepkids.

38 thoughts on “From the Inconsequential File: Men Singing the Melody in Church.

  1. I hear you Ivan. You are not a sinner, some people need to get a life. If getting annoyed at the way someone sings a hymn at church they have bigger problems than you can imagine.

    I have a low voice for a woman. When we sing women’s hymns or the bass part drops out I find my self unable to sing cause I can’t squeak up that high.

  2. What JA Benson said. I too sing the melody even when the bass parts cut out. We should be doing more unified unison singing, anyway. Next time you get a nasty look, just smile and give the officious intermeddler a big “thumbs up.” Works everytime.

  3. Ivan, assuming that you’re being at least semi-serious, I think you’re conflating two different things. Or at least, you’re not being clear, and you might be confusing some readers here.

    1) There are hymns where the bass and tenor parts “drop out,” #193, I Stand All Amazed (1st four lines), and it says “Duet” in italics. As far as I know, men are allowed to sing the melody there. Then for the chorus, it splits back into 4 part. There is nothing wrong with men (tenors and basses) singing the whole time during this hymn, or where the notes in the bass clef are un-singable (example, one note for several words.)

    2) Then there are hymns where the basses and tenors have “rests”. And a “rest” means the group singing that part is intended to be silent, on purpose. That is, intentionally stop singing for the duration of the rest(s). This is where it’s a major faux-pas for tenors and basses to keep singing.

    So unless you’re signing falsetto and actually hitting the same notes that the altos and sopranos are hitting, you’re supposed to shut up during the rests.

    Examples:

    In #185, men should be silent during part of the last line. “I have ransomed,” “I have suffered,” “Like a fountain,” and “That thy Savior.”

    In #186, men should be silent during “With faith in his atoning blood” etc.

    In #191, men should be silent during “He dies a sacrifice for sin”, etc.

    In #192, men should be silent during “A solemn darkness veiled the sky.”

    In #192, the rest under the word “A”, is a quarter rest, and has the duration of a quater note. The rest under “solemn” is a whole-rest, equal to a whole note (4 quarter notes). The rest under “sky” is a half-rest, equal to a half-note.

    So just because you’re singing the melody, if you’re singing it transposed down to your tenor/bass voice, it’s not intended for you to keep singing it. Only if you’re singing the melody up in the alto/soprano range, would you keep singing while the tenors/basses have the rests.

    (P.S. I made the same mistake you did years ago.)

  4. Bookslinger –

    I disagree. Just because the bass and tenor parts have “rests,” men should not stop singing. If we were a strict SATB choir, maybe. But this is congregational singing. Why eliminate the men from such a major part of the worship?

  5. Ivan, I’d assumed from the beginning that you were talking about the situation that Bookslinger described. (*Totally* ruining the song by layering in the wrong octave at the wrong moment…)

    I love the “Mentos Freshmaker” thumbs up idea from Hunter. I’ll probably go there next time myself.

    Having a passable falsetto range (and very little decorum) I’ll sometimes just appropriate the Alto part for my own purposes during those passages. My kids giggle, my wife rolls her eyes, and the *real* Alto in front of me will sometimes give me a dirty look, but now I know what to do!

  6. Bookslinger-your comment was very informative. When the congregation sings a hymn no one should expect the members to be knowledgeable or even talented musically. Just be happy for the partiscipation. My poor dad is quite tone deaf. He quit singing hymns at church about 50 years ago because of looks from members of the congregation. How sad that others would take the joy that he once had from worship in song.

    Hunter-good one. I think I will try it sometime :)

  7. Melody? Tenor? Bass? Alto? Errr, I have no idea what any of this stuff means. Sorry, completely musically challenge. I just kind of sing along the best I can. I doubt I’m the only one. People who think all men should know when and when not to sing in a congregation definitely should get a life.

  8. Someone somewhere complains when a man is actually singing? In some wards I’ve lived in, we probably would have killed a fatted calf to any man who sang ANY part.

    (But just for the fun of it, Ivan, you now have a good analogy for understanding women’s dilemmas in figuring out which scriptures and talks include us in the male nouns and pronouns, and which do not. Welcome to the club. We’ll be serving tea at 5.)

