Music Matters: "What’s in a Hymn?"

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Although I hesitate to generalize, most musicians and other arts professionals, myself included, have a minor obsession with language and the ideas and practices it presents. In my particular line of work, one situation that explores this is the usage of the word “hymn.” While for many it could just be a “song we sing at church,” those of you who are scrupulous worship aid readers (I’d be flattered) will know that I tend to be very specific when referring to a piece of music as a “hymn,” versus a “song,” “antiphon,” “motet,” or “anthem.”


So what exactly is the difference?


Whole articles could be written on each term, but today I’d like to focus on the “hymn.” While the definition is not entirely clear or universal, through my experience, I tend to think of a hymn as a religious text that is 1) Metrical, 2) Strophic, and 3) Poetic. That is, it has verses that are each made of a regular and consistent amount of syllables per line, and is not necessarily a direct quotation from scripture or some other prose.


These qualities of a hymn text make it easy for it to be set to a simple and easily learned melody known as a hymn tune. All this information is actually recorded in the Worship hymnal we have in the pews at St. Mark’s. The strange looking numbers at the bottom simply indicate the syllabic pattern of the text--a number like 8.6.8.6 indicates verses of 4 lines, alternating between 8 and 6 syllables, and is so common it is actually abbreviated as “CM” for “Common Meter.” The hymn tune is recorded in all capital letters. For example, what we know as the hymn “O God Beyond All Praising” is set to the tune THAXTED, named for a village in England where its composer, Gustav Holst, lived.


So, where do these texts come from and why do we sing them? While not always sung at Mass, hymns have actually been an integral part of Catholicism for years, as part of the Liturgy of the Hours. These hymns are originally in Latin, and are still in common use today in translation, such as “Creator of the Stars of Night.” Other hymn texts are metrical paraphrases of psalms or other biblical texts (“Praise to the Lord”), as popularized by German Protestants. Still others are religiously-themed compositions of writers (“In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Amazing Grace”).


While a complete discussion of how hymns came to be used at Mass is better left to a liturgical historian, the fact of the matter is, they’ve become very popular, and the “why” is clear: they enable the whole congregation to participate in singing praises and prayers in a communal fashion. When combined with other forms of singing at Mass, and carefully selected to match the readings of the day and the ethos of Catholic liturgy, they are an important part of any music program.


Do you have any questions or comments about hymns? Maybe you write, or would like to write them? Don’t hesitate to drop me a line!


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Each month, music director Nathan Cicero uses this column to examine an aspect of music ministry at St. Mark’s. Email him at ncicero@onestrongfamily.org.

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