Most people think of hymns as being songs. However, hymnologists define a “hymn” as a piece of poetry that is meant to be sung. If you grabbed one of our hymnals and wrote out the text, it would be obvious. (in fact, some hymnals in English churches and older American ones display hymns this way, with the tune laid out by itself at the top of the page). We’ve started to do that at St. John’s, mostly for people watching the live-stream, but also out of curiosity to see how the people in attendance respond. But one really good reason to do that is that it can enhance the prayer experience.
Personally, if you are not a musician, I think it’s easier to sing a hymn just looking at the words. If it’s a reasonably familiar tune, your ear picks it up naturally, and you can join in and concentrate on what the poetry is saying at the same time.
More importantly, printing hymns this way tells you where you should breathe. Take the first phrase of hymn 544:
“Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth its successive journeys run.” The tune to which its set, Duke Street, is a simple tune of four phrases, but the first line of the text crosses over the first two phrases, creating a long line. If you were to speak it and incorporate the phrases of the tune, it would sound like, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun (pause for breath) doth its successive journey’s run.” In real life, you would not speak those phrases separately and, in reading the poem, you would not breathe until the end of the full sentence, otherwise the meaning would be lost.
So, in singing the hymn one should also not breathe in the middle of the phrase, but try to carry it through to the end. Easier said than done, I know, but this is to illustrate the point that singing requires attention to breath, and attention to breath is the starting point of prayer. Yoga instructors will say that, as long as you are breathing intentionally, you are practicing yoga. All the poses are secondary. Prayer is the same. It starts with the breath and everything after that follows along.
The act of singing amplifies prayer because you need to breathe intentionally to sing well. I need to work on that for myself and, I hope, you all do, too.