Breathing in Hymn Singing

February 10, 2023

Several weeks ago I was playing organ for worship in a local church.  After the service concluded a member of the congregation came up to me and said “may I ask you a question about the organ?”  I, of course, said “yes” and assumed the question would be something about the organ as an instrument or a complaint about my playing posed in the form of a question.  But his question wasn’t about the organ at all.  His question was about congregational singing.  He said “I notice that you take a breath between each verse of a hymn.  Why do you do that?”  I was pleasantly surprised by the question.  Here was someone who would make no claims at being a professional musician but was aware enough to notice a short break between verses of a hymn.  I answered his question as quickly yet thoroughly as I could but realized that a full understanding would require a bit more depth.  I thought his question was a great topic to discuss here where I’ve got a bit more time and space to flesh out the reasons for breathing between verses of a hymn.  We’ll break our discussion into two unequal parts, the physiology of breathing and the theology of breathing.




Why do we breathe between verses of a hymn?  There is a simple answer to this question: in order for us humans to sing (or to utter any sound at all, for that matter), we have to take in air into our lungs.  To do so only takes a second or so, but if you don’t inhale and fill your lungs with air you couldn’t possibly make a sound.  The vocal folds must have air coming out of the lungs in order to vibrate.  This is a simple fact of human existence—no breath, no voice.  This then plays a critical role in understanding and answering the question “why do we breathe between verses of a hymn?”  In order for a congregation to be able to sing the next verse they must be able to fill their lungs with air.  You have to give a congregation the chance to breathe.  If there is no time between verses to breath the congregation will miss the first few words of the next verse in order to breath.  What we sing (the text) is profoundly important.  If we’re missing words so we can breath we’re reinforcing a misunderstanding of singing’s place in worship.  If athletes have just run a race we would not forbid them from breathing after completing the race.  Singing is an athletic event.  There is an amount of exertion required of us as we sing (certainly not as much as a runner, but still there is exertion).  Just like a runner is going to be breathing (panting, actually) after finishing a race, so too a congregation needs to breath after singing a verse of a hymn.




Before we discuss the theology of breathing (whoever heard of a “theology of breathing”), let’s answer a more basic question: why do we sing in worship?  We get our cues for singing in worship from the Bible.  We’re told over and over to sing our praise to God (and to even shout our praise to God) and offer our music as a gift to God.  Singing has been a part of the worship of God since the time of Abraham.  God created this gift, and He knows its power.  Singing in worship gives common voice to the congregation in offering praise to God, confessing the faith, testifying to God’s faithfulness, confessing sin, and teaching, encouraging, and.  Even though music can make us feel a certain way it does not serve itself.  It is a tool of worship.




To understand the theology of breathing we need to understand our role in singing and engaging in our singing in worship.  Let’s start by stating what we could all agree upon and built out to our breathing issue.  Any singing we do in worship should be done with heart and mind.  This is an important point.  We find this idea in both the Old and New Testaments.  Psalm 47:7 tells us to “. . . sing praises with understanding.”  Paul reminds us in 1st Corinthians 14:15 that we should “. . . sing with the spirit.” but also “. . . sing with understanding . . . .”  We are to sing in worship from heart AND mind.


It is unfortunate, but many times we misuse or outright abuse music in worship.  Music has incredible power.  Most of us have been in worship in a congregation that is singing their hearts out and have found this an incredible, appealing, and moving experience.  There is, frankly, nothing like it.  But that power can have a dark side (if you will) and be used to manipulate, to create emotion, and ensure “emotional momentum” in worship.  This can lead a member of the congregation to simply ride along on the emotion of the music rather than being a “runner” MAKING the music.  This unfortunate misunderstanding of the use of music in worship is evidenced in the frantic effort to keep the music going in order to maintain momentum and produce and extended period of excitement or contemplation.  In this scenario taking a breath between verses is anathema.  Doing so would break the spell, so to speak.  Music certainly moves us, and as we encounter God in worship we should most certainly find it to be an emotional experience.  But when the point of the music is to elicit an emotion we’ve crossed the line of balance between heart and mind.  Emotion does not manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit (as if we could control The Spirit like a Genie in a bottle), but is a natural result of our encounter with the spirit.  When we use music to manipulate our emotions, we make our emotions an idol.  It’s as if we’re saying the most important thing the music does is make us feel a certain way.  That is abuse of music.  That’s abuse of people!  When you’re trying to use music to manipulate people you are misusing or outright abusing the gift.


So how does breathing between verses of a hymn have a theology?  In its most simple understanding, it acts as a safety valve to keep us from allowing the music to lead us astray.  Taking a breath between verses helps us refocus.  Doing so makes an important distinction.  When we’re singing as a congregation in corporate worship the music is not the master of our minds and hearts.  The text we sing is.   The music is simply the vehicle that conveys the text.  Breathing between verses (and at commas as well, but that’s another discussion for another day) helps us establish in our heart and mind the centrality of the text in our singing.  Taking a breath between verses gives us a chance to ponder, even if it’s only one or two beats, what we’ve just sung.  Taking a breath between verses gives the congregation the chance to tank up on air so that they’re ready to sing the next verse.


We find this idea in the Hebrew word “selah.”  This word is found in both the book of Psalms and the book of Habakkuk.  There are many different interpretations of the word “selah.”  If you step back just a bit from all the opinions on the “correct” interpretation, you can see there is some overlap between all possible meanings.  In this generous consensus “selah” can mean “ponder, “ or “think about it,” or “pause.”  This is the “theology” of breathing between verses of a hymn.  The Psalms tell us to pause, take a breath!  This concept in a macro view leads us to the understanding to take a little time apart.  The greatest evidence of this is Jesus who, as He was preparing for His earthly ministry, took time apart in the wilderness.  Our theology of breathing is definitely a micro view of this idea, but its relative “smallness” makes it no less important.  Certainly we can give up one or two beats between verses of a hymn in order to give the congregation the opportunity to breath and to pause or ponder the text just sung.


Breathing between verses of a hymn gives us the opportunity to physically prepare for the next verse by . . . breathing.  It helps us negate the potential misuse (or outright abuse) of music in worship by putting the breaks on the runaway train that music can easily become.  It gives us the chance to think about what we just finished singing so that we sing with the spirit AND ALSO with understanding.  It teaches our congregation that singing has greater importance than simply making us feel good, that the words contain the power that guides us and the music is simply the vehicle to convey the text.  This is the “theology of breathing.”  Let the people breath!




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  1. Dorothy Thurman

    Mark, this made me think of my nephew who with his wife named their little girl Sela. (“Sae-la”). They told me the meaning was just to pause a bit and contemplate. As you said. We could all take a lesson there—between verses of a hymn and any time in our lives.

    • Mark Bowdidge

      You bet! It is a discipline for sure but it helps us focus on what is important!

  2. Beverly

    I like your statement, “singing in worship gives common voice to the congregation….”

    • Mark Bowdidge

      I find this idea to be more important now than ever before. As worship leaders we have many responsibilities. We don’t always think our way through the most important responsibility (probably because it is so obvious) to select music for congregational singing that empowers the MOST people to participate in what I think is the most active act of worship. Too many times choices are made about congregational music that pushes away rather than draws together. When we can see our primary job as enabling the corporate worship of the congregation we’ve reached a very healthy maturity as worship leaders. So yes, good worship will give common voice to the congregation!


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