Monday, December 12, 2011

Hints on Hymnody

   I don't know much about music. But there is a difference between the modern choruses and old fashioned hymn music. Even I can hear it. One of the differences is in the meter. The choruses generally do not have consistent rhythm. The lyrics are not suited for it. They are written in the style of most modern poetry, which may or may not have rhyme, but almost never follows a rhythm pattern. Sometimes the music of a modern song is very pretty, but the words don't line up with it like they do in a good hymn. 

   If you want your poetry to be used as a hymn, it should have a consistent rhythm that fits hymn-style music. There are an infinite number of patterns you can use to have true poetic meter, but there are a few basic ones that are common to hymns. I have a hunch that the reason for this is that these meters best lend themselves to the style of music that sounds like a hymn to us.

   A poem does not have to be written in one of these common meters in order to become a good hymn, but I am suggesting that the writers of lyrics will make it easier for composers to write hymn music that is both beautiful and satisfying to the conservative ear, if they will stick to these and similar patterns.

   If you look in an old hymn book, you may see a code under the title of the hymn. These numbers or letters tell you what meter is used in the hymn. If you write words with the same meter, it can be sung to the same tune.

   There are two aspects to meter:
   1. The number of syllables
   2. The sequence of accented and unaccented syllables.

   The numbers in the code refer to the number of syllables, but the sequence of accents also has to be taken into account.

   There is technical terminology for the sequence of accents, but I am not going to use it  ~ partly because I don't know it, but largely because you probably don't know it either. I think you will understand me better in layman's terms.

Some of the most common meters:

CM (Common Meter 8.6.8.6.) 
      This is the meter used in Amazing Grace
     Each verse has four lines. The first and third lines have 8 syllables. The second and fourth have 6. All lines start with an unaccented syllable and alternate every other syllable across the line, ending with an accent. 
      Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing.
          My great redeemer's praise.

CMD (Common Meter Doubled 8.6.8.6.8.6.8.6.)
      As in Faith Is the Victory (excluding chorus)
     This is the same pattern as CM, but with 8 lines to a verse.

LM (Long Meter 8.8.8.8.)
     This is the meter used in When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
     Each verse has four lines. Each line has 8 syllables. All lines start with an unaccented syllable and alternate every other syllable across the line, ending with an accent. 
      Lord, speak to me that I may speak.

LMD (Long Meter Doubled 8.8.8.8.8.8.8.8.)
      This is the meter used in Some Day the Silver Cord Will Break
      Same pattern as LM, only with 8 lines to a verse.

SM (Short Meter 6.6.8.6.)
     This is the meter used in Blest Be the Tie that Binds
     Each verse has four lines. Lines one, two, and four have 6 syllables. The third line has 8. All lines start with an unaccented syllable and alternate every other syllable across the line, ending with an accent. 
        I hear Thy welcome voice,
        That calls me, Lord, to Thee,
     For cleansing in Thy precious blood 
        That flowed on Calvary.

SMD (Short Meter Doubled)
      As SM, but with 8 lines to a verse. 6.6.8.6.6.6.8.6.

6.6.6.6.8.8.
      As in Arise, My Soul, Arise
     Each verse has six lines. The first four lines have 6 syllables. The last two have 8. All lines start with an unaccented syllable and alternate every other syllable across the line, ending with an accent. 
      What was it, blessed God
      Led Thee to give Thy Son,

6.4.6.4.6.6.6.4.
      As in Nearer, My God, to Thee
      Each verse has 8 lines. The first four alternate between 6 and 4 syllables. The last four have three lines of 6 syllables and a fourth with 4. Each line begins with an accented syllable. The next 2 syllables are unaccented. In lines with 6 syllables, the line ends with an unaccented syllable. The lines with 4 syllables end in an accent.
    We are but strangers here
       Heav'n is our home.
     Earth is a desert drear
        Heav'n is our home.
     Dangers and sorrows stand
     Round us on ev'ry hand:
     Heav'n is our fatherland
        Heav'n is our home.

