Singing in church with recorded music

I keep running into sites — Unitarian Universalist but mostly not — with MP3s or other files with hymn tunes ready to use as accompaniment for churches without an instrumentalist. Presumably ones that could be described with one or more of the following adjectives: small, poor, remote, fragile or disorganized. A church for which this is better than nothing.

These sound files follow CDs which did the same thing, and even special electronic players — but these belonged to the 1990s and 2000s and were quite expensive. And a free option is better than none. Or is it?

So now we have a resource, and probably a need. But what we don’t have are directions of how to use them. Am I supposed to cue them up on my phone, with a huddled few singing to a tinny MIDI? If not, then what? And what about the tempo. Or the number of verses.

Does anyone use these successfully? And if so, how?

This is a sincere appeal for ideas or resources.


By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. The UCC has a set of accompaniment CDs of all the New Century Hymnal hymns (organ recording) for this purpose. I used them occasionally at my last call when the pianist couldn’t be there. To be honest, they don’t really work that well. The tempo is either too fast or too slow, and once you get off, you can’t recover, since the recording can’t adjust to the people in the room. It also has the feel of desperation, like we can’t even have a live accompanist. In those cases, I think it’s much better to go acapella–and if they don’t think they can carry on their own, teach them. Giving the people their voice, and allowing them to develop it, can really transform even a tiny community. I would recommend attending a Music that Makes Community event to learn how. It’s really amazing stuff.

  2. A close friend attends worship services at the neighboring UU congregation in Longview TX.

    For many Sundays, they are without a pianist and the person who leads the singing has used custom CD’s created in iTunes created from many sources:

    ** music CDs with selections from “Singing the Living Tradition” (borrowed from CLF lending library and ripped as mp3 files using iTunes)

    ** public domain hymn accompaniment played on piano or organ downloaded from the web site

    ** classical music selections for prelude and poslude ripped from her CD collection or purchased from Amazon mp3 (no DRM … mp3 files that will play on anything)

    ** piano accompaniment recorded using portable digital recorder at home and copied into iTunes for later use (my friend can play piano or lead singing but not both at same time) — I’ve showed her how to edit the raw audio file with Audacity to get rid of extraneous noises before and after the piano playing, removal of dead air, etc.

    Each Sunday, my friend creates an iTunes playlist that she burns on to a custom audio CD with prelude, opening hymn, middle hymn, offertory, closing hymn, and postlude.

    The old audio CDs live at the church for the rare instances when she isn’t there due to illness (someone will scramble at the last minute to find something usable for the day’s worship service).

    This congregation has done good work using these free and low-cost options for church accompaniment.

  3. I am the “Music Coordinator” at a UU congregation without musical accompaniment. One of the responsibilities is to lead the congregation in song each Sunday. I appreciate the information on using Audacity to edit the music that has been downloaded because we have encountered the issues of have song slow, fast, and long musical interludes. Every week I cross my fingers hoping the music that we will be using comes out without hesitating, skipping, having internet stoppage, etc. My headaches just thinking about the problems that I experienced with our music.

    The idea of using an editing system has crossed my thoughts. I am thankful to have a website to look for to get me started. The weekly CD is a fabulous idea that will lessen the congregation anxiety if I was to suddenly not be available. I do usually have good back up systems in place but I am thankful for all new ideas.

    Hope to update this message in a few months to let you know how it is going the music.

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