Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Guide to The Meter of Hymns

A Guide to the Meter of Hymns |

If you ever went to a Christian camp, you probably know that you can sing "Amazing Grace" to a lot of different tunes:

Young Life/Camp Version

Gilligan's Island Version

Joy To The World Version

House of the Rising Sun Version

O Danny Boy (Londonderry Air) Version

So, why does "Amazing Grace" fit in all of those tunes (and tons more)?  It all comes down to meter. So what is meter?

A Metrical Index of Hymns |


Meter is a notation indicating the number of syllables in each line of a song.  For example, in the lyrics to "Amazing Grace" below, I underlined every other syllable.  
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,That saved a wretch like me.I once was lost but now am found,Was blind, but now I see.
Counting the syllables in each line, you get  The periods between numbers just indicate line breaks.
Here is another example using "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God":
A mighty Fortress is our God,
A Bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow'r are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Counting these syllables, we get

Named Meters

Some meters are used more frequently, so they have been given names.  For example:

  • Common Meter (C.M.) is  ("Amazing Grace" has this meter.)
  • Short Meter (S.M.) is
  • Long Meter (L.M.) is

Notice that all of those named meters are quatrains (four lines).  Some hymns have one stanza that is equivalent to two of these verses.  These can be noted with a D for double.

  • C.M.D. is
  • S.M.D. is
  • L.M.D. is

The First Noel |

Sometimes, the term Irregular Meter is used.  This means that the meter can vary from verse to verse (like "The First Noel").  The notes that are sometimes slurred with one syllable instead of two are usually tied (joined with a swooping line).  

O Come, All Ye Faithful |

At times, Irregular Meter means that some verses are missing the pickup or lead-in note (the note before the first downbeat) such as in "O Come All Ye Faithful".

Peculiar Meter (P.M.) is not a specific meter, but rather any meter that is "peculiar" or different. Sometimes this can mean the same thing as "Irregular Meter."  Other times, P.M. is used to mean that this meter is just different from other songs (at least in the hymnal using the notation) so you are not likely to find other songs like it.  

Basically, tunes that are labeled P.M. are Irregular Meter are NOT interchangeable with other tunes with the same label.

Variations in Representation

A Metrical Index of Hymns | scriptureand.blogspot.comThere are several types of notation for meter.  All involve numbers and periods. However, some use the D in meters such as and others don't, using  Others will even write "7.6. 8 lines" (meaning there are eight total lines in the 7.6. pattern).

Some will write out the meter for a refrain while others will use the notation " with Refrain".  Unfortunately, this doesn't tell you the meter of the refrain.  While the verses will be able to be sung to either tune, the refrains may not be compatible depending on their meter.  For example, "Jesus Loves Me" and "Who Is He in Yonder Stall" are both with refrain, but their refrains are not compatible.

Also, some hymnals will write the meter with periods at the end of each line, while others use the periods for the end of a couplet or section.  For example, a meter can be written as 76.76.D. or

Poetic Foot

A Metrical Index of Hymns |

One would think that you could sing any song to another tune of the same meter, but unfortunately it is not that simple.  While it often works, some hymns have a different poetic foot.  A poetic foot is a pattern of which syllables are emphasized.  While there are many patterns possible in a poetic foot, only the most common ones used in hymns are covered here.

Going back to "Amazing Grace", the pattern of emphasis is weak-strong-weak-strong the whole way through.  Each pair of weak-strong is known as an iamb (the b is silent).  So, this pattern is called iambic.  Many people have learned about iambic pentameter in a high school literature class.  Shakespeare wrote in this pattern where each line consisted of five iambs (ten total syllables in the weak-strong pattern).  Iambic tends to have a skipping type feel when read.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,That saved a wretch like me.once was lost but now am found,Was blind, but now I see.

Another iambic hymn is "What Child is This?":
What Child is this, who laid to rest,On Mary's lap is sleeping?Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,While shepherds watch are keeping?

Some more examples of iambic hymns are:

  • "Sweet Hour of Prayer"
  • "O God Our Help In Ages Past"
  • "From Every Stormy Wind That Blows"

Almost all C.M., S.M., and L.M. hymns are iambic.


