Lining out

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This article is about the musical style also called hymn lining. For other uses, see Line out.

Lining out or hymn lining, called precenting the line in Scotland, is a form of a cappella hymn-singing or hymnody in which a leader, often called the clerk or precentor, gives each line of a hymn tune as it is to be sung, usually in a chanted form giving or suggesting the tune. It can be considered a form of call and response.

It has survived to the present day among some communities and contexts, including the Gaelic psalmody on Lewis in Scotland, the Old Regular Baptists of the southern Appalachians in the United States, and for informal worship in many African American congregations.


Lining out was common throughout Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when literacy rates were low and books were expensive.[1]

During the 17th century precenting the line was taken to America by Scottish Gaels, Puritans and Baptists, gradually developing a distinctive style characterised by a slow, drawn-out heterophonic and often profusely ornamented melody, while a clerk or precentor (song leader) chanted the text line by line before it was sung by the congregation.

There has also been a long tradition of influences between Scottish American and African American communities. Psalm-singing and gospel music are a mainstay of African American churchgoers. The great influx of Scottish Presbyterians into the Carolinas introduced African slaves to this form of worship. The style of gospel-singing was also influenced by Scottish Gaelic-speaking settlers from the Western Isles, particularly North Uist. Scottish Gaelic psalm-singing by precenting the line was the earliest form of congregational singing adopted by Africans in America.[2]

The tide turned against lining out in England and New England in the first quarter of the 18th century, with greater literacy, improved availability of texts such as New Version of the Psalms of David (1696) by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, and more widely available and better-printed tune collections. Influential clerics in England and America disliked the ragged nature of the singing that resulted as the congregation struggled to remember both the tune and the words from the lining out.

Lining out was in most places replaced by "regular singing," in which either the congregation knew a small number of tunes like Old 100th that could be fitted to many different texts in standard meters such as Common Meter, or a tunebook was used along with a word book. There began to be "singing societies" of young men who met one evening a week to rehearse. As time went on, a section of the church was allocated for these trained voices to sit together as a choir, and churches voted to end the lining out system. We have a vivid picture of the transition in Worcester, Massachusetts:

The History of Worcester gives an interesting account of the final scene which ensued on the abolition of the "lining out" system, and the introduction of the choir. On Aug, 5, 1779, it was voted, "That the singers sit in the front seats of the gallery, and that those gentlemen who have hitherto sat in the front seats in said gallery, have a right to sit in the front and second seat below. and that said singers have said seats appropriated to said use. Voted, that said singers be requested to take said seats and carry on the singing in public worship. Voted, that the mode of singing in the congregation here be without reading the psalms line by line to be sung.
The Sabbath after the adoption of these votes, after the hymn had been read by the minister, the aged and venerable Deacon Chamberlain, unwilling to desert the custom of his fathers, rose and read the first line, according to the usual practice. The singers, prepared to carry the alteration into effect, proceeded without pausing at the conclusion. The white-haired officer of the church, with the full power of his voice, read on till the louder notes of the collected body overpowered the attempt to resist the progress of improvement, and the deacon, deeply mortified at the triumph of musical reformation, seized his hat, and retired from the meeting house in tears. His conduct was censured by the church, and he was for a time deprived of its communion for absenting himself from the public services of the Sabbath.

— Granville L. Howe and William Smythe Babcock Mathews, "A Hundred Years of Music in America: An Account of Musical Effort in America", (G.L. Howe, Chicago,1889).

Lining out persisted much longer in some churches in the American South, either through theological conservatism or through the recurrence of the conditions of lack of books and literacy, and in some places is still practiced today. In African American churches this practice became known as "Dr. Watts Hymn Singing," a historical irony given Watts' disapproval of the practice.

Current usage[edit]

Some Christian churches in the U.S. still practice lining out. While some churches calling themselves Primitive Baptist or Regular Baptist use it, this form of singing predominates among the Old Regular Baptist churches. The practice is becoming attenuated in some of them—the leader will begin lining out, but after the first verse or two will say "Sing on!", or a part of the service is lined out but other parts are not—so it is unclear how long it will survive.

Some Presbyterian churches in Scotland also still do lining out, though often now in a restricted context, with other hymns being accompanied and not lined out. The practice is now more common in Gaelic Psalm singing than in English, and indeed is often considered a characteristic of Gaelic culture, especially on the Isle of Lewis.

Lining of hymns may also be heard among some conservative Anabaptist churches, such as German Baptist Brethren, Old Order Mennonites, and the Old Order River Brethren.

In popular culture[edit]

In the film Coal Miner's Daughter, lining out is depicted at the funeral of Loretta Lynn's father, Ted Webb.


  • Dargan, William T. (2006). Lining Out the Word: Dr. Watts Hymn Singing in the Music of Black Americans, University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23448-0
  • Smythe Babcock Mathews, William. (2010). A Hundred Years of Music in America: An Account of Musical Effort in America, Nabu Press. ISBN 1-147-43047-0


  1. ^ "Black America's musical links to Scotland". The Scotsman. Edinburgh: Johnston Publishing Ltd. 6 June 2005. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 
  2. ^ Line Singing Conference at Yale. 2007 Retrieved 31 July 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)

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