We have encouraged you to sing four-part harmony and to learn how to do so if you are not yet able to sing the alto, tenor, or bass line. We said last time that there are good reasons for a Christian congregation to sing in harmony. It makes for beautiful singing and Christian worship ought to be beautiful and it expresses in a powerful way how Christian unity is achieved through God-created diversity. A single complex sound, the more beautiful for its complexity, is created by the combination of the different voices singing different notes that nevertheless agree with one another.
But not all hymns are to be sung in harmony. Unison singing has from the beginning been an important vehicle of Christian praise. Hebrew psalms were probably chanted, at least in many cases, and chanting is typically in unison, all voices on the same note at the same time. Later the early Christian hymns and the Gregorian chants were likewise sung in unison. Plainsong, of which Gregorian chant is a specimen, is, by definition, monophonic or monody, that is, has but one note to sing at a time. We will sing tonight the hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” a text set to plainsong music. You will see when we turn it up that it lacks a standard four part score. Interestingly, almost all contemporary Christian praise music is sung in unison. At our most recent presbytery meeting, we sang everything in unison, even hymns with well-known four-part harmony. It is the modern style, with singers in the front singing the melody only into the microphone. I’m not sure what advocates of his music would say is the reason for this. Perhaps they simply think that modern congregations can’t sing harmony and so the singing must be in unison. I read several articles this week that recommended unison singing as an improvement over bad singing in harmony. But, of course, these are poor reasons to sing in unison: either because it doesn’t sound as bad as poor singing in harmony or because it’s easier and requires less of the congregation! Harmony is harder to do well, but then worship is worth our best and our best requires education and preparation.
But there are good reasons to sing in unison, besides the fact that some of our hymns were intended to be sung that way and were set to monophonic music. It is the most ancient form of Christian sung praise, so far as we know, so in singing that way we join ourselves to the Christian ages. Obviously it is another, if different form of unity in worship, the entire congregation singing the same note. It is easier to sing in unison and for some in the congregation it helps that everyone is singing the one note that he or she knows how to sing. Christians learn a hymn much more quickly when sung in unison. Think about it; even altos, tenors, and basses, who sing hymns in harmony, know the hymn by its melody line and probably couldn’t sing the bass or alto line by itself if the melody line was not being sung at the same time. And, finally, it is another form of congregational singing and adding variety adds spice to worship as it adds spice to life. We both stand and kneel to pray; we pray in unison and we pray by saying Amen to a prayer offered by one of us; we alter the forms of prayer every Sunday. In other words we are alert to the dulling power of sameness. And so it is that we will sing in both harmony and unison.