The opposite pattern of emphasis is strong-weak.  A good example of this is Onward Christian Soldiers.  Each pair of strong-weak is called a trochee and the tern for this pattern is trochaic.  "Onward Christian Soldiers" is with Refrain in trochaic pattern (In fact, most hymns are trochaic).  It is ironic that "Onward Christian Soldiers" is in trochaic because, to me, trochaic sounds more like marching.
Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!
Christ, the royal Master,
leads against the foe;
Forward into battle,
see His banner go!

Another trochaic hymn is Our Great Savior:
Jesus! what a friend for sinners!Jesus! Lover of my soul;Friends may fail me, foes assail me,He, my Savior, makes me whole.

Here are a few more trochaic hymns:

  • "In the Cross of Christ I Glory"
  • "May the Grace of Christ Our Savior"
  • "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"
  • "Christ the Lord is Ris'n Today"

There are many different types of poetic feet, the two above are both disyllables (having two syllables in each foot).  There are more types of poetic feet having more than two syllables.  While there are many trisyllables and tetrasyllables, I will mention the most common ones in hymns.

Dactylic and Anapaestic
In hymns, trisyllables are mostly either dactylic or anapaestic.  A dactyl foot is strong-weak-weak (DUM-da-da) and an anapaest foot is weak-weak-strong (da-da-DUM).  

A good example of a dactylic hymn is "Be Thou My Vision":
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart-
Nought be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night-
Waking or sleeping Thy presence my light.

Anapaestic poems have an upbeat sing-songy feel.  They have been used in "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and by Dr. Seuss in "O the Places You'll Go."

A good example of an anapaestic pattern is in the verses of "Sweet By and By":
There's a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar,
For the Father waits over the wayTo prepare us a dwelling place there.

Some hymns such as "Immortal, Invisible" are difficult to classify because the have the feel of trisyllables, but with an upbeat.
Immortal, Invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious - Thy great name we praise.

Here are some more dactylic hymns (including ones with an upbeat note):

  • "Oh! What a Savior is Jesus the Lord"
  • "How Good is the God We Adore"
  • "We'll Sing of the Shepherd That Died"
  • "Thy Name We Bless, Lord Jesus"

No Pattern or Irregular Patterns
Some texts have no pattern or it is irregular.  The first line may be trochaic and the second iambic. Some anapaestic lines may begin with an iamb or a trochee is at the end of a dactylic line.  This is often done so that the accent can fall on the final syllable of the line.

Switching songs with poetic feet
When you switch tunes for hymns with different poetic feet the result is usually awkward.  Try singing the trochaic "Our Great Savior" to the iambic "What Child is This?" or vice versa.  It definitely doesn't feel right.  Or sing the dactylic "Be Thou My Vision" to the iambic "Abide With Me".

Mood or Tone

One last thing to consider when choosing which tune to sing with a song is the mood or tone.  For example, "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" and "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" are both in the meter  However, the first text is somber and the latter is a call to battle.  While it is possible to sing each song to the other's tune, that doesn't mean that the result will be appropriate for the text.  Ideally, a tune should enhance the feeling of a text.  The style of music should not only match, but also intensify the feeling behind the words of a song.

"O My Savior, Crucified!" and "O My Savior, Glorified!" in Hymns of Grace and Truth are both written in  However, even just from their titles, it is obvious that the first should probably be written in a minor key and the second should be in a major key.  It feels wrong to singing "Gazing with adoring eye, on Thy dying agony" to a triumphant feel.  Though we glory in the cross (Galatians 6:14), it is the victory of sin that we celebrate and not his agony. 

Last Thoughts

  • Ephesians 5:19 "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;"
  • Colossians 3:16 "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God."
  • 1 Corinthians 14:26 "What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification."
While there are ideals in hymns and their music, the important part of worshipping with music is the attitude of our hearts and the edification of the church body.  If someone chooses the wrong tune (by meter or style), grace should be shown.  Don't ruin the beautiful melody of someone's heartfelt worship with your attitude of judgment on musical skills and ideals.

No comments:

Post a Comment

For the easiest way to comment, choose Name/URL (the URL is optional) or Anonymous.