7.6.7.6.
      As in My Father Planned It All (excluding chorus)
      Four lines to a verse, alternating between 7 and 6 syllables. Each line starts with an unaccented syllable and alternates every other one. The 7 syllable lines end in an unaccented, and the 6 syllable lines end in an accented syllable.

7.6.7.6.D
      As in In Heavenly Love Abiding
      This is like 7.6.7.6. but with 8 lines to a verse.
      In heavenly love abiding, 
        No change my heart shall fear;

7.7.7.7.
      As in Jesus Christ Is Passing By
      Each verse has 4 lines with 7 syllables in each line. The lines start with an accented syllable, and alternate accent, unaccent, every other syllable, ending with an accented syllable.
      Depth of mercy! can there be
      Mercy still reserved for me?

7.7.7.7.7.7.
      As in Rock of Ages
     As 7.7.7.7. except that there are 6 lines to each verse.

7.7.7.7.D
      As Hark the Herald Angels Sing
      As 7.7.7.7. except that there are 8 lines to each verse.

8.7.8.7.
     As In the Cross of Christ I Glory
     Each verse has 4 lines, alternating between 8 and 7 syllables. All lines start with an accented syllable and alternate every other syllable. The lines with 8 syllables end in an unaccented syllable, and the ones with 7 end in an accent.
      Take me, O my Father, take me!
         Take me, save me, thro' Thy Son

8.7.8.7.8.7.
      As 8.7.8.7. except that there are 6 lines in each verse.

8.7.8.7.D
      Face to Face with Christ my Savior
      As 8.7.8.7. but with 8 lines in each verse.

8.8.6. D
      There are 6 lines to a verse. The first two have 8 syllables. The third has 6. The fourth and fifth have 8, and the last has 6. The accent pattern is the same as for CM.
      That bright and blessed morn is near
      When He, the Bridegroom, shall appear,
         And call His bride away.

8.8.8.8.8.8.
      As in Faith of Our Fathers
      As LM, but with 6 lines per verse.

9.9.9.9.
      As in Sweet By and By (excluding chorus)
      Each verse has 4 lines with 9 syllables in each. Each line alternates two unaccented syllables with one accented, and ends in an unaccented syllable.
      There's a land that is fairer than day.

10.10.10.10
      As in Cleanse Me
      Four lines to each verse, each having 10 syllables.  All lines start with an unaccented syllable and alternate every other one, ending in an accent.
      Be still my Soul: the Lord is on thy side. (This song has a similar meter, but with 6 lines to a verse, ie. 10.10.10.10.10.10.)

11.10.11.10
      As in Come, Ye Disconsolate
      Each verse has 4 lines, alternating in 11 and 10 syllables. All lines start with an accented syllable, then have two unaccented syllables, and continue in the same pattern. The lines with 11 syllables end with an unaccented syllable. The lines with 10 end with an accent.
      Life, life of love pour'd out fragrant and holy!
          Life, 'mid rude thorns of earth, stainless and sweet!

11.11.11.11.
      As in Lord Jesus, I Love Thee
      Each verse has 4 lines with 11 syllables. All lines start with an unaccented syllable followed by an accented and then two unaccented, ending with an accent.
      How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord
      Is laid for your faith in His excellent word.

12.9.12.9.
      As in Is Your All on the Altar? (excluding chorus)
      Each verse has four lines, alternating between 12 and 9 syllables. Each line starts with two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable, then two more unaccented, etc., ending in an accent.
            O how happy are they
            Who the Savior obey,
      And have laid up their treasure above!


   As you can see in the last example, a longer line can be split into two without affecting the meter.






2 comments:

  1. This is excellent!! You made this clearer than an English book as even I can understand what you are saying. May I post a link to this page so this can be shared with a few more people...may I also share you poem/hymn that you wrote the other day also?

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  2. Wow. I keep looking at all of that in the hymnbook, trying to figure it out. I knew I could match up the patterns to choose a different tune for a hymn, but I wasn't sure what everything else meant.

    Isn't it interesting that used to be common knowledge?

    Thanks for sharing your amazing brain! :)

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