Introducing Asian Hymnody
As we attempt to honor our global multiculturalism, church musicians are often apprehensive when approaching music from other cultures. In particular, many able musicians are intimidated by the prospect of Asian languages and the musical traditions that underscore them.
Asian music is incredibly diverse, spanning from Indonesia to Taiwan, gamelan orchestras to bamboo flute choruses. Its hymnody is rich with soaring, lyrical melodies, and the texts abound with beautiful symbolism. Our churches can be greatly enhanced by introducing this musical tradition. Despite its diversity, there are some overarching characteristics that can guide us in faithfully presenting Asian hymnody.
What do we expect to find in Asian congregational song?
- The melody is of supreme importance. It is often cyclic, swelling to a climax and cascading to a low point. The melody is shaped by the text, which often contains powerful symbolism as it describes the natural world. These expressive melodies encourage monophonic singing, and we must try to dispel our notions of Western harmonic functions. With melody at the forefront, harmonies are not implied in Asian music, and they are generally not structural.
- Asian music is transcribed from an oral tradition, replete with ornaments such as grace notes and slides. The rhythmic pulse is flexible, with all other musical elements yielding to the flow of the melody.
- Oftentimes, Asian music employs pentatonic or tetratonic collections, as well as equidistant scales of five or seven notes.
How do we go about playing/singing Asian congregational song?
- Most English hymnals include phonetic pronunciations of Asian texts. A common symbol in this music is the slash sign ( \ or / ), which can be attached either to the front or back of a note. This indicates a vocal slide to or from the note, respectively. We also encounter grace notes, which should be performed gracefully and unhurriedly. Oftentimes, a final “m” or “n” sound can be sustained for the duration of a note.
- Employ instruments! A melody instrument can introduce or reinforce the all-important melodic line, and simple percussion will greatly enhance this musical tradition. Traditional Asian instruments include bamboo flutes (but, flutes of any material will do) and the erh-hu, a two-stringed instrument (viola or cello substitute well). Stringed instruments are particularly appropriate, as they can produce the aforementioned characteristic slides. Gongs, cymbals, and chings (small cymbals) can add texture, and finger cymbals or triangle are perfectly acceptable stand-ins! Using a ching at the end of each full phrase is simple and effective in lending authenticity to this musical style.
- When using a keyboard instrument, remember that Asian accompaniments are sparse. We will do well to momentarily forget our Western notions of harmonic progressions, cadences, and chorale-style homophony! Consider highlighting the melody, utilizing arpeggios, playing in pentatonic or equidistant scales, or using open fifths for support.
The achingly beautiful melodies and deep symbolism of Asian hymnody can certainly enhance worship and enrich our congregational repertoire. I have given just a few suggestions for introducing this musical tradition, and there are several good resources that can provide further instruction. Leading the Church’s Song (Augsburg Fortress, 1998) contains a chapter on leading Asian hymnody, with specific suggestions for accompaniment styles, percussion patterns, and more. The invaluable hymnbook Sound the Bamboo (1990) contains numerous accessible Asian hymns, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Asian church musician and ethnomusicologist Dr. I-to Loh.
In all that we do, let us not be afraid to cultivate our musical traditions by lifting up new songs to God!