Epiphany Sunday — Music Notes

Year A (January 1, 2017) | REVEAL
by Rev. Jackson Henry

Order of Worship Preaching Hymns Music Notes Planning Prayers/Resources

We Three Kings

A favorite to sing for the observance of the Epiphany, this hymn tells the story of the magi and their visit to Jesus. In recent years, however, this hymn has fallen under a bit of scrutiny because of its declaration that there were three magi even though the gospel writer of Matthew doesn’t assign a number. It is clear that the hymn writer assigned one per gift — gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This inaccuracy may need to be fleshed out more outside of worship because it doesn’t necessarily make this hymn unsingable. The story itself (and its singing) is one children and adults both can and need to sing together. Keep in mind this is not a five-stanza hymn that can be trimmed down because stanzas 2-4 each address one of the gifts given to Jesus by the Magi.

The lilting time signature (3/8) gives this hymn a rocking feel that I have often pictured as of a “song for a journey.” One of the best instruments to accompany this tune, other than an organ and/or piano, is a tambourine. It gives it an Eastern flair that can create a memorable effect on this day. Read History of Hymns: "We Three Kings" »

The First Noel

This traditional English carol is often thought of as a carol for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but it centers more upon the story of the Epiphany than the birth of Jesus. The refrain is news of Jesus’ birth, and this news is shown in this hymn by the angel and the star. Unlike “We Three Kings,” if you need to sing less than five stanzas (depending on its liturgical use), it is possible to sing stanzas 1, 2, and 5 and still tell the story effectively. If it is possible, have your choir sing all four parts in the refrain throughout, and have the sopranos sing the tenor part of the refrain up one octave for a powerful descant on the final stanza.


Shirley Erena Murray and Carlton R. Young have teamed up to create a most poignant hymn of the Christmas season. This hymn is a proclamation of justice and reminds us that we are all children of God, no matter how old we are or in what situation we find ourselves. A wonderful setting of this hymn is available through its publisher, Hope Publishing Company, and features multiple instruments for accompaniment, including handbells, winds, and piano. Read History of Hymns: "Star-Child" »

On This Day Earth Shall Ring

This melody may not be familiar for some churches, but rest assured it is a Christmas standard in many places. There is an inherent power in this text/melody combination, and the PERSONENT HODIE tune is exciting for keyboardists. Pronunciation of the Latin text is as follows: “ee-deh-oh glah-ree-ah een ek-shell-sees deh-oh.” If you have a handbell choir, there are many wonderful settings of this hymn available at handbellworld.com or ring-press.com. The tune has a distinct Renaissance-era character, so even if you sing this with organ or piano as the accompaniment, add a tambourine in a pattern with a quarter note on beats 1, 3, and 4, with two eighth notes on count 2 to create a spirited atmosphere.

There’s a Song in the Air

The star points to the news of Jesus’ birth in this beloved traditional Christmas hymn. Be sure to keep the tempo lively as a reminder that this “Song in the Air” is good news for all people! Read History of Hymns: "There's a Song in the Air" »

We Would See Jesus

This text focuses upon the birth, childhood, and ministry of Jesus. Sometimes the broad scope of the narrative found in the hymn can prove difficult in finding a good time for its use in worship, but its inclusion of the Epiphany story provides one such occasion to sing it heartily. A new folk setting by Jackson Henry is also available. In the first four stanzas, the melody is found in the bottom notes; but in the fifth stanza, the melody is found in the middle notes. The other harmony provided is optional. The tempo is very slow and is reminiscent of a slow, bluegrass ballad. Read History of Hymns: "We Would See Jesus" »

O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright

This hymn has been sung for many years, and the tune has often been used as the central theme for other works (see Mendelssohn, “There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob”). One of the longer hymn texts and tunes in our hymnal, it is an adventure to sing and requires the use of the hymnal for aid. Though the first six-measure phrase is repeated, it is long enough that using a screen may not be helpful in the singing of this particular hymn. However, the setting in the hymnal is also a wonderful four-part choral setting by J. S. Bach, so you may even choose to use this hymn as a choral work in worship. Read History of Hymns: "O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright" »

Love Has Come

Another notable hymn identifying Jesus as “Love,” this text and tune combination represent one of the best connections between Jesus as the Son of God and the Light of the World, which is a timely message for Epiphany. The last stanza addresses our modern context and the promise of Love as “the peace our hearts are seeking.” Pairing this with BRING A TORCH is a wonderful way to integrate a well-known tune into the worship life of the congregation. The range is well placed for the voice, and using a flute, violin, or oboe (or other treble clef instrument) to double the voices will give musical interest and vocal support. The accompaniment can easily be provided on organ, piano, or guitar.

