The Music of Great Preaching

A great musician draws lessons from a great preacher

Wayne Hooper was the director of music for the King's Heralds for the Voice of Prophecy. He is now retired and lives in California.


For 58 years I have been a more-than-casual observer of preaching. As a A career minister of music, it has been my privilege to sing for, sit behind, say amen to, and analyze the style of scores of evangelists, pastors, teachers, lecturers, and preachers of all kinds and styles.

For 35 of those years it was my good for tune to work with and be inspired by one of the greatest H.M.S. Richards, Sr. From the day he graduated from Campion Academy in 1914 until the late 1930s in California, he held one evangelistic campaign after an other. In tents and tabernacles he preached the Word seven nights a week, almost always to capacity crowds.

Shortly after I joined the King's Heralds Quartet in 1944 for Pastor Richards' radio broadcast, The Voice of Prophecy, we held a five-week campaign in the newly completed Sligo Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland. Big crowds came every night. And through the years I heard him preach hundreds of sermons at camp meetings, Weeks of Prayer, and youth congresses, in churches and public halls, out doors, in prisons, and at General Conference sessions. How the people came when his name was announced as speaker. Often there was standing room only.

Why did so many people come to hear this man speak? First and foremost, he was God's man, and he knew God's Book. They came to hear old-fashioned Bible preaching.

Second, I believe that the style of his great preaching had much in common with many of the elements of great music. These concepts have been developed over many years of exposure to great preaching. H.M.S. Richards, Sr., is a prime example.


This is the succession of notes that most people remember about a piece of music. The words "The hills are alive with the sound of music" call instantly to mind the captivating melody of that song. Ellen White advised: "Ministers should speak in a manner to reach and impress the people. The teachings of Christ were impressive and solemn; His voice was melodious. And should not we, as well as Christ, study to have melody in our voices." 1 "His voice was as musk to those who had listened to the monotonous tones of the rabbis."2

Richards had melody in his voice as he preached. I have tape-recorded a sermon he gave at the Illinois camp meeting, June 12, 1971, on John 14 and the second coming of Christ. As best I could, I have transferred the pitches of his voice and the approximate duration of each syllable to a music staff. You may get an idea of how he sounded as you sight-read the melody and the rhythm of the note values. Notice how he reaches a high note climax on the words "His shout!" and "They shall hear His voice!"

This is just a sample of the melody in his preaching voice. In this example he used an octave and a third in range, and many different note values. And notice the rests. You may find it helpful to do a similar analysis on one of your recorded sermons. See if there is a kind of pleasing melody, or if you have too many stay-on-one-note-too-long phrases.


Most great music compositions have a form that is recognizable: introduction, theme A, development, theme B, development, recapitulation of theme A, coda, finale. This, of course, is just one of many musical forms. The form of a sermon can take many shapes, but it should be well organized. Listeners are happy when it is obvious the speaker has a plan for getting from here to there. We love to recognize progress. A presentation that rambles aimlessly will never keep the congregation awake.


This has been defined as the systematic grouping of notes with regard to their duration. We are well acquainted with the march and other regular rhythms. Most of our speech rhythms are irregular and flow along with the natural accents of the words and phrases. Once in a while, for effect it might be good to use a regular pattern of note values. Here is a favorite sentence Richards used: You see, I was able to assign regular note values, pitches, and bar lines.

Besides a rhythm of single words, there is also a rhythm of phrases. Richards loved the great hymns and often quoted from them for powerful effect. Still today I can hear him inserting these John Bowring lines into a sermon:

"In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering o'er the wrecks of time;

All the. light of sacred story Gathers round its head sublime!'

Galatians 6:14 was one of his favorite texts: "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." Rhythm, rightly used, is a powerful force in music and in speech.


There are six levels of soft and loud used in ordinary music: pp, p, mp, mf, /, and ff. Some pieces even use ppp and ff for very soft and very loud. How many of these dynamic levels do you make use of? Sadly, most of us are willing to glide lazily along on mf (mezzo [medium] forte [loud]), putting everyone to sleep in the process. I heard a good preacher recently make a special point by whispering an entire sentence. Everyone leaned forward to make sure and catch every word. A good symphony usually has one or two loud passages in each movement, saving them for the important moment or musical phrase. The preacher who shouts too much seems to be saying, "Everything is important, and nothing is important." Changes in the dynamics are essential. And remember, as you speak more softly you must increase the intensity so you can still be understood. At all levels of dynamics, a suitable projection must be maintained.


