What Is Lining out?

Lining out is a musical technique in which one person reads or sings a line of a song slightly ahead of the rest of the choir or congregation so that they can follow along. It is particularly prevalent in European and American religious music, particularly a-cappella singing. The version of the line sung the leader may or may not be identical to the version sung the main group.

Although the exact origin of lining out is unknown, it was clearly in use the 17th century, when the Church of England approved it as a hymn-singing method. Many churches lacked enough psalters to ensure that every member of the congregation had a copy of the hymn. Because literacy was less common in the 17th century than it is today, some members of the congregation would have been unable to read the hymns even if they had copies. As a result, before the congregation sang the line of the song, a leader known as a precentor or clerk would chant it.

Despite how strange it may seem, lining out was a source of debate in the 18th century. Some critics complained that the song’s blending of different tempos and melodies, as well as each singer’s individual embellishment of the song, resulted in an unappealing cacophony. Others denounced “regular singing” (singing from a book of notes) as a radical innovation and even a pop-style element of religious ritual, which offended Puritan sentiments.

From the 18th century onwards, increased access to printed songbooks and increased literacy reduced the popularity of lining, but it persisted in some congregations. Line out had become part of a rich tradition of sacred music, valued in its own right, in some cases due to a lack of access to hymnals or literacy, but in others it had become part of a rich tradition of sacred music, valued in its own right. In the United States, some predominantly African-American churches, as well as many Primitive Baptist and Regular Baptist congregations, practiced lining out. Lining out survived in the United Kingdom, particularly in Gaelic-speaking churches on the Isle of Lewis.

Lining out is sometimes combined with more traditional hymnody in some congregations. The clerk or precentor may sing the first verse of the hymn, but then tells the congregation to “keep singing.” In these cases, the traditional form of lining out is maintained despite the fact that the majority of the congregation does not require it.