SINGING SPEED FOR CONGREGATION
Singing speed for congregations with hymns and choruses is a subject of some debate. Christian hymns are sung at a wide range of speeds. So, is there one correct pace? No. But it is likely we can identify a range of speeds that are appropriate.
The musical term "andante" [on-DON-tay] means, literally, going. It represents a comfortable walking pace. Since most hymns were written to be sung at approximately that speed, it provides an appropriate centre point for the tempo of our hymns. A bit of experimentation will show that most hymns suit it fairly well. Some are better at a slower or a slightly quicker pace. (You might try experimenting with this, some time when you are taking a walk. Sing a verse of several different kinds of hymns, to see what kind of relative pace is most suitable.) Variations within a moderate range can be effective, but the extremes should be avoided.
Some general principles. 1) Take into account the needs of the whole congregation. 2) Consider the importance of singing the words clearly and intelligently. 3) Examine the tune for quicker eighth note patterns or moving parts. Set a pace that will allow inexperienced singers a chance to sing these properly.
We have all experienced the extremes. Slow, dragging melancholy singing that seem to make it difficult to remember how a line began, by the time we get to the end of it. Then, the blazing speed of the song leader intent (it seems) on waking up everyone in time for the message. Or getting us all home as quickly as possible! In between, there is a suitable range of speeds. As in everything else, fashion seems to dictate the pace of our hymns, to some degree. Previous generations often sang more slowly. The more recent trend is to pick up the pace. While this will relate much to tradition and subjective judgment, here are a few reasons why too quick a pace could be detrimental.
Let us not give the impression that our aim is to rush into God's presence, and rush around in His presence, anxious to get corporate worship out of the way so that we can rush out again. It seems to be the fashion of the times that everything must be instant access, instant answers, quick, hurry, try to keep up. It is the spirit of the world that we should take pains to resist. Singing should allow us time to think about the meaning and message of the song.
One reason given for picking up the tempo of congregational songs is that we need to stir up the saints and build an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. This means we are using the tune to create an emotional response. But while emotion has its place, a little of that would seem to go a long way. Our excitement should be generated through a spiritual response to the words--which should reflect the truth of God's Word.
Sometimes the penchant for speed ignores the message of the words and the need to adjust the tempo to suit them. Some hymns of serious mediation call for a less lively rate of speed. Further, when we set a rapid overall pace, there is nowhere to go to make a contrast when the music suits a quicker tempo.
When songs are sung with extreme slowness, the focus is placed (in order of our general awareness) on: HARMONY -- words -- tune -- rhythm and tempo. When an excessively rapid pace is set, the focus would seem to be: RHYTHM AND TEMPO -- tune -- words -- harmony. When a moderate tempo is used, the focus would seem to be: WORDS -- tune -- harmony -- rhythm and tempo. Take note of where the words fall in each of these. What is it that we wish to have prominence? If it is the message of the words, we will adjust our speed to maximize their impact.
Older people in our congregations do not usually prefer the speed at which the younger ones would like to travel (in anything, as well as in singing). Responses tend to slow somewhat, with age. Seniors cannot easily get the breath to sing quickly (nor do dentures always allow clear diction at such a pace!). In addition, they grew up in an era which was less hurried, and their singing often reflected it. It is biblical to show deference to our seniors, and respect their needs and wishes. It becomes more difficult for us to keep together, when the pace is excessive, more difficult to keep the words clear.
We cannot fully appreciate the joys of singing in harmony, when the notes rush by at an inappropriate pace. Singing in harmony provides a dynamic example of body life, which both inspires and edifies believers. (See notes on Singing in Harmony). What a trained choir may do with a piece is a little different. Practice makes a quicker pace possible. But untrained singers, will do well to moderate the speed to suit their abilities.