Hymn tunes and meters

Mon, 07/12/2009 - 08:59 -- James Oakley

I recently received an e-mail asking about how you work out what the "meter" for a hymn is, and how you go about finding a tune that fits the words of a particular hymn.

In case my reply helps anybody else, here's what I said:

To work out the meter of a hymn / metrical poem you just count the syllables in each line. "The Lord's my Shepherd; I'll not want" has 8 syllables; "he makes me down to lie" has 6; "in pastures green he leadeth me" has 8; "the quiet waters by" has 6. So we say that hymn has a meter of 8686. There's a little convention that means that could be shortened to 86d (86, doubled). Sometimes you see a "T" which means trebled. As it happens, 8686 is a special one that is so common it's just called "Common meter (or CM)".

Then, to find a tune for a meter, almost every hymnbook has a metrical index in the back, which is in numerical order. Look up the meter you're after, and you'll find a list of all the hymns / tunes that have that meter. Easy.

The trick then is to find one that works. Things like minor key versus major key, or where the stress and emphasis falls for certain tunes, will mean that some tunes fit better to particular words than others. Hum it through in your head until you find one you like.

I hope that helps.

Blog Category: 

Add new comment

Additional Terms