  9. Also, going by the logic in Bookslinger’s comment, I should never ever sing the melody. I am forever restricted to the bass and tenor parts because my falsetto is not good.

    That, I think, makes no sense. I don’t agree with Bookslinger because of the logical implications.

  10. Very good post. I’ve always wondered what other people thought. I enjoy singing the hymns and when I’m singing the melody, and the melody continues I don’t like stopping. I’m going to keep doing it! I think the technical critiques are very silly.

  11. Great…another guilt trip.
    My 3 note octave range barely allows me to fake the melody. If I were to even attempt the bass part small children would shudder in fear.

  12. Make a joyful noise. Period. Those who can’t handle a joyful noise need to repent. Period.

    OK, this is a soapbox for me. I have “performed” vocally as long as I can remember, but congregational singing is NOT performance art. *sigh*

    I drive my kids nuts, because I like to sing all four parts in a four verse hymn – and I like to mix the parts to avoid the really boring parts in some of the hymns. I also like to SING – meaning my kids are embarrassed that their father’s voice can be heard throughout the chapel singing different parts.

    Seriously, those who frown at someone who is making a joyful noise need to have a heart transplant – and perhaps a spirit transplant. If they don’t want to hear it, they should make a louder joyful noise. Works every time.

  13. Unfortunately, most of those George Careless arrangements where there are little sections of two-part texture, were originally written for choir and don’t really work with congregational singing. Originally, congregations didn’t sing at all: priests and monks chanted, first in unison, then in increasing complexity. When congregational singing got a real impetus with Martin Luther, congregations learned the chorale melodies and sang them in unison, leaving the harmony to the choir.

    I say that congregation members should feel free to sing whatever they like. It is polite, however, if you have no idea what notes you’re singing, to not distract everyone by using your biggest fortissimo.

    When I play free harmonizations of the hymns on the last verse, most of the congregation realizes pretty quickly that that is the signal for everyone to move to the melody in unison.

  14. This happened just today! We were singing a hymn where the bass line has a rest for one line. My husband, who is a good but untrained singer sang the melody line despite the rest. When he sang I had the passing thought that he really probably shouldn’t sing because it does ruin the effect a little bit, but I didn’t say or do anything because he is an untrained singer and it’s not a big deal at all. In my mind it would be more destructive for me to interrupt the hymn than it’s worth to be technically correct. I’m kind of shocked that women actually scolded you for it. We were visiting my in-laws ward today and they seem to have a hard enough time to get people singing at all, let alone singing it with any kind of skill.

  15. Making a male singer an offender for a (sung) word.

    We men did not have dolls with whom to have tea parties. We had action figures with whom to wage war.

  16. Speed the hymns up to match the metronome markings, play the organ loudly, and a lot more people will sing. Then there’ll be time to start worrying about whether people sing the right parts, or rest at the appointed times. If you have to have the breath control of a Wagnerian soprano in order to sing along, or if you have to reduce your volume to hear the organ (or to prevent your voice from being heard above the herd), it’s not surprising if you end up singing like a milquetoast, if at all.

    I don’t think, Ivan, that you need to feel excluded from part of the worship just because the bass line has a few measures rest. You may simply read along (or listen to the women sing those parts). Just consider your part in worship to consist of singing the hymn the way the composer wrote it.

    In some hymns, it really spoils the composer’s intention to sing straight through–The Morning Breaks, for example, where first the men and then the women sing the same words, the latter as an “echo” of the former. Or “What Was Witnessed in the Heavens” (which was never intended for congregational singing, and in my experience is never sung anyway) where the men pose a question which is answered by the women.

    What’s more, you get it all back–look at the chorus of “Let us All Press On” where the men have twice as many words as the women, sung at a speed that requires more agility than most of us have, or even that awful song about shoulders and wheels, where the only saving grace are the extra “push along” and “full of song” in the chorus (and, of course, the last refuge of the scoundrel, the re-writing of the words to maintain rhyme and meter while making them more interesting).

