My Attempt at Sight-Singing Hymns

Since starting Poseur to Composer it's occurred to me just how important hymns are in my life. Music is a tool (and a gift from God), but what we do with this tool, this gift, can make all the difference. Hymns heal and give hope for a better day, something this increasingly turbulent world needs.

So I decided to start a internet radio station for hymns, called At this point I'm fully invested in sharing the power of hymns to as many people as possible. You can listen for free 24/7/365.

I also want to sight-sing hymns, mainly for two reasons: First is to continue learning music theory so I can eventually compose music, and secondly, to assess hymns for inclusion to the radio station. Today I opened a hymnal to sing the first hymn and immediately had to look up the key signature (I never memorized them). Then I saw that the hymn is 12/8 time and realized I merely glossed over the topic of rhythm and time signatures. Time to buckle down and actually learn this stuff!

I tried to sing the notes on the page anyway and, well, my pitch was way off. I'm not hitting the notes. Another quick internet search says I need to learn solfège? The rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper.

So it seems there are a few skills I need to level-up on before I'm ready to tackle sight-singing again. Question is, where do I start first?

The Rap on Hymns

Just make rhymes over a beat, right? Essentially, that's all that rap is, poetry and a beat. After delving into this sonic art form I realise there's so much more to it.

A book that helped me appreciate the many elements of rap is The Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of HipHop by Adam Bradley. If you're not an appreciator of rap and its practitioners (rappers and emcees - there's a difference) you will be after reading the book.

Despite devouring the book and learning a lot about writing rhymes and spitting bars, I still can't rock the mic right. I sound like a 50 year old Caucasian dad (guilty as charged!) One thing I have trouble with is cadence ("flow" in rap speak). Cramming more syllables per measure seems to help, but I decided to hire a rapper to show me how it's done. Here's what he came up with:

I like it. It would be a workable template except it occurred to me it's not a really a hymn anymore. I won't get into what makes a hymn and what differentiates a hymn from a "spiritual" or gospel song (I'll save that for another time) but the hymn's raison d'être is to unite people in praising God in song. It doesn't mean hymns can never be sung solo, they can and often are, but they must allow for groups to sing together. My treatment of A Mighty Fortress doesn't make this allowance.

Here are two examples (I previously didn't know existed) that retroactively fit into my "hymn-hop" subgenre. Both combine rap and singing in at least the chorus part:

I'll make some changes and get back to you!

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God: "Hymn-Hop" Instrumental (Take One)

Several days ago I hired a hip-hop producer to lay down the beats and melody for the first ever Hymn-Hop. The plan was to use Do What Is Right but its 3/4 time signature is unusual for hip-hop. So I decided on A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

AMF (as it shall be known here on in) is an obvious second choice because it's one of the few songs I can actually play on piano, from sheet music. As a bonus I've studied the life of the composer Martin Luther and the context and motivation driving the lyrics. I feel qualified* to do this.

As for how to make AMF groove, the idea hit me while I was in the shower. I immediately jumped out and while dripping wet made this embarrassing audio memo:

My only other suggestion was to use the same funky, churchy organ for the melody as the song Groove Holmes from the Beastie Boys. What the producer came up with nailed it, first try:

Phase one is done.

Now it's time to write and record the rap. I can already hear it in my head. Not so much the lyrics but the rythm and cadence, when I need to be "in the pocket", and when I can go outside the beat. When I listen to this imagined rap I can't help but bop my head to the groove.

Of course the final product will have a gap, a difference between what I hear in my head and what I can perform with my mouth. American radio personality Ira Glass spoke of this gap between what we envision and what our current skill-set can deliver. The Hip-Hop producer I hired closed the gap with his work. I'm curious to see how close I can get to my ideal version.

We'll find out soon.

*Then again, how different is my process than my old co-worker whom I insinuated was a poseur? I feel bad for even thinking that. Like him, I still need a producer to take my ideas and make them into music.

I intend to become musically self-reliant though, by learning FL Studio or some other Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). The app is on my smartphone and I'm chipping away at it.