How to Play “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” on Piano


“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is one of the most well-known and loved Christian hymns of all time. It was written by Isaac Watts in the early 18th century.

As common with many hymns, it has been sung to a variety of melodies. This tutorial uses the Rockingham tune by Edward Miller. The piece of music is primarily set in 3/4 (waltz) time, with one bar of 4/4 in the middle. It’s set in E♭ major.

How to play When I Survey the Wondrous Cross on piano

Melody Line

Here’s the music score for the hymn’s melody line:

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You can listen to the melody here:

And here it is with a metronome click:

The melody is a fairly easy one to play, but do watch out for the combination of white and black notes, particularly if you’re not used to playing in keys such as this.

E♭ major has three flats – E♭, B♭ and A♭.

I recommend starting the melody with your right hand thumb on the first E♭. In bar 3, play the E♭ with your thumb and the G with your second finger, the B♭ of the next bar with your fourth finger, and the C with your fifth finger.

After you’ve played the B♭ in bar 5 with your fourth finger, switch to your second finger so you can reach up to the higher E♭ in bar six with your fifth finger. Run down to the B♭ at the end in bar 7, then switch again to your fourth finger for the repeated B♭ in bar 8.

Bar 9 is a 4/4 bar which allows for the slight feeling of a pause in between end of the second line and the start of the third line. If you know the tune itself it should cause you no problems.

Back to 3/4 in bar 10. Stretch up to the B♭ with your second finger, then play the remaining notes as they most naturally fall under your fingers, ending with your thumb on E♭ at the end of bar 13.

Back up to your fourth finger for the A♭ in bar 14, and a natural run to the end.

Do notice the A natural in the melody of bar 12.

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Simple Bass Line

A simple bass line consisting of single notes has been added to provide basic harmony.

Here’s the music score.

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You can listen to the bass line accompaniment here:

And here it is with a metronome click:

Most of the measures feature a half note (minim) followed by a quarter note (crotchet), with the exception of bar 3 (a dotted half-note), bar 9 (the 4/4 bar), and bar 17 (a single half note).

The accompaniment includes an A natural in bar 10. Remember that all accidentals are ‘reset’ at the end of each measure, so in bar 11 you return to playing an A flat as per the key signature.

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Melody with Right Hand Chords

This version of When I Survey features simple chords in the right hand, with melody notes still being played.

Here’s the music score.

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When playing this, it would be wise to make use of the sustain pedal so you can transition between the chords more smoothly.

Some of the chord transitions involve quite a jump, such as that from the B♭ first inversion chord at the end of bar 5 to the C minor second inversion chord at the start of bar 6.

It can also be quite a tricky stretch to play the chords together with the higher melody note. The run of notes in bar 16 may be quite a stretch. If this is the case, don’t play the lowest note of the chord.

You can listen to the chords version here:

And here it is with a metronome click:

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Download MP3 (metronome version)

I hope that helps you when it comes to playing When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.