A beginner adult student recently asked “why are hymns so hard to play?”
Playing hymns is challenging to the new piano student. This is due to the fact that hymns were first written for four part vocal harmony, not for piano. The four parts--soprano, alto, tenor and bass—make it hard for a pianist to read all four notes at the same time.
- To begin to learn to play hymns, pick an easy one in the key of C, F or G major. For this article, I chose the Doxology in the key of G major.
- Learn the right hand notes and rhythm. These are the soprano and alto notes. Always use the same fingering. This helps your fingers and mind learn the musical pattern.
- Learn the left hand notes and rhythm. These are the tenor and bass notes. Again, always use the same fingering. If the span of the notes is wider than the reach of your hand, redistribute the notes by playing the tenor note with your left hand. An example is in the above music on the word “host” in the second line and also in the last measure (the words “Holy Ghost”).
- Play both hands together, slowly. This takes concentration and practice. Increase the tempo as you gain proficiency.
- Once you have mastered playing both hands of a hymn, the next step is adding chords. Where do you add those?
Chords can be added at the end of a musical phrase. The last note of the phrase can be extended to allow space for the chords. In the Doxology, chords can be added at the words “flow,” (be-)“low,” “host,” and “Ghost.”
The chords that can be added are variations of the G Major and D Major chords.
The word “flow” is a G Major chord, G-B-D. Move both hands up an octave and play another G Major chord, and then move up another octave for another G chord. Each chord gets one beat.
The word (be-)”low” is the dominant chord of G, or the D Major chord: D-F#-A. Move both hands up an octave and play F#-A-D, move your hands up an octave again to play A-D-F#. Each chord gets one beat.
The last notes of the next phrases are “Host” and “Ghost.” Both are G Major chords, G-B-D. Again, move both hands up octaves and play inversions of the chord with each chord getting one beat.
To summarize, add chords at the end of a musical phrase, keeping the same meter. Play inversions of the chord, going up an octave each time. This is a simple way to add chords to a hymn.
Essentials of Great Hymn Arrangement