Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hymns and Tunes

  Hymns are basically poems. Older hymnals were usually called Psalters. Originally, Psalters (sometimes called Psalteries) were collections of psalms from the Bible that had been paraphrased in order to be able to sing them with a tune. They did not contain any musical notation. The first hymnal with words and music together was not printed until the nineteenth century. To sing songs from a Psalter one would have to pick out a tune who's rhythm matched with the songs syllables. The rhythmic pattern of a tune or song is called the meter.

It can be fun to pick out different tunes for songs even today. It makes singing more interesting when you don't have to use the same tune all of the time. (Try singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus to the tune Nettleton [commonly associated with Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing]).
This is how you choose a tune based on the meter that the song is written in:
   If you have a hymnal without music the songs are written out like poems. Usually at the top of the "poem" there will be a set of numbers. For example they may look like this, The numbers correlate with the number of syllables in each stanza of the song. In our example the song has 8 syllables in the first stanza and 6 syllables in the second stanza and so on. 

Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed 
by Isaac Watts 

Alas! and did my Saviour bleed, (8 syllables)
And did my Sovereign Die, (6 syllables)
Would He devote that sacred head (8 syllables)
For such a worm as I? (6 syllables)

  An meter was actually one of the most common meters at one point and it is also know as Common Meter. Instead of sometimes a common meter song will have the initials C.M. at the top of the song. Other letters that can appear on the meter indication are:

  A capital "D" stands for "doubled." Example: C.M.D. or
(D. can be put on the end of any meter.)
L.M. stands for Long Meter (
S.M. stands for Short Meter (

  Once you know what meter the song is in you need a metrical index of tunes. In most modern hymnals, there is a metrical index of tunes in the back with the other indexes. In the metrical index, the tunes will be organized in categories by their meter numbers. You can then go through the list of tunes that fit the meter of the song you want to sing and pick out a tune that you like. The tune names are usually different than the songs.

  Once you find a tune it is very helpful to play it on a piano while you sing the song with it for the first few times through. I am not one of those gifted individuals who are able to sight sing, (that is, sing the notes of music I have never heard just by reading the notes on the staff.) I need to hear it played first unless it is a tune I am pretty familiar with. 
  If you are doing this with a modern hymnal sometimes the meters are listed on the same page as the song. Look for it close to where the author and composer are given on the page. Otherwise you can always count the syllables in each phrase of the song to come up with the correct meter number.
I really like  Jesus Lover of My Soul by John Wesley paired with the tune Aberystwyth
                                                           Do you have any favorite tune/hymn pairs?
                                         Next week look for a post I plan to make on writing your own hymns.


Southern Sunrise said...

Thanks for posting this! I enjoyed learning how to match up a hymn with a tune by the meter number. I had never heard that before, although I have sung some hymns occasionally to different tunes. I'll have to give this a try now. :) I will be looking forward to hopefully reading your next post on writing your own hymns!

amy said...

One of my favorite hymns is "Come Thou Fount." I love the words and the music is beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

A Heart of Praise said...

This was really interesting to read about.

Sister in the Mid-west said...

Southern Sunrise,
Thank you for letting me know that you enjoyed this article. It is fun to try familiar songs with tunes that we don't usually sing with them. It can also be a very useful skill if you have an old hymnal that has many doctrinally sound and beautiful hymns without music. In the church where I grew up we occasionally sang out of one such old hymnal called the Gadsby. When my Father was the song leader for several years he had to use the meter numbers to pick out tunes to go with the songs when he wanted to sing hymns from the Gadsby. This is when I first began to learn about meter numbers.

Sister in the Mid-west said...

I think Come, Thou Fount and it's traditional tune is beautiful, too! It is one of my favorite hymns. (I have many favorites!)