A Star Shone Bright

F. Richard Garland has created an expression of Epiphany that links with this service, especially through the plea to “reveal to us your holy way.” Since most Christmas and Epiphany hymns are very Christocentric, this text provides an option, too, to focus upon the role of the Holy Spirit in our observation of this holy season. The setting of this text with O WALY WALY brings a tune not usually associated with Christmas and Epiphany, but the use of this familiar tune will help the congregation focus solely on the text. Accompany with any keyboard instrument or guitar, along with a solo or duo instrumental group playing an improvised descant or the soprano and alto parts up one octave. If your church has a choir, it would also be possible on the last stanza to have a two-part canon by having the second part echo by singing their first three eighth notes on the “and” of the downbeat in the first full measure. This places one part on a sustained half note while the other part sings the moving eighth notes in every phrase. Read our "A Star Shone Bright" hymn study » 

View and Download the musical score here or find it in Worship & Song.

Jesus Saves

This selection is well chosen for a band anthem. The range is very wide, and it would be best sung by a tenor who has a significant range to sing low and high. The same language that is incorporated by the hymn, “Love has come,” is also featured in this song, so it would be a great connection with the earlier hymn. Should you choose to sing this song with your congregation, I would recommend changing the key to A and singing the verse up one octave and then sing the chorus as written. When sung that way, the verse still resides within an acceptable part of the voice for congregational singing, and the transition to the chorus is seamless.

Jesus, the Light of the World

There are two versions of this song you can use to choose from when planning this service: Worship & Song, 3056, or The Africana Hymnal, 4038. The W&S setting incorporates a text by Ken Bible (who wrote “Love Has Come”) and focuses upon the imagery of the star. The version from The Africana Hymnal uses the text of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” along with the familiar refrain. Either setting is a great possibility for congregational singing. Don’t sing this song too quickly. It must have a slow, rocking character, which can be accomplished at a metronome marking of about 100-104. An organ (especially a Hammond!), piano, or gospel band can accompany this song with style. Should your choir want to sing this as an anthem or use the piece itself as the congregational song throughout the prayer, see this arrangement by André Thomas, published by Choristers Guild (CGA1063). It has a fairly advanced piano accompaniment, but you won’t regret using it if your pianist can play advanced repertoire. View our "Jesus, the Light of the World" hymn study »

What Gift Can We Bring

When singing this Jane Marshall hymn during the offering, it puts the congregation in the shoes of the magi when considering what gifts to present in support of the church and its mission. The hymn itself is a proclamation of thanksgiving and has the ability to be a gift itself: “This song we now offer in honor and praise!” The best accompaniment for this hymn is organ or piano. Simple guitar parts can also be created with a treble instrument to enhance the musical texture. Read History of Hymns: "What Gift Can We Bring" »

Cuando El Pobre (When the Poor Ones)

Singing this beautiful hymn at the Epiphany creates an image of hospitality surrounding the holy family, welcoming the magi (the “strangers” that are alluded to in the text) into their humble home. The character of “Cuando El Pobre” is distinctly Spanish, and it should be sung longingly, yet hopefully. There are a number of ways to musically support the hymn, including a solo guitar, piano, and two flutes on soprano and alto parts. Read History of Hymns: "Cuando El Pobre" »

Some Children See Him

This Alfred Burt carol was chosen to be a part of the collection Worship & Song because of its poignancy, but also because of its level of familiarity within many congregations. Many of the colors used in this song, when taken out of context, could be seen as culturally insensitive. However, the presence of all the colors together with such a caring text can be a unifying element, too, celebrating diversity in ways in which many children can especially relate. This piece was originally intended as a solo with piano accompaniment, but despite its somewhat irregular 5/4-time signature, the singable phrases make this an accessible Christmas selection for congregations, too. If the E in the second phrase is too high, it is possible to sing this down one whole step in the key of E-flat, thus making the high note a D instead. View our "Some Children See Him" hymn study »


Categories: Epiphany, Advent and Christmas Music, Epiphany, Lectionary, Year A (2016), REVEAL - January 1, 2017

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