To see the music under discussion, click here.
To hear the music under discussion, click here.
As Aaron noted in his comments on the song Crossing the Bar, he is familiar with the song, but not that arrangement. What does it mean to “re-arrange” a song?
Typically, when a song is written it has a melody (that is, a tune) and a harmonic structure. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts, though. If I asked you to sing your favorite song, you’d probably burst into song – that recognizable tune is the melody (in most church music, the melody is in the soprano part). Without getting into discussing the study of harmony, let’s just say that harmony is when two or more complementary notes are sounded at the same time, resulting in the “atmosphere” of the song. To put it in an artistic metaphor: If one drop of rain can refract a tiny ray of sun (that would be melody), ten thousand rain drops can use the same sunlight to make a rainbow (harmony). So, when an author determines the harmonic structure for his song (not just the tune, but how the whole song should sound, its mood), he’s working on secondary details, on beautification of a solid foundation.
Rearranging, then, can be as simple as a second musician keeping the same melody, but changing the harmony. There’s an old bit of folk wisdom that says all you need to sing a country [and western] song is “three chords and an old guitar.” It’s very true that most popular songs can be reduced to 2-4 chords, even if they were originally very complex. The opposite is also true, though: simple songs can be made more complex, just by adjusting the harmonies that accompany the melody. (The reason the guitar is the go-to instrument for the lone vocalist – myself included – is that its six strings can easily provide a full harmonic background at a time, without the need for another performer).
Our case in point will be Nearer My God to Thee, a time-tested hymn of high quality. We’re all familiar with the words (Sarah Flower Adams, 1841), and you probably have a melody in mind, too (mi, re, do, do, la, la, so, do, mi, re…). The music in this post is based on the familiar melody written by Lowell Mason. However, notice the following:
- This song has been rearranged by J.B. Herbert (more on his prolific work later) as a male quartet. Hence, the parts are not soprano, alto, tenor, bass, but are first and second tenor, first and second bass (all men’s parts).
- The time signature has been changed from the traditional 4/4 to 6/4, turning this into a waltzy, song with a romantic feel.
- Notice the echo words in the last line of the song, very different from what we’re used to.
- The first portion is sung solo by the first tenor part.
- A keen ear for music is needed to sing this unusual arrangement. In fact, it’s so unusual, that you might not like it on your first listen. It took me a little bit before I warmed up to it.
- All in all, this is the same song, but a different arrangement.
(For your trivial information, earlier than the melody with which we’re familiar, the Nearer text was set to entirely different music. You may have heard that Nearer was played by the ship’s band as the RMS Titanic sank to the Atlantic seafloor. It was, but to a different tune [probably called Propior Deo]. We’ll look at completely other tunes in a later post.)
Once I was working on songleading with one of the young men at church. For his song, he chose Listen to Our Hearts – by far one of most difficult songs in the book (the book being Songs of Faith and Praise). Now, when sung around a campfire or in a devotional setting, this song comes as naturally as any, but when following the music as written, it becomes difficult. There are moving parts, peculiar rhythms, an unusual harmonic structure, and a few other curve balls for the novice songleader. After several moments of frustration, I heard, “I don’t like singing it this way, I like the way we sing it at camp! Why can’t we just do that?” (I mean no discouragement to the young man, after all – he’d been working on a hard song!) Even when they’re not written down (like most “camp versions”), we pass down our own home-made arrangements of favorite songs.
If you sit next to me in church while we sing How Great Thou Art, you’ll notice that few of the tenor notes sung don’t match the ones in the book; even more so when we sing This World is Not My Home. This is fine and well-acceptable (it adds spice and color to our singing together, taking away the temptation to become stale), yet sometimes we meet people who have learned (perhaps “from birth”) to sing the same song with their own “twang” to it. If there are just a few extra notes here and there, it’s probably safe to say it’s the same arrangement as you’re used to singing; it’s just “embellished.” If there are considerable personal touches to the way a song is sung, it’s probably fair to loosely consider that a “personal arrangement.” Finally, if a person goes so far as to write down his own way of singing, then they can rightly claim to have rearranged the song. Such full-scale rearranging can include changing the melody (yet it still must be recognizable), harmony, and rhythm of the song. The real difficulty arises when your personal arrangement and my personal arrangement don’t mix. At that point, who “wins”? If you’re in a congregational setting, the songleader should be allowed artistic control – after all, he’s the leader off of whom everyone else is keying. When it’s your opportunity to suggest a song be sung in a certain way, though, hopefully your fellow singers can be accommodating. Keep this peace-loving bit of wisdom in mind, though: We should not be in the habit of delegitimizing someone else’s song. Just because “they” sing it differently than I know, than what I grew up with, than what I like, than what’s in the book – that doesn’t make it wrong or a matter of fellowship/participation. (Now, if it’s honestly a missed note and they’re trying to sing what’s in the book like everyone else, there’s room for gentle corrective instruction, yes!).
Encourage one another to sing, share your songs with one another, share your arrangements of old faithful songs – revive within your fellow singer a passion to worship in song! Rearranging songs is a great hobby of mine, parts of which I’m sharing through this blog.