  17. Mark B- It sounds as you must be very knowlegdable and trained in music. Are you truly that judgemental about the congregation you lead in music? You must realize that they don’t have the same (or even close to) the same training as you. It’s like a elemetary school music teacher. Encourage and be happy for participation. And by insulting hymns, you are insulting those who prayed about and approved the hymn book as a whole. They felt it was important to include “that awful song about shoulders and wheels” and the one “which was never intended for congregational singing”. It sounds like you need to learn a little humality when it comes to your musical talent and ability.

  18. Sorry, but I have to chime in here. It irks me to hear the idea expressed that any person would not be allowed to sing at some point in a congregational hymn simply because the melody is written for the soprano part. It really does.

    “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” D&C 25:12.

    Please, let’s encourage the congregational hymns to be about worship, not the finer points of musicianship.

  19. However, Matt – I don’t consider it one of the “finer points.” The problem I see with the way the comments are going is this: Most of them seem to take it as a given that the men really shouldn’t be singing, but it’s okay to do so since so few men sing anyway.

    I disagree. I minored in music as an undergrad (actually, I had more music credits than any other single field) and took a lot of theory. I don’t agree that when the bass clef drops out the men are meant to stop singing – in a congregational hymn. There are some hymns specifically marked as for a choir (although I agree with one person above that “What was witnessed in the Heavens” makes a terrible congregational hymn), but most are meant for congregational singing, and I don’t see a requirement that men are relegated to the bass clef.

    The problem with the idea that the men shouldn’t sing when the bass clef drops out is that it means the men shouldn’t really be singing the melody in the first place anyway. I don’t agree with that idea, because congregational singing is different than SATB choir singing.

    Of course, then there are the hymns marked “unison” where it is very clear everyone is meant to sing melody, and I know some guys and gals who still try to sing harmony parts, even if the notes on the staff don’t match the words at all (for example, the chorus on #249 “Called to Serve”).

    But notice, also, I marked this as “from the inconsequential file” because I don’t see it as that big of an issue, since salvation isn’t really at stake. But it’s kinda fun to hash it out in the intertubes anyway.

  20. Our ward must be musically gifted. When we sing hymns #185, #186, #191, and #192, when the tenors/basses have rests, I don’t hear any men singing.

    Amen to the point above about playing the hymns too slow. Fortunately, our chorister and keyboardist are not from Utah. Mark makes a good point about many keyboardists/choristers who slow the tempo too much.

  21. Ivan’s last comment is what I was addressing in mine. Congregational hymns are meant to be sung by the untrained congregation – with everyone singing whatever part they want to sing. Men singing the melody is perfectly fine, and if they are singing the melody they should sing the entire melody.

  22. Has anyone bothered to read what is written in “Hymns” (1985) about congregational singing?

    From page 380:
    Hymns for Congregations:Unison and Part Singing

    Although part singing (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) has a strong tradition in the Church, the goal in congregational singing is that all participate, no matter what their vocal ability may be. Because many members sing the melody regardless of their vocal range, the hymns are in keys that accommodate both unison and part singing. Some hymns—and parts of hymns—are specifically written for unison singing.

    As for Choirs: (pages 381-382).
    Hymns for Choirs and Special Groups
    Using Hymns for Choirs

    In this edition of the hymnbook no distinction is made between choir and congregational hymns. Choirs should use the hymnbook as their basic resource, selecting from the entire book. Choirs may also sing other appropriate anthems and hymn arrangements not included in the hymnbook.

    Some of the hymns labeled “Choir” in previous hymnbook editions have been transposed to lower keys for greater congregational use. Choirs may want to keep copies of the past editions of the hymnbook to take advantage of higher keys and the possibility of modulating from one key to another. If only one copy of a previous edition is available, a hymn may be copied and used for this purpose, unless this is prohibited by the copyright notice.

    And in regard to tempo: (page 379)
    Mood and Tempo Markings

    The mood markings, such as “Prayerfully” or “Resolutely,” suggest the general feeling or spirit of a hymn, although the mood of some hymns may vary according to the occasion or local preferences. Metronomic markings indicate a tempo range (such as = 69–76) and are also given as general guidelines; the locale and context in which a hymn is used may suggest greater flexibility.
    ************************************************************************
    I hold 3 college degrees in music and have taught music at UCLA, California State University Northridge, and in two high school districts in southern California. I have been a Ward Organist for 42 years and a Ward Choir Director for 35 years.

