Wiki: How to play hymns

Qianqian Xie

The foundation of responsibilities of every church organist is hymn playing. Although solo organ music might be desired and even required during services, the majority of music performed at church is hymns. Hymn playing has its own rules, techniques, and traditions which the organist must know in order to perform them well. 

Choose the right tempo

Because hymn playing involves singing as well, perhaps the most important aspect here is tempo. How well you choose the tempo will determine the success of your performance and congregations’ ability to sing it with energy. Although there are many variables to consider, the general rule of thumb is such: Play a hymn in such a tempo that you could sing each of the lines in one breath loudly and with energy.

Play a short introduction

It is the norm to introduce the hymn before singing it. You can construct your introduction in many ways: if the hymn is short, you could play it through once. For longer hymns, you may want to play a few lines (the second half of the hymn; first and last lines, if they fit together; create a short fughette out of the opening line) etc. Whatever you do in your introduction, play it in the same tempo as that of the hymn and choose a different (not necessarily softer) registration.

Play hymns in time

Always keep the tempo steady and do not slow down or speed up. Start each line also in time. People will soon get confused if they don’t feel the steady pulse. I suggest that you try always to be aware of the meter and count out loud the beats, if you need to. Maintaining one tempo often also depends on how well you are prepared or how good your sight reading skills are. Remember this and practice accordingly.

Do not correct your mistakes

If you make a mistake, never try to correct it during your performance in public. Just keep going at the same tempo and forget the mistake. Otherwise you could make another mistake just because you are thinking about it. Keep your mind focused on the measure you are playing now.

Use good articulation

Playing with clear articulation is important because it helps people to appreciate the melody and the harmony of the hymn better. Look at the date of the hymn. If it was created before the 19th century, use articulate legato, or the ordinary touch. Make small rests between each note and feel the strong and weak beats of the measure. Articulate more before the strong beats. Do not make the notes too detached but with a cantabile or singing manner. This video also points out some rules of how to play hymns.

Huilin Shen

  • Choose the appropriate tempo for the entire hymn.

The pulse of the hymn will helps the congregation(a group of people assembled for religious worship) singing move along and move forward without letting a drag, without letting it rush. 


  • Phrase the hymns well

The organists need to breathe together with the congregation at the ends of each phrase and between stanzas. Organists need to have a lift of the sound at the end of the phrase.


  • Do not add an extra beat in the middle of a phrase, it will destroy the sense of the pulse that we are maintaining.


  • Play pickup notes slightly detached will help to accent the strong beat and keep the steady pulse moving along with singers.



Watch Video

03 – Organ Playing 101: Hymn Playing
Duration: 10:37 User: n/a – Added: 4/2/15


Jingyi Xu

Importance of bass pedals

The bass pedals give support to the choir and/or congregation’s voices – the pedals do make a huge difference and every effort should be made to include them ASAP!

Gathering notes and timed rests – intervals between the verses

A gathering note is a one beat pause on the first note of each verse to allow the congregation to open their mouths and take a breath.

A timed interval between each verse allows the congregation to take a breath or two and know exactly when to start singing the next verse. Each interval should be the same amount of beats.

However, for timed intervals, no gathering note is given as the time between verses is long enough for the congregation. When gathering notes are used, the timed interval between verses is usually shorter.

When listening to other church organists play hymns, check to see which method they use – if you are taking over from another organist this Sunday, the choir and congregation will be used to one or the other!

My Left Foot

There are some organists who only use their left foot when playing the pedals. High notes on the pedal board are transposed down an octave so that the left foot can play all the notes.

I don’t recommend this as a long term method because it is much easier (with some practice) to use both feet.

We don’t really want to become a right handed, left footed organist!

Getting the job done

Developing a very good technique is essential if you want to become an excellent player. However, if you do not have the time or aspirations to become excellent, leaving the church on Sunday morning with your dignity still intact may be your most important consideration.

Simplify the music

In this case, it is quite OK to simplify the music you are playing. Sometimes however, by simplifying, you can make your music even more difficult to play. Perhaps you are changing what you already had begun to learn, or maybe it’s the time it takes to prepare the music rather than the difficulty, so changes made should be done with care.

Registration – The Stops

Registration is an important consideration when playing hymns.

Use at least three different registrations or sound settings and make each one available at the pull or change of just one stop. You don’t want to be pulling and pushing too much in the middle of verses!

These can also be soft, medium and loud settings which reflect the meaning of the hymn’s words.

Phrasing – don’t forget to take a breath

Phrasing is also a consideration when playing hymns. Leave gaps where the commas come in the words to encourage the choir and congregation to breathe in the right places.

Remember, the congregation is following you and they’ll soon catch up if you leave them behind!


Control the tempo – we generally try to play the more difficult passages faster without realising (it’s called panic!) – making them even more difficult to play! Being aware of this can help.

Some organists play hymns on the slower side, some organists play their hymns quite fast and it’s difficult for the congregation to keep up! You decide on the tempo, but with so much to think about, try not to get faster, it is so easy to speed-up without realising.

See also: How to make Sunday’s easier on the church organ.

Yingying Xia

If you want to play Hymns on organ, first you should know how to set up your organ stops for that. 

Set up your Organ stops  helps you make better sounds with your hymns playing.  

Watch Video

How to play Hymns on an Organ – with Rudy Lucente and Cunningham Organ Group
Duration: 22:27 User: n/a – Added: 11/4/22
Usually Hymns have more than 3 verse for singers to sing. So you can change the stops to make the sound differently. 
Start with soft sound for first verse and add more sound to the next verse. 
For Hymn introduction, the purpose of that is to state the tune clearly, establish the tempo and be prepared the congregation for the singing of the hymn.
Most of the time, we will typically play through the entire hymn tune in our hymn introduction especially for Hymn that might be less familiar than others.

But with hymn that is familiar, we may want to play only the portion of the hymn.

Watch Video

02 – Organ Playing 101: Hymn Introductions
Duration: 10:54 User: n/a – Added: 4/2/15


Anastasia Rege

Playing Hymns at The Organ: Connecting To The Voice


I have learned so much this semester, but the use of silence at the organ as a breath for the congregation or singers has been the most profound thing that I now utilize every mass. The connection of the organ to the voice is very important when playing hymns.  “Breathing” with your hands will help to support the singers and signifies when to start and end a phrase. 


In addition to what we learned in class, I found this video very helpful.