Thoughts on Tune Families

Jan 21, 2014 by

In many early American churches—and some churches today—congregational singing consisted of either a preacher lining out a melody, with the congregation responding, or a cappella singing using words-only hymnals.  In either case, most folks learned the melody by ear.  Over generations and in the absence of notated music, each local church community would develop its own version of a hymn tune.  These versions form a tune family—that is, a collection of tunes that are regional or denominational variants of the same melody.  Unless we know the original melody, however, it is not always clear which tunes belong in the same family.  Another wrinkle in the story is that melodies can vary through oral transmission and also by the conscious act of an arranger or editor.  In the American folk hymn tradition, the tune and the text are rarely...

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