21st Century Hymn Troping

I continue to find the Middle Ages trope to be one of the most interesting developments in the history of church music. For a quick review, the trope essentially reflects a desire to decorate the Word through artful words or pitches. Specifically, from the middle to late Middle Ages chant was enhanced in the following ways: melodies were enhanced with additional words (e.g., words are added to various pitches in a melisma), pitches were added as melismas, or in some cases pitches and words were added to chant melodies. Although the goal was to exalt Christ through these creative additions to the chant, one of the general results of this artistic flourishing was that the congregation could no longer follow the melody.

In the pursuit of the highest levels of excellence in art, interest is usually a key factor that the artist seeks to increase. The music artist might seek to increase the level of interest with the rhythm, melody, harmony, or timbre (instrument sounds). However, in corporate worship a careful balance of interest and clarity must be maintained to encourage enthusiastic congregational participation. Obviously, Christian art was out of balance in terms of interest by the late Middle Ages, with the typical church member only able to participate at a minimal level in the worship experience. Eventually troping led to the writing of multiple melodic parts occurring at the same time (polyphony), and by way of the late Middle Ages English church musicians, tertian harmony emerged. Tertian harmony is the basis for all harmonic music of the West (Western classical music of all types, hymns, jazz, blues, rock, and country). So, good things can certainly come from a pursuit of interesting art.

I would suggest we are now living in an interesting age of 21st century troping. I am referring particularly to new arrangements of hymns. A few years ago several popular Christian artists began focusing their creative endeavors on hymns. Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone is a clear example of a modern trope: New text and words are added to a traditional hymn. (Type I modern hymn troping)

However, another form of modern troping is to produce increasingly interesting musical arrangements of hymns (Type II modern hymn troping). In the middle ages, the main material one could use to make increasingly interesting musical art was through new melodies. Eventually the most interesting option became the use of polyphonic lines, which eventually suggested harmonic relationships. Currently, one does not typically make a hymn more interesting by inserting harmonies (e.g., adding jazz harmonies in some instances would be an exception). In fact, most hymns are more harmonically rich than the new arrangements that are created. Rather, modern arrangers increase interest through the use of interesting timbres.

To clarify, there are two arguments for artistic qualities in rock or popular music. The most frequently used argument is that jazz, the blues, country, and rock musicians combined Western harmonies with African rhythms.  This is a legitimate argument because one could make an argument that the polyrhythmic nature of African music is more sophisticated than the rhythms in Western music, whereas the harmonies in Western music surpass all attempts at harmony in the history of the world. I do not make the same claim for polyrhythmic African music because Indian music is arguably more sophisticated rhythmically than  African music. However, African rhythms may be better suited to congregational participation because they embody a careful balance of interest and clarity.

The other argument for artistry in 20th century American genres (listed above) is the use of increasingly interesting timbres.[1] Before the emergence of electronic music, Wagner stretched the outer limits of timbre (instrument color) interest, even inventing particular types of wind instruments to provide a particular color. In the 20th century, electronic production opened up a new world of sounds for artistic production. The use of interesting rock sounds to increase interest in hymns is quite appropriate in my view. The only warning I would give is that of accessibility. We must not forget the rule learned above from troping in the middle ages. If one takes troping interest too far, one may lose congregational participation. An intellectually and emotionally engaged congregation is an important verification of the needed balance between interest and clarity.

I would like to suggest an excellent example of type 2 troping to which I was recently introduced by Ronald Laitano, worship leader at FBC Kenner, LA. Rock of Ages by Sojourn is a par excellent example of the right balance between interest and clarity in modern troping:



[1] T. Gracyk, “Popular music: The very idea of listening to it” in Bridging the gap: Popular music and music education, ed. C. X. Rodriguez (Reston, VA: MENC, 2004), 51-70; Gracyk showed how observing the evolution of Western music as a jourey with sound offers a different perspective on the progression of music history.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I agree that the African rhythms seem more suited for congregational worship because they increase interest toward participatory worship instead of spectator worship. God wishes for his people to worship with our entire being, mind, body and spirit.


  2. […] “Twenty-first Century Hymn Troping,” by Greg Woodward at the (i)ncarnation of worship blog, with comparisons of contemporary hymn composition and the musical technique of troping used in the Middle Ages. Sorry, this one is just for the musically astute. […]


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