As a church musician, you know the struggle:
You have numerous opportunities to use hymn arrangements and creative hymn-playing techniques in worship (like, multiple times in every service!), but access to hymn harmonizations and published resources is limited.
In some cases, they aren’t available at all.
The good news is, you don’t need to rely solely on published resources to add creative hymn arrangements and harmonizations into your service-playing.
You can learn to do some of this yourself!
With a few easy-to-use strategies and a quick refresher on those 8 a.m. college theory classes, you’ll be creating your own artful hymn arrangements in no time.
Ready to get started? Mix up your approach to hymn-playing this month with these 5 creative strategies:
5 Creative Hymn-Playing Strategies
1. Add passing tones and neighbor tones.
What are passing tones and neighbor tones? Here’s a quick review of these music-theory terms:
A passing tone is a note that falls in between two notes that are a skip apart. You pass through it moving from one note to the next. For example, if the melody includes C then E, playing D in between would be considered a passing tone.
A neighbor tone is a note that’s a step above or below a given note. For example, if the melody ends on G, adding F#-G afterward would be considered a step down to the neighbor tone and back up.
You can use passing tones and neighbor tones throughout a hymn to add variety and musical and rhythmic interest, and make it feel more like an arrangement.
How To use:
Look for places to use passing tones and neighbor tones in the lower three voices of the hymn (ideally, the melody should stay as written to help support congregational singing).
Passing tones are easy to add in: simply look for places where there are 3rds and fill in the note in between.
Pro tip: Passing tones are great for alto and tenor lines!
If the hymn has any 5ths in the lower three voices, consider using a sequence of passing tones or adding in just the middle third. For example, C to G could become C-D-E-F-G (a sequence of passing tones) or C-E-G (filling in the middle third).
For neighbor tones, look for places where there are repeated notes (again, primarily in the lower three voices) and add a neighbor tone (up or down) in between.
2. Add suspensions at the end of phrases.
What’s a suspension? A suspension is a note that’s carried over as the underlying harmony changes, creating tension. The suspended note resolves by moving up or down a step.
How To use:
Again, look for places where you can add a suspension in the lower three voices of the hymn.
For chords in root position, use a 9-8 or 4-3 suspension.
Let’s say you have a C major chord. A 9-8 suspension would be D (the 9th note above C) resolving down to C (over a C major chord). A 4-3 suspension would be F (the 4th note above C) resolving down to E (the 3rd note above C).
For chords in inversion, use a 2-3 or 7-6 suspension.
Using our C major example, if you have a C chord in 1st inversion (spelled E-G-C), try using a 2-3 suspension, with D (a 2nd above C) resolving up to E (a 3rd above C). This tends to work well in the bass line.
Are you with me so far? No. 3 on the list is a little easier to grasp.
3. Use the tenor line as a descant.
Look for hymns that have a lyrical tenor line and consider using this as a descant. Here are a few suggestions:
If you’re leading a hymn from the organ, try playing the tenor line up an octave on its own manual (be sure the melody is still prominent).
Have the sopranos and tenors in your choir sing the tenor line on the last verse while everyone else sings the melody in unison.
Have an instrumentalist (trumpet, oboe, violin, flute) play the tenor line as an obbligato on the last verse.
Pro tip: If you’re working with an instrumentalist, make sure to write out the part (and transpose, if necessary) so they have an actual score to play from during the service.
4. Substitute new chords.
Try your hand at re-harmonizing a hymn by using a few chord substitutions throughout.
How To use:
Look for IV and V chords in the hymn. Choose a few key places and change the chord before to a secondary dominant.
What’s a secondary dominant again? A secondary dominant is a V of something else, V/V, V/IV. For instance, in the key of C, a V/V would be D major chord, the V chord of the V chord. G is the dominant in the key of C and D is the dominant of G.
To use secondary dominants, simply look for IV and V chords and swap out the chord right before them:
In C major, the IV chord is an F major. Change the chord right before this to a C chord (a V chord in the key of F). This C chord then becomes a secondary dominant—a V/IV.
In C major, the V chord is G major. Change the chord right before this to a D-major chord (the V chord in the key of G). The D chord becomes a secondary dominant—a V/V.
Another way to add harmonic interest to a hymn is to substitute a new chord for the IV and V chords themselves. Use a vii° instead of a V chord and a ii chord instead of a IV.
In the key of C major, use a B-diminished chord, B-D-F (vii°) in place of a G chord (V) or a D-minor chord, D-F-A (ii) in place of an F chord (IV).
One other way to use chord substitutions: delay going to the tonic chord by using a deceptive cadence (move from the V chord to a vi chord).
In the key of C major, move from a G chord to an A-minor chord instead of resolving to C major.
Pro tip: Deceptive cadences are particularly effective at the end of a phrase in the middle of the hymn.
Learn how to harmonize today.
This free 12-page workbook will walk you through my step-by-step process for harmonizing (and reharmonizing) hymns and songs for worship, including a few examples for you to print and practice on your own!
5. Modulate to a new key for the last verse.
Modulations are a creative way to highlight the last verse of a hymn, build momentum, and bring out the text.
how To use:
Create a 4-8 bar modulation, perhaps incorporating the last phrase of the hymn once you’ve arrived in the new key. This will help establish the new key for the congregation and serve as an introduction to the last verse, similar to how you might introduce the first verse.
If you’re looking for more specifics, here’s some helpful step-by-step guidance on how to create a modulation.
You could also establish the new key and cadence on a I or V chord (the latter is a nice cue for the last verse).
Pro tip: On the final chord of the verse, keep the accompaniment moving as you modulate to a new key.
From there, the only trick is playing the hymn all the way through in the new key. I recommend writing this out ahead of time so there’s no guesswork, but if you’re up for the challenge, here’s a quick tip for transposing at sight.
Looking for more?
Join me in The Church Musician Primer - a 4-week online keyboard skills class for church musicians designed to give you the tools and resources you need to lead and support choral and congregational singing in a variety of worship settings.
To recap, here are the five creative hymn-playing strategies we covered today:
Add passing tones and neighbor tones.
Add suspensions at the end of phrases.
Use the tenor line as a descant.
Substitute new chords.
Modulate to a new key for the last verse.
Have you used any of these techniques before? What are your go-to strategies for creative hymn-playing?