Pause and Rest

Katrina DowlingMusic2 Comments

pause and restToday I glanced at a page of sheet music and my attention was captured by a tiny part of the page that suggested a sort of pun – a pause and a rest together.

A pause (also called fermata, meaning held) invites the player or singer to linger, hold that moment in music for a little longer than strict tempo would suggest, and take a little extra time at this point. A rest is an invitation to perform silence rather than sound, and is also a very useful opportunity to take a breath.

Even if you never studied music, you’re expert at using pauses and rests in singing. Here’s proof! The notation convention we use for traditional hymns doesn’t show the pauses and rests, but we learn to perform them. Here is the first verse of “Wunderbarer König,” the well-known chorale tune of Joachim Neander (1650-80), as it appears in the hymn book Together in Song.

Wunderbarer König (God himself is present)

The slanted lines above the stave are phrase marks to show the ends of musical phrases, which, the editors of Together in Song point out, are not the same as lyrical phrases:

The ends of the musical phrases, corresponding to the metre of the tune, and usually to the ends of the lines of words, are marked by small slanting strokes. It is important, however, that these marks should not be taken as necessarily indicating a breath-pause in singing. The sense and rhythm of the words are paramount, and the ‘lines’ of music should be broken by breath-pauses, or stretched over phrase-marks, as the sense of the words requires.[1]

So this notation indicates something about the musical phrases, but it doesn’t spell out for us how we sing it with rests and pauses. The musical phrases appear to make sense, but if we were to sing it merely as notated here, it would sound breathless and not very meaningful:

But our performance practice is not to follow the notation slavishly, but to use it as a reminder of some aspects of the music, while we fill in many of the other aspects in the way we’ve learned to sing them.

There is quite a variety of equally musical ways to sing this chorale; as an example, here’s my transcription of the way my congregation sings this verse. I’ve included the musical phrase marks from the hymn book, and the square brackets over the stave show where the practice of singing is different to what a strict reading of the notation might suggest:

Sung phrasing of “Wunderbarer König,” transcription of congregational singing

Sung phrasing of “Wunderbarer König,” transcription of congregational singing

a – note shortened a little; sung in tempo
b – an extra beat added; note extended for half of the extra beat and a rest taken for half of the extra beat
c – sung straight through without changing the timing or note duration

You would probably agree that this version is more musical, sounds like it makes sense and is also more comfortable to hear because it contains breathing points:

You can also notice – as I’ve marked a, b, and c in the transcription – that the singers use pauses and rests in three different ways. Each one articulates different shades of meaning in the words and different structural levels in the music:

  • in some places (marked a) the singers keep strict tempo;
  • in other places (marked b) they add extra beats in what corresponds to a pause on the final word of the phrase plus a rest following that note;
  • whenever taking a breath would break up a phrase in the lyrics, the singers choose to sing a full duration note and not to add any rest (marked c), even where that contradicts the musical pattern of phrasing that they’ve established.

The singers maintain this tradition informally, simply by doing it – new singers learn to add those extra beats, not by being told, but just by being among the group. At the same time, it’s not all done by rote, but is a responsive practice, because every singer needs to be alert to the phrasing of the words in order to choose whether to leave a breath-pause or to keep the sound going and join two musical phrases together.

It has taken much longer to describe how this verse is sung in this local performance practice than it does to sing the verse! But you can ‘pause and rest’ even while singing, next time you’re singing hymns as a group. I invite you to attend to the pulse, the breaths and the spaces between the notes, and to appreciate all the clever things that each singer is contributing to making music together.


[1] Editors’ Introduction, Together in Song: The Australian Hymn Book II, harmony edn. (East Melbourne: HarperCollinsReligious, 1999), xvi.

2 Comments on “Pause and Rest”

  1. The role of the organist/musician in worship is to lead the congregation, by supporting and guiding their worship through song. From an organist’s perspective, the words of a given hymn are paramount.

    When I am preparing a hymn for a service, I often ask myself “How would I like the congregation to sing this hymn?” This always involves a reflection on the words. The words determine how fast or slow the hymn should be played, the registration (sounds or stops) to be used, and the dynamics (louds and softs). In the case of registration and dynamics, these will often be different in each verse.

    The penultimate piece in this puzzle is to phrase the hymn, by looking for where it makes sense to take a breath. In many cases this will be at the end of a line, but not always. There are many examples in Together in Song where the appropriate place for a breath is not the end of the line! The secret to finding the right place is to look for the punctuation. As for registration and dynamics, this may often be different in each verse.

    The final part is then to put everything together, with music that matches the words in worship to God.

    1. Thanks Michael for the organist’s perspective! I love your image of the playing and singing of the hymn as a puzzle with many interlocking pieces.

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