Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Writing Hymns

   I am not qualified to write a dissertation on hymn writing, but I did want to share a few things that I have found useful when I have tried my hand in hymn writing.
  First and foremost, you need to study God's Word if you are going to write a good hymn. And by a "good hymn," I mean, a hymn that glorifies God. We have to read what God has revealed about Himself to know who He is and what He is like. We have to read the Bible in order to know what He does receive glory from and what He accepts as worship. Not everything that is intended to worship the LORD is acceptable in His sight–ask Nadab and Abihu, who burned strange fire before the LORD, "which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them," (Leviticus 10:1-2) Good intentions doesn't equal acceptability with God.

   Second, it is helpful to read the works of other great hymn writers, like Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Newton, and many others. It helps to see the kind of hymns that can be written and also gives you a feel for the rhythms in poetry. You'll find phrases that are used frequently and rhymes that go well together. You'll see that there are songs that mainly deal with who God is and how awesome and worthy of worship He is, (O Worship the King by Robert Grant and Immortal, Invisible by Walter Smith are a couple examples). There are also songs that deal more with salvation, the life of Jesus Christ, the Christian walk, deeper doctrines, ministry, the delights of heaven, etc., etc.... Just remember to weigh everything by the Scriptures. If the words of a song don't match the teachings of Scripture, then the song is at fault. And, again, the only way you will know how to tell what is false and what is true is by studying God's Word.

  When it actually comes to writing a song there are several ways to get started. Sometimes an idea will come to your mind and the words come quite naturally. This is the easiest way to write a hymn. But, you can also purpose to write a hymn and make a project or assignment of writing a hymn. Doing the first two things that I recommend (studying the Bible and reading hymns) can help give you inspiration and direction.

As I mentioned in my last post, hymns are basically poems. There are many rules to poetry that I do not know. The rules I follow are:

 (1) each line needs to rhyme at the end, or, every other line needs to rhyme, and 
 (2) each verse needs to follow the same rhythmical pattern.

  If you want your hymn to be one that can be sung to music, you may need to think of this aspect at the very beginning. If you want to compose your own music there are some things you need to consider. Is this a hymn that you will want to share with other Christians? You can come up with a tune for yourself, but if you cannot write the tune out in musical notation then you will only be able to share it with others by singing it for them. If you want to share it with others in a way that it can be sung as a congregational hymn then the music will have to be written down. It can be fun to write out a tune to go with a song but it also can be a lot of work. Also, if you want to share it in written form you can only share with someone who can read music.

    This is where knowing about tunes and meters can come in handy. If you write a hymn that can be sung to an already familiar tune it can be a lot easier to share with other people. You can share your song with people who cannot read music if you are able to tell them a familiar tune they can sing it with. It is also a lot easier for people to catch on if they are only learning new words and not new music and new words.
  To write a hymn that goes with an already existing tune, you need to pick a meter to be your pattern for arranging the lines and wording of your hymn. You can pick a meter that several tunes match, or go ahead and pick out a specific tune that you want to use.
  For example, let's say I am writing a hymn, and I want to use a meter that many tunes use. I'll choose, (also known as Long Meter) because I already have an idea for a few lines that are each 8 syllables or can be tweaked slightly to be made 8 syllables.

  A quick refresher for what meter numbers represent: meter numbers represent a rhythmical pattern in the music or the number of syllables in each line of the poem.
 Here are my first 4 lines:
1 We may lose courage here below.
2 We see trouble, violence and woe.
3 We plead for help from above.
4 Jesus will take our hand in love.

   Notice, line 3 technically only has 7 syllables instead of 8. I may have to discard line 3. But, sometimes the number of syllables doesn't have to match the the meter exactly and can still sound right depending on the particular tune. So, before I throw out line 3 I'll try singing it with a long meter tune. The tune "Old Hundredth" is a good standby long meter tune that many hymns are sung with, the most common of which, may be the Doxology, Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.
When I try singing it to Old Hundredth it flows quite nicely even with the missing syllable. This is because the word, "help," can be stretched over two notes. Now, when I try singing it with the tune "Duke Street," "above," is the word that gets held over a few notes, but it comes quite naturally in both cases and you don't have to think about it for it to come out right. This means I can leave line 3 the way it is and continue with writing my hymn.

  When writing a hymn to an already existing tune it is helpful to sing each line with the tune as you go. Once you have a good start there can be lots of adjustments made. For instance, if you want to elaborate on each idea in each line you could insert an additional line between each existing line. And words can be changed to synonyms with more or less syllables as needed. Like so,

1 We may lose courage here below,
2 On our pilgrimage through earth.
3 We see trouble, violence and woe.
4 There is widespread spiritual dearth.
1 We oft lose courage here below,
2 as Satan, our determined foe,
3 seeks to cause us sorrow and woe,
4 with his mighty band and bent bow.

   At first I had written, " There is vast spiritual dearth." in line 4 of the first example. But upon singing with a long meter tune it seemed like I needed another syllable so I replaced, "vast," with, "widespread."
Also, go through the words you have chosen several times to see if there are different words that would communicate the idea you want to express more precisely. In the second example, instead of saying, "We may lose courage,..." I changed it to, "We oft lose courage,..." Because I feel like that better expresses my own Christian experience.

  That is all the advice I have for writing hymns. I would love to hear any advice you have found helpful when writing hymns and/or poems! And if you have never tried to write a hymn please give it try. It may not be as hard as it sounds and it can also direct your mind toward the things of God in a different way.


Southern Sunrise said...

Thanks for sharing these tips! I hope to try doing a little more hymn writing on my own soon. I've done a little in the past, but it's usually such a spur-of-the-moment sort of thing, that I've not really thought of different ways to come up with more ideas. I'm glad you shared your thoughts and tips here.

Sister in the Mid-west said...

Southern Sunrise,
The pictures and verses you added to this post look great! Thank you for finishing things up for me, I really apreaciate your work!
Your Sister in the Mid-west