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The Right Kind of Music: Musical Form in Piano Hymn Arrangements

The Right Kind of Music: Musical Form in Piano Hymn Arrangements

This is post three of four in a series about puzzling things in my doctoral research on fundamentalist Christian music. Read the others here: Can Hymns Be Prayers?, Why May Women Sing If They May Not Preach? and Should Church Services Include Classical Music?

During my research, I interviewed about ten people who compose hymn arrangements for piano—many were faculty members at Bob Jones University and almost all had graduated from there. As I asked them about their compositional process, something very curious came up.

From a music theory standpoint, the arrangements' form is usually what’s called modified strophic (more on that term in a bit), but most composers that I interviewed described it as something else entirely. 

Why? 

Piano Hymn Arrangements and Their Structure

Piano is the lead instrument in fundamental church services, and hymn arrangements for solo piano are the most common instrumental music used in the services, though hymns can be arranged for practically any instrument. Here's a link if you'd like to listen to a few arrangements by a composer who is on faculty at BJU.

These hymn arrangements often share a form—a structure—in which the hymn’s melody is repeated several times. So at the most basic, a hymn arrangement is a repeated hymn tune with accompaniment.

Most often, an arrangement’s sections go something like this: introduction, first stanza, interlude, second stanza, interlude, third stanza, and closing material. 

Sometimes introductions and interludes use a recurring idea, such as a rhythmic or harmonic pattern, that function as “glue” between stanzas and their contrasting accompanimental patterns.

And quite often, some of these sections are dropped from the typical framework—for example, a piece might have no introductory section, or it might go straight from one stanza to the next without any interlude connecting them.

Modified Strophic Form

Generally speaking, academic analysis of a musical piece’s form prioritizes melody, especially when the piece in question is based on a song. 

Pieces that have repeating melodies in the way that hymn arrangements do are normally analyzed as “modified strophic”: a strophic form repeats the melody and accompaniment exactly for each stanza, and modified strophic form changes something (such as accompanimental patterns) as the stanzas repeat. (Here's a basic overview of strophic and modified strophic forms.)

You could argue that these arrangements have a modified theme and variations form, but theme and variations emphasize melodic variation whereas hymn arrangements emphasize accompanimental variation while keeping melodies recognizable (no surprise there—listeners need to be able to recognize the hymn tune that an arrangement is based on).

What Composers Say About the Form

Most of the people I interviewed described their arrangement’s form as through composed, regardless of whether sections use recurring or varied thematic material. 

One person also suggests a “loose” ABA’ when the third stanza uses a similar accompanimental pattern to the first.  

But none describe this form as modified strophic or as modified theme and variations (and some people forcefully rejected the latter designation).

Flipping the Analysis

So why this disconnect between normative analysis and how these composers think about their music?

Many of the composers I talked with didn’t like the idea of “slotting” their music into a form, especially since they put so much creative energy into developing thematic material that they use in interludes and accompaniments.

This leads me to think that their understanding of form, at least in terms of their arrangements, flips the academic norm. Instead of focusing on melody to label the form as modified strophic or theme and variations, they focus on what they compose: their accompaniments and new thematic material. From that perspective, labeling the form through composed or ABA’ begins to make some sense. 

This flip places analytical emphasis on their own creative work and makes their work resistant to interpretations that they simply fill in a chart of introduction, stanza, and so on—even though the arrangements’ iterations of melodies almost always result in the same basic form in the end.    

What do you think?

Curious about fundamentalism and music? Check out this introduction and FAQs

The Right Kind of Music: Should Church Services Include Classical Music?

The Right Kind of Music: Should Church Services Include Classical Music?

The Right Kind of Music: Why May Women Sing If They May Not Preach?

The Right Kind of Music: Why May Women Sing If They May Not Preach?