• The Reharmonization Of Hymns: Yeah Or Nay?

    in Experienced players,Gospel music,Hymns,Piano,Playing By Ear

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    Our focus in today’s lesson is on the pros and cons of the reharmonization of hymns.

    A lot of musicians have explored (and are still exploring) diverse approaches to the reharmonization of hymns and while this sounds good and sophisticated, there are musicians and audiences who don’t really fancy the harmonization of hymns.

    After this lesson, I’ll love to hear your opinion on the reharmonization of hymns. Meanwhile, let’s get started with an overview on hymns..

    A Quick Overview On Hymns

    Hymns are an integral part of the Christian worship.

    There’s a hymn for everything; irrespective of the season (be it Christmas or Easter), time of the day (morning, noon, night, and so on), message (baptism, forgiveness, and so on), occasion (missions, marches, funerals, and more).

    Hymn songs are traditionally anthems and they create a worship atmosphere when they are sung and given the proper interpretation and this is because of the liturgical nature of the hymn in form, melody, harmony, and rhythm.

    Some of the popular hymns include (but is not limited to) the following:

    Abide With Me

    Amazing Grace

    Great Is Thy Faithfulness

    Holy, Holy, Holy

    How Great Thou Art

    Oh How I Love Jesus

    To God Be The Glory

    …and so many other hymn songs.

    The Concept Of Reharmonization — Defined

    There are so many ways reharmonization can be defined. However, we’ll be sticking to the simple definition below:

    Reharmonization is the modification of the basic harmonic structure of a song.

    “What Does Harmonic Structure Mean?”

    Every song is made up of tons of components: the melody, beats, bars, tempo, etc.

    The chords and chord progressions used in a song make up the harmonic structure of that song. Let me quickly show you an example in the key of Ab major:

    The song “Thank You Lord”, the words thank, you, and lord can be chorded using the following chords:




    The chords and progressions used over “Thank You Lord” (in the key of Ab) are part of the basic harmonic structure of the song, which can be enhanced or modified through a process music scholars refer to as reharmonization.

    Due to the fact that reharmonization basically has to do with the modification of a basic harmonic structure, it can only be approached by someone who is properly schooled in harmonization.

    Reharmonization is basically a tool that intermediate musicians can use to spice up their playing by substituting boring chords with interesting ones.

    Reharmonization Of Thank You Lord

    Instead of the regular approach to the harmonization of the “thank you Lord” line, the harmonic structure can be modified thus (in the key of Ab major):




    How does that sound? I’ll let you be the judge.

    “What I Think About The Reharmonization Of Hymns…”

    I’ll be sharing my thought with you on what I think about the reharmonization of hymns. For some reasons, I think it’s great to reharmonize hymns and for other reasons, I seriously am concerned and I think hymns should not be reharmonized.


    It’s okay to reharmonize hymns and that’s because I believe in creativity and there are audiences that are already bored by the regular harmonies who will love to hear something spicier, out-the-box, and fresh.

    So, throwing in chromatic chords and cadences, parallel harmony, mode mixture (the extensive use of borrowed chords and progressions from the parallel key) and any other creative approach can flip a hymn from being boring to being exciting.

    Most of the hymns we’re playing today are a few centuries or several decades old. Giving them a contemporary touch that would let folks know that “we’re in the 21st century” isn’t a bad idea at all.

    If you’re interested in overcoming predictability, increasing creativity, and improving your chordal vocabulary, the you need to invest a lot of time, talent, and treasure in learning how to reharmonize hymns.


    There are only a few players who can harmonize hymns and still have the important elements of the hymn preserved.

    Hymns are not just regular compositions; there are elements of composition that are unique to hymns that a vast majority of songs don’t have. These elements are sacrosanct and once tampered with, a lot goes wrong with the hymn.

    What actually happens when reharmonization of hymns go wrong is that the hymn is sacrificed on the altar of reharmonization and the goal is defeated.

    I don’t appreciate the reharmonization of hymns for a variety of reasons but the main reason is because it’s not easy to sing along a reharmonized hymn.

    If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re singing a hymn and you’re harmonizing the hymn melody while the accompanist (pianist or organist) is playing and improvising through tons of chromatic chords, you’ll understand exactly why I don’t appreciate the reharmonization of hymns.

    Due to the fragile elements of composition that can easily be tampered with during the complex process of reharmonization, it’s important for hymns to be played as classic/traditional as possible.

    Final Words

    Thank you for giving me your time and undivided attention today.

    Don’t forget to share your opinion on the reharmonization of hymns in the comment section. I really want to know what you think. Also share this lesson with your friends on Facebook and other social media platforms.

    All the best and see you in the next lesson.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.



    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Rhonda Ogle

    The old hymns are stately and worshipful and there are times to leave them as they are. Then there are times to update them a little, but not at the expense of the singers. What I do not like is someone just changing them around so much they no longer feel worshipful but rather a show off the the player’s ability. Again, the time and place and reason are utmost in deciding to reharmonize.


    2 Chuku Onyemachi

    Great point there.

    I agree with your thoughts 100%.


    3 David Devereaux

    agreed 100 percent here.
    Also, one must not be quick to judge about “time and place” … when one listens to some of the great players that can do some of this (say, Paul Manz or Kevin Hildebrand in the Lutheran setting, or even, say, someone as great as Daniel Roth in Saint Sulpice in Paris), one must keep in mind that they are playing for a much more expectant congregation, and usually bigger where there’s enough of a seed to track the melody thru virtually any re-harmonization no matter just how much chromaticism and progressive dissonance is employed.

    e.g. if I’m an organist playing for a congregation of potential ministers in a seminary, I expect much more use of things like re-harmonization to *truly* enhance worship *for that congregation* in a meaningful way. If, however, I’m in MOST churches with mainstream attendance, my use of re-harmonization is going to be much more careful, with minimal disruption of voiceleading for the singer in mind (which I might help, for instance, by prominent enhancement of the primary voice line with supporting organ foundation).

    The temptation is for an aspiring organist, in emulating such great players and thinking that’s how they want to contribute to the worship (whether they want to actually “show off” or not), to perform reharmonizations similar to what those greater players do, thinking that they’ll work anywhere. Such is obviously not the case.

    End of the day: Stay in tune with this “time, place, reason”, and, I would also include, “congregation”. Stay in touch with them, , “test the waters”, find out what works, what doesn’t.

    David D.


    4 Carolyn

    I like the songs In the original harmonization. When so many different chords are substituted It lose the effect of the original song.


    5 Chuku Onyemachi

    Me too.

    But how about flipping a few progressions around and still keeping the integrity of the melody of the song?


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