By sequences I mean the repetition of a definite group of notes or chords in different positions on the scale. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech contains a good example of sequence. The repetition of this phrase at the same or slightly different pitch followed by a variety of answering phrases made a dramatic moment the whole world remembers. The mind is easily led from point to point and eagerly awaits the diversity of each answering phrase. The composer Edward Elgar (one of my favorites) was criticized by some for using this device to excess. But other critics complimented his use of sequences as highly original, resourceful, and varied, three qualities that explain the success of his music and which might also make our sermons more successful.


Modulation is shifting to another key somewhere in the piece. Changing to an other key in music is very refreshing, especially after we have been in the original key for a while.

In many of my arrangements for the King's Heralds, I used this device to maintain interest and to give each voice the opportunity to carry the melody. Because of the natural range of your voice, it is easy to get stuck in a monotonous range or key of four or five pitches. Most of us have at least an octave (eight notes of the diatonic scale) that we can use easily.

If you think about it, you can modulate to a higher key if a segment of your sermon suggests it. You remember our example of the H.M.S. Richards "melody" was an octave plus three notes. He sang bass in a college quartet. Normally such a low voice would peak around middle C or the D above it. One night while preaching to a large camp meeting crowd, I "clocked" him using my pitch pipe (softly) as emphasizing a climactic point on the G above middle C. That would be a fairly high note for a tenor! Yet he did it easily, sup porting the tone from his abdominal and diaphragm muscles. I don't recall his ever be coming hoarse from abusing his voice.


If a musical phrase is beautiful, we en joy hearing it again later in the piece. It con tributes to the unity of the song and makes it memorable. If you work hard in preparation and find a fresh creative way to say something, it should be worth repeating. It is doubtful if we remember much from a discourse that goes on from one idea to an other and another without any repetition to seal it in the memory.

Once while traveling with Richards in a car, we were listening to a dynamic radio preacher. He used the phrase "God wants a man! A man who ..." followed by a description of that man's qualities. Then again, "God wants a man! A man who ..." He repeated this phrase about six times. We all enjoyed hearing his style. Can you think of an idea or gem of truth in one of your re cent sermons that you helped your congregation remember by using repetition?


This is a passage that connects two sections of a composition. Even though these musical notes are less important, they still must carry enough interest to hold our attention. How often have we seen a preacher bring a section to a rousing, mountain peak climax only to lose the moment completely by fumbling around in the next valley for words to start the next idea rolling. Richards was a master at keeping us on the hook during transitions.


This section brings the piece to the conclusion. Often it reuses themes from earlier in the music and may enlarge upon them to make the conclusion effective and brilliant. Beethoven sometimes made the coda the most creative and interesting part of the movement. He even introduced new musical ideas here. About sermon construction there is an old saying, "Tell 'em what you are going to tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em." That last phrase is the coda.


Similar to the coda, the finale applies more specifically to the last few measures. In your sermon it may be a big dramatic climax, or it may be a quiet appeal to the heart. Which ever it is, when you are done, quit! We all sag a bit when a preacher goes on and on, passing several great stopping places. "Let your discourses be short... .You may gain the reputation of being an interesting speaker."3

I'm sure there are other elements we could cite to show the correlation of great music to great preaching. In all those years with H.M.S. Richards, we never tired of hearing him. His voice and style of presentation were musical in all of these ways.


This word applies to a soloist who, near the end would improvise a cadenza that was several measures of music not written down in the score. Richards was an avid reader and a keen observer of life all around him. So even if we had heard a certain sermon be fore, it would be different each time. Different and fresh because of the way he would work in something that he had read that day, or some new insight he had gained from his study of the Bible.

Ellen White sums it up well in these words: "The human voice is a precious gift of God; it is a power for good, and the Lord wants His servants to preserve its pathos and melody. The voice should be cultivated so as to promote its musical quality, that it may fall pleasantly upon the ear and impress the heart."4

1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 2, p. 617.

2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 253.

3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Re
view and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), p. 177.

4 Ibid., p. 667.

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Wayne Hooper was the director of music for the King's Heralds for the Voice of Prophecy. He is now retired and lives in California.


September 1997

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