Changing older hymns’ tunes

I was searching the ‘net for a chord sheet for the hymn “And Can It Be.” My church sings this song using the redone melody/arrangement by Bob Kauflin instead of the traditional melody. Why is that? Is it a good idea? I found some web postings suggesting this isn’t a good idea.

Here’s a bit of text I found on a blogging site:

I don’t generally approve of using the “new” music (new tunes to old hymns) in our covenant renewal service; as much as I love Bob Kauflin’s arrangement of And Can It Be it just would not fit in. And to argue that a hymn ought to be revamped because it is hard to sing or takes practice, well, that is to say that the Lord, in a Lord’s Day Service, does not deserve our effort in exercising our minds, ears, and throats enough to learn difficult songs. I am of the mindset that every congregation should be making noticeable strides toward musical literacy and competency if they are not already there.

(obviously, I found this because of the mention of “And Can It Be” and Bob Kauflin).

What struck my interest is the sentiment that the author doesn’t “generally approve” of using new tunes to old hymns. They are showing a predeliction towards a certain mindset there. I certainly don’t have a problem with someone choosing to sing older music in its original form.

But I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that God wants and deserves our efforts in singing difficult songs. If that is the case, we should be working on making the grand old hymns even grander — by making them even harder to sing! “Hey, this melody is a bit too cachy. Let’s switch it from major to minor halfway through the second verse. God will be glorified by our stretching ourselves to sing unsingable melody lines!”

I’m sure the above poster would disagree with that statement. But there is an underlying bias that “modernizing” tunes to make them more singable somehow detracts from the majesty or purity that the old hymn had. I disagree with that. Hymns were written by men, not God. Men can improve them when appropriate.

I don’t think we need to rewrite every hymn in the hymnal, however. Many songs’ lyrics are so strongly associated with the original tune that changing the tune can be a distraction rather than a help. But I believe there are many good old hymns that aren’t being sung anymore. Taking their words and fitting them to a more modern melody line can breathe new life into a song that perhaps hasn’t been sung in 50+ years. I’ve seen that kind of thing done by the worship ministry of Sovereign Grace Ministries quite effectively.

Actually, I’m leading worship at my church this Sunday. And Bob Kauflin’s arrangement of “And Can It Be” is going to fit in rather well.