Mind the Gap between Verses

The Musical Preface to the Church Hymnal, Fifth Edition, which is commonly used in the Church of Ireland, provides advice on several aspect of hymn singing and accompaniment. It is well worth consulting. However, the preface remains silent on the issue of how to manage the gap between the verses of a hymn. In this article we will consider several hymns from the Church Hymnal. We'll provide advice and example annotations that you can add to the sheet music.

The gap between verses can not be considered in isolation. As the organist, you set the tempo and provide guidance on phrasing as you accompany hymns. You’ll need two things to do this effectively: a plan for how you approach each hymn, and a way to communicate that plan to the singers. Let's start by considering how you might formulate a plan. We'll follow that up with suggestions for how to communicate your chosen plan to the congregation.

Define a default approach

The first step in formulating a plan is to establish a default approach. This represents the typical way you approach hymn singing. It provides a reference point that both you and the congregation will become accustomed to. Your default approach will be influenced by local traditions, the style of music typically used in that setting, and your own personal preferences and experience. For example, the following approach works with many hymns and could be adopted as your default approach:

The two beat gap between verses is the cornerstone of this approach. It gives the congregation time to notice that you’ve stopped playing, and then to take a breath in preparation for the next verse. To make this approach feel natural, vary the length of the last note. For a hymn with 3/4 time signature, you will typically extend the last note so that you can lift for two beats, starting the next verse without breaking the 3/4 rhythm. Work out the beats in advance by singing to yourself to ensure it feels natural. Pencil in the extra beats below the last verse of the music in your hymnbook.

The example below shows the final bars of the tune Fulda, typically used to accompany hymn 491 We have a gospel to proclaim. The tune is 3/4 timing, with the first note of the verse (not shown) starting on the first beat of the bar. The numbers in brackets, (2 3), indicate the two beat gap between verses. The preceding numbers count out the beats starting at the beginning of the last bar, 1 2 3 1, thereby indicating that the final chord will be extended for an extra beat.

Many 3/4 tunes start on the 3rd beat of the bar, for example 373 To God be the glory. In this case, we simply extend the last minim chord to complete the three beat bar and include our two beat gap.

Where there is a chorus, as in To God be the glory, do not introduce a gap between verse and chorus. Keep the rhythm steady for the transition between verse and chorus.  

Many tunes with 4/4 timing finish with a minim chord. In these situations you can extend the final chord by a couple of beats. For example, Regent Square used for 431 Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour.

Be careful that the additional beats don’t interrupt the flow of the music. For many hymns the two beat gap is sufficient on its own, without extending the last chord. This is especially true of tunes that finish with a semibreve chord. For example, Maccabaeus used for 288 Thine be the glory.

Choosing an appropriate tempo is also important. Play slow enough that the congregation can catch a breath between lines without feeling rushed, but not so slow that they run out of breath before reaching the end of the line. For this reason, hymns with long lines may need to be played with a little more pace. For example, 643 Be thou my vision, or any of the hymns with ten or more syllables per line.

Variations to consider

Having established a default approach, ensure that where necessary you adapt it to the needs of the music. Hymn tunes come in many different styles and some will benefit from a bit of ‘give’ half way through the verse. For example, a pause is written into the sheet music at the end of the second line for Winchester New, 238 Ride on, ride on in majesty. See the snippet below. A similar pause could also be useful in other hymns where it is not marked in the sheet music.

Note that in the above example the comma above the music indicates the end of the first line, but is not intended to indicate a pause at that point. Trained choir may take both lines in a single breath. A congregation may appreciate a slight pause at the end of each line. Listen to your singers to identify an approach that works for them. You might play at a slightly increased tempo to help singers take both lines in a single breath, or slightly slower to facilitate a breath at the end of each line.

You may also vary the tempo from one verse to another within a hymn to reflect the mood of the words, and of course, the phrasing may differ from one verse to another. Choir practices often focus on getting everyone responding to the meaning of the words with their phrasing and tempo. You may have a congregation that also responds well to such variations.

Contemporary music is typically designed to be played to a steady beat, with the assumption that a drummer will drive the music forward. There’s usually ample space for breaths written into the music. A short interlude is often played between verses to allow additional time for breaths. You could also play interludes on the organ, or repeat the last phrase of the verse. Listen to commercial recordings to get a feel for what the composer intended, and ensure that whatever you play, it is obvious when you intend the next verse to start.