  23. Hans –

    well, I have read it before, but it’s been awhile. You’re right, I should have looked that up before posting. It would have given me more ammo.

  24. We sing to praise God, and nobody is left out. Hang in there, and rise above the people who would silence honest joy and praise and harmony! Marylee Mitcham

  25. We sing to praise God, and nobody is left out. Hang in there, and rise above the people who would silence honest joy and praise and harmony! Marylee Mitcham

    @Ray
    Yay, Hans Hanson! I like what you said. I think I’m related to you because I have an early Hans Hanson ancestor. Marylee Mitcham

  26. /short derail/
    Marylee,
    OK, first of all its HANSEN, which can generally be either Danish or Norwegian. HANSON is generally Swedish. My grandfather, also named Hans Hansen, emigrated from Norway. Anything ending in -sen is a patrynym, meaning “son of”. In Scandinavia that means that what we would call a surname changed every generation. In my grandfather’s area in Norway the surnames stabilized by 1880. By all rights he should have been named Olsen because his father’s name was Ole, so my family’s last name has only been Hansen for 4 generations. (The relatives who remained in Norway took the name of the farm they lived on as their surname HAUGESTAD.) Secondly, I served a mission in Norway. Over there Hans Hansen is like John Smith is in the US. The Oslo telephone directory has over one full page of Hans Hansens. There are so many that many have the middle initial or the entire middle name. And when those all match up they list the guy’s occupation. And when they all match up they list the guy’s wife! So if we are related its under a different name!
    /resume topic/

  27. Since we are on this genealogy thread jack, I have a Hans Hansen too b. 1835 in Fyn, Denmark. He died 1914 in Cache Valley, UT. Thanks Hans for the tutorial.

  28. Thanks for telling me that Hans Hansen is like John Smith. Now I won’t get quite so excited when I hear of one. My own ancestor, whose name I enthusiastically misspelled and misremembered, is Hans Hansen Bergen from Norway. He was one of the husbands of Sara Jorise Rapalje, born June 9th, 1625 at Albany, NY. In books, I’ve seen her referred to unofficially as “The Mother of New York” because of her many many descendants.

  29. I hope #21 is a parody in the style of letters to the Daily Universe I’ve always thought M* readers were a cut above the norm, and it’s hard for me to reconcile that complimentary view with the absurdities of #21, not to mention its atrocious spelling. Ye gods and little fishes!

  30. I sujest all men stop singing and stop attending, I’ve had a gutfull of anti mail bias in choirs.
    I’ve sung in many comunity choirs and only one has seen my potential to sing all parts but the bass. I change to whoever is leading from tenor to soprano 1. though I don’t usualy sing alto as the’re plenty of them. I’m mosly with the sop 1s.

    But in many choirs I’ve had nothing but prejudgement on my singing by teachers who haven’t even heard it.
    CHEERS!

  31. A rest is a rest, my friends, and when the rest is in the bass cleff that means that all people singing in that octave must rest.

    Just think of it as your opportunity to let the women take charge; you can allow the experience to help you empathize with how they must feel when they watch their male compatriots bless and pass the Sacrament while they merely partake.

  32. Classic.

    You are right Ivan. If you are singing melody just keep singing the notes on the page. There never have been a rule against singing the part down or up an octave in congregation singing.

  33. I don’t know about the men, and the way they sing, but as a woman, I know there are a lot of hymns where I start as a soprano singing the melody, then I realize I can’t go that high, so I switch my melody an octave lower; at the first chance I can, I switch back to soprano because I realize the reverse is also true … I can’t go so low. It’s pathetic, I know. But if I don’t sing the hymn at all, I don’t get as emotionally involved. I don’t tear up, and feel how much I love God and how much I want to learn to love my neighbor. And NOT singing makes me feel like I’m being proud, hiding my God-given faults for no really good reason, except embarrassment. On the other hand, I do realize I may be hindering someone else’s sense that the Holy Spirit is with us. Life is messy, even singing!

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