For churches with a steady diet of contemporary worship there are two times a year when we’re almost expected to do hymns – Christmas and Easter.
A pastor I know in a very contemporary church dreads the Christmas season for that very reason – his distorted electric guitar driven praise band pulls their hair out during the month of December. Hymns and carols aren’t very guitar friendly.
Because I like to arrange music I’ve solved this problem for myself by contemporizing hymns and making them a little easier for a praise band to play, and my website HymnCharts.com grew out of this.
Try it yourself – take a hymn and see if by making a few simple tweaks you can make it fit better in your praise set. Here are my five tips for making a hymn more contemporary:
1. Change the key. Many hymns are in awkward, flat, anti-guitar keys like F, Eb and Bb. Sure, a capo is handy in these situations, but hymns are usually too high for modern congregations anyway. Just transpose it down a half step.
2. Smooth out the chord structure. Classically based hymns can change chords on almost every beat. If possible, in my hymn arrangements I try to have no more than 2 chords per measure – and 1 per measure is best.
3. Substitute minor chords when possible. Play around with the song – the right minor chord substituted for a major chord can give the hymn a contemporary twist.
4. Avoid the 5th. Western harmony is built on the V to I cadence but pop songs often go from IV to I. It doesn’t work all the time with hymns, but see if you can substitute a IV chord for a V chord here and there. (If you’re in the key of D, the IV is a G chord and the V is an A chord.)
5. Add a drum loop. A quick, easy way to add a contemporary sound to a hymn is to play with subtle drum loop. I use Spectrasonic’s Stylus to quickly create my loops in Sonar audio software (or any recording software that will play VST instruments) render it as a WAV and play along with it as you would any stereo track or click track. Other websites offer premade downloadable drum loops in various tempos (Google drum loops.)
Visit the front page of HymnCharts.com and you’ll find an MP3 player in the middle of the page. Listen to “Are You Washed In the Blood,” “Christ Arose” and “Jesus Paid It All” for examples of how it’s possible to turn a song older than your grandma into something totally usable in a modern praise set.