Use of a gathering note was an old tradition in which a bass note was played just before the start of each verse to help bring the congregation in on time. This approach can still be heard in Woodlands, 712 Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord. When a gathering note is written into the music, our two beat gaps should be avoided. Use of a gathering note has been largely consigned to history. However, it may still be useful where liturgical responses are sung without an introduction. 

A similar starting chord can also be found in 325 Be still for the presence of the Lord, and 219 From heav’n you came helpless Babe. However, it’s probably more correct to say that these hymns emulate the syncopated style of contemporary music rather than the old gathering note.

An alternative default approach

While the two beat gap appears to be gaining popularity and is evident in both televised services and commercial recordings, a variety of approaches to the gap between verses are still commonly used. Many organists with a strong background in choral singing choose to rely on instinct to provide an appropriate gap to take a breath. This approach can be described as pausing just long enough to give the choir a chance to swallow. Using this technique in conjunction with some of the adaptations mentioned above, we can define an alternative approach you could choose as your default. This describes an approach used in many churches today.

The differences between the two suggested default approaches outlined above is quite subtle. In practice, ”just enough time to swallow” is only a fraction less than two full beats. When listening to other organists, you could count the beats to help you understand the approach they are taking.

Communicating Your Plan

Now that you have a plan for each hymn, you need to communicate that plan to the singers. When working with a choir, you can explain your approach during practices, and provide annotations on sheet music. You may not have an opportunity to speak to the congregation, so you will instead communicate through your playing. This starts with the play-over (or introduction) which allows you to set the tempo. Play loud enough that singers feel you are taking the lead. Just how loud is loud enough will vary depending on the size of the congregation and the style of music.   

Applying your chosen approach consistently is an essential part of communicating with the congregation. Singers will learn to adapt over time as you apply your approach for each service. If unintended inconsistencies creep in, identify ways to eliminate them. For example, there’s a natural tendency for organists to take a longer gap when changing stops between verses. This can be unnerving for the singers. If you have this tendency, then counting the beats for the last bar and the gap will help ensure consistency as you change stops. Don’t let counting become a substitute for listening to the singers. Stay aware of what they are doing.

Singers may naturally try to hold a note for as long as the organ does. If you play legato, this may lead to singers coming in late at the start of each line as they try to grab a late breath. You can correct this by playing in a detached style, cutting the last note of each line short. For large congregations, or to give strong guidance, lift both hands. To provide just a hint, you could lift the right hand while playing legato with the left and pedals. Playing in a detached style is also an effective way to resolve a situation where there is an audible difference of opinion within the congregation as to how a hymn should be sung.


Organists differ in their approach to leading singing and there is no consensus on a single approach to use. This may be due to the fact that the hymnbook contains music spanning over centuries. So no one approach will apply to all styles of music. The important point here is that you should consider your options and make a conscious decision as to how you approach hymn playing. Familiarise yourself with the various techniques outlined above. Then select an approach that works for you, taking into account the style of music and the needs and traditions of the congregation you play for. As you apply your chosen approach week after week, the congregation will learn to anticipate your actions and their singing will improve. Remember to continually reassess your approach and if necessary, adjust it to ensure a positive experience of everyone involved.


The fragments of music reproduced and annotated in this article are taken from the Church Hymnal, Fifth Edition, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-147834-2. These fragments have been included for the purposes of criticism or review of that work as defined by the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000.

These fragments of music are taken from the following tunes:

491 Fulda: Music by William Gardiner (1779-1853)

373 To God be the glory: Music by Willaim Howard Doane. Words by Fanny J. Crosby [Frances J. van Alstyne] (1820 - 1915)

431 Regent Square: Music by Henry Smart (1813-79)

288 Maccabaeus: Music by G.F. Handel (1685-1759) adapted from a chorus in Judas Maccabaeus (1746). Words by Edmond Budry (1854-1932), translated by R. B. Hoyle (1875-1939)

238 Winchester New: Melody adapted from Musikalisches Hand-Buch (Hamburg, 1690) by William Henry Havergal (1793-1870)

712 Woodlands: Music by Walter Greatorex (1877-1949)

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