I know I know that hymn

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 14:26pm on 13th January 2018

Ever started a hymn you thought everyone knew only to be met by stunned silence from your congregation?  

Andy Chamberlain of Musicademy pointed out the elephant in the room (church / song-room / rehearsal space) when he blogged that when it comes to worship ‘most of the time people don’t sing the songs purely and simply because they don’t know them’ (Musicademy).  

And yet you, like me, may have asked your choir to turn to a hymn you’ve sung frequently in the past only to be told: ‘We’ve never done this one before’ until you remind them they say that every time!  So you strike up the tune to sighs of relief all round as they chorus: 'Oh, it’s this one - I know it now.’

What’s going on?  Donald Rumsfeld famously opined about knowns and unknowns https://youtu.be/GiPe1OiKQuk.  The scientific community has given the subject more careful attention particularly since 1965 when Joseph Hart coined the term Feeling-of-Knowing.  It’s the sense that we have that we know something and with just a bit more detail or context we’ll call it to mind.  Like when you recognise a face in a photo (or even in person over coffee after church) and you know you know the name - it’s on the tip of your tongue - but you don’t recall it til later when it suddenly comes to you.

We do something similar with hymns.  You know you know Amazing Grace.  You know you don’t know His Spirit sets me free.  Plenty more hymns fit somewhere in between.  Recognition of a hymn may be triggered by its title, reading the lyrics, hearing the melody or a combination of these.  Why does it matter?  For worship leaders it’s helpful to know what best encourages congregations to sing.  We understand that congregations are happier singing songs they know well, but which clues in the verbal, printed, or played introduction remind them they know this one and can confidently join in?  For congregations, it’s helpful to recognise the hymn before you start singing it so you’re not scrambling around for the notes or navigating unfamiliar lyrics.  Cultivating a Feeling-of-Knowing for hymns is a good way to encourage our congregations to sing them.

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