In discussing the hymns, time is more subjective than pitch, since it depends on how fast (or slow) the organist is playing. (Notice I didn’t say how fast the conductor is conducting. Nearly always, the conductor has little choice ((or inclination)) but to follow the organist’s tempo. This is fine as long as the organist is me). Tempo is a very personal taste. There is a famous story that Ravel and Toscanini nearly came to blows backstage during a rehearsal of Bolero, due to the conductor’s refusal to take the composer’s preferred tempo. I haven’t had that extreme a disagreement, but nearly…

Many saints seem to complain of organists who play too slowly. This is due in part to confidence or skill of the pianists conscripted to organ playing, but also in part to the “congregational inertia effect”. As a teenager starting out playing for church meetings, I noticed that as the congregation sings the first line of a hymn, it tends to drag. You want to match them, but if you do the tempo will get slower and slower. I discovered that what the organist must do is ignore them for the first line and play the proper tempo, (the same tempo, by the way, that should be set in the intro). There is a brief hiccough, usually after their first breath, as they realize they are behind, but they will immediately catch up and drag no more.

While slow tempos are the usual bugbear of Mormon congregations, I should mention that a few times I have encountered organists who insisted on playing an uncommonly brisk tempo. This can make it hard to articulate the words and to breathe properly, not to mention it can be just unmusical (again, the subjective element). I remember on one occasion actually deciding to close my hymnbook and give up, so obnoxious was the break-neck tempo. I felt frustrated and un-worshipful: not the reaction the organist intended I’m sure. At all times, the unerring, guiding principle for church musicians must be to help the people worship and feel the Spirit, not to educate or impress them.

Now to my study.  Over the course of several years I occupied some church down-time on my smart phone, quietly timing each of the hymns at my preferred tempo. I recorded the time for one verse, my tempo, the number of verses and the total time (not including the introduction). Hymns that have extra verses were entered twice, once with the total time of the commonly sung verses, and again including the extra ones. The result is the table in Appendix 2 here (this is a Word table that you can play with, sorting it in different ways). And that table allowed me to create this graph:

Total time for hymns (in seconds)

Hymn Times graph

One thing this lovely sinusoidal curve shows is that at least three-quarters of the hymns fall into the 1½ to 3 minute range with the median being 135 seconds (2¼ minutes). If you were ever curious what the shortest and longest hymns are, the following table will answer those questions.

Shortest/Longest Hymns

Short-LongTable

So, the shortest hymn in the book is Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow and the longest (without extra verses) is The Spirit of God followed closely by Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd and O My Father (there’s also Wintry Day but no one sings it anyway, and for good reason).

The one part of the sacrament meeting that is time critical is the sacrament hymn which accompanies the breaking of the bread. I’ve found in most wards it takes 2 to 2 ½ minutes for the priests to complete this task. Some of the hymns are just barely long enough (187, 178, 194). If you take them a bit on the slow side it will help fill the time.  But 184, Upon the Cross of Calvary, is noticeably short for the purpose, which lead my friend Orson Scott Card to compose a fourth verse for it. In any case, the organist will almost surely need to play a verse quietly after the congregation is done singing this hymn and There Is A Green Hill too (God Loved Us and O Lord of Hosts have extra verses which are often used for this reason). Reverently and Meekly Now, however, at just under 5 minutes is in the top 10 longest hymns in the book.

In conclusion, there are no real surprises here, except perhaps that hymns are generally shorter than we think. Many would suppose it takes 4-5 minutes to sing a hymn when actually most are slightly over 2 minutes. If you sing just the first and last verse of an average four verse hymn, you’re only saving a minute or so. And if you’re thinking of foregoing a hymn all together to give speakers more time, most sacrament talks would be improved by shortening them by two minutes. It might be useful for priesthood leaders and music directors to have the “Shortest/Longest” table handy in case they’re really short of time, or need to fill the maximum time. Or if they’re just hymn trivia nerds like me.

4 Comments

  1. Jacqui

    I am SHOCKED at how many hymns are longer than The Wintry Day. It certainly FEELS a lot longer than The Spirit of God. So meandering.

    Also I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go didn’t even make the list?! A few surprises for me, anyway.

  2. I have always enjoyed conducting hymns for the congregation, and am not an organist. I have led with a professional organist and most often with transitional pianists. The former situation was exhilarating, as we seemed to sync together spontaneously. I prefer to treat the singers as a choir, not simply beat time. For me, the words matter most. And as for “The Wintry Day,” I intend to lead the choir in it for our upcoming ward conference. It addresses both those who once lived out west, and those who have moved and found Zion in their new location. The modern Tab Choir has a most beautiful rendition of it on YouTube.

    • Thanks Ron. Of course my comment about conductors was mostly tongue-in-cheek and it’s always best to coordinate ahead of time so there are no disgreements. That seldom happens though, unfortunately. And just from a pragmatic point of view, the organist leads by virtue of making the biggest sound, not to mention that most congregations don’t pay much attention to the conductor (most choirs don’t pay enough attention either, for that matter).

      I also have had a lot of experience conducting for meetings and directing choirs, so I know what you mean about the wonderful experience of synchronicity with good musicians. Just to mention a related issue, choir accompanists don’t get enough credit. I’ve often been called to conduct a ward or stake choir and no consideration had been given to who was going to play for me. All conductors know that the success of a choir depends at least as much on the skill of the pianist as it does on the merits of the conductor. But often even the choir members themselves don’t realize this. Conductors know though.

      As for Wintry Day, the Tabernacle Choir recording is lovely, but they could sing the phone book and it would be lovely. It was one of the few hymns labelled as a choir selection in the 1948 hymnbook that was retained in the 1985. I find the harmonic style too chromatic and the ranges too taxing for congregations. I also find it dated in style – an extreme example of a musical style popular in the late 1800’s, with poetry similarly flowery and sentimental that doesn’t transcend it’s time as better hymns do. However, I’ve found that when it comes to judging the merits of hymns, even good musicians will often disagree with me, oddly. 🙂

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