When we grow up in the Church, the hymns are almost part of the background. We learn to sing them, or at least pretend that we’re singing (or we’re too cool to sing them – yes, deacons, I mean you), but we rarely detach them from the music and actually read the words.
And why should we? The best hymns are meant to be sung. And the hymns that were written to be poems, not hymns, are often the least singable.
For one thing, poetry rarely works when it has too regular a rhythm – it becomes sing-songy and faintly ridiculous. That’s why so much poetry is written in blank verse, five accents to the line, because five beats don’t resolve themselves into comfortable rhythms the way lines of three or four accents do:
“But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
Five-accent lines like these really don’t work when set to music.
Now here are some lines which absolutely work as a hymn. But they are too rhythmically repetitive to work well as poetry:
The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter-day glory begins to come forth.
The visions and blessings of old are returning,
And angels are coming to visit the earth.
When you sing them, they roll out with majesty. When you say them, they make you want to tap your foot – which is not the effect poetry should have.
So good poems rarely make good hymns, and a good hymn isn’t necessarily a good poem. They’re different arts.
Hymns Have Rules
I remember when I was in college and Professor Arthur Henry King took me aside to talk about my poetry. He was on the committee looking for hymns for the “new hymnbook” – by which I mean the hymnbook we’ve been using for the past twenty years. (Yes, I’m that old.)
The first rule of good hymn writing was simple enough: “Hymns need to be spoken by the congregation as a whole,” he said, “and addressed to God.”
“Like ‘I Stand All Amazed’?” I said – ever the bratty undergraduate, since of course that hymn is one person speaking, not to God, but about the Savior.
I don’t think he liked it that I came up with a counter-example immediately. “That’s not really a good hymn,” he said.
Well, I thought, if “I Stand All Amazed” isn’t a good hymn by your standards, I’ll stick with my own lower standards, thank you very much. My rule is, if your rules don’t describe the hymns we love best, then your rules aren’t worth much.
In the end, the new hymnbook included lots of hymns that didn’t follow Prof. King’s rule – I suspect he abandoned it himself soon after telling me about it.
But that conversation stuck with me, and not long afterward, I started writing hymns myself.
At first, I assumed I should write both the words and music. But I had been collaborating for years on songwriting with my friend Robert Stoddard and others, and I had learned that my strength, if I had one, was with words; music would never be more than a hobby for me.
So I detached the words from the music and began to discover the real rules.
The most important was one Prof. King also taught me: Each stanza must exactly match all the others, accent for accent, syllable for syllable.
There are exceptions, of course. A few hymns that change the tune or put two syllables on one note in one stanza, but not the others. Think of the Ralph Vaughn Williams hymn, “For All the Saints” – and remember that while the hymn is wonderful, those variant stanzas make it tricky to sing.
So even though this rule can have exceptions, those exceptions should be vanishingly rare.
What This Weekly Column Is For
There are other rules, of course, and lots of good advice, and as this column proceeds from week to week, I hope to talk about various problems – and, I hope, their solutions – in hymn writing.
I have several goals for this column:
1. I want to make more LDS writers and composers aware of the challenges and possibilities of hymn creation.
2. I hope that they will then write more hymns so we have more good songs to sing, at first in solos and choir numbers, and eventually in an ever-growing hymnbook.
3. I hope composers will like my own hymns, of which I will include at least one each week, so that they will set some of them to music and send the results to me.
I also hope that some of my hymns, at least, will speak to the hearts of those who read this column. Because if a hymn can put into words things we want to say, either to the Lord or in his presence, then it is successful indeed.
Existing Hymn Music
Even if you absolutely intend a hymn to be identical, stanza for stanza, how do you know what pattern of accents will work?
Not everyone knows (or wants to know!) the names of the different metric patterns, like iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic. But the name is merely a convenience.
The simplest way to discover form is to look at existing hymns.
One of the standard patterns is the “ballad stanza,” which has alternating lines of four accents and three accents. If that means nothing to you, don’t worry, because example is the best teacher:
“There is a green hill far away
Without a city wall.”
The accented syllables are in boldface.
Except that isn’t really true, is it? Because when we say “There is a green hill far away,” we would normally accent it like this: “There is a green hill far away.” No way is the word hill unaccented!
And that’s a problem. The music solves it, because the problem syllables are given notes of equal length. Sing the words and you’ll see what I mean.
But the music still has accents – the first and third beats of the four-beat measure. And even though hill falls on an unaccented musical note, it still has enough length that we’re not forced to sing it quickly.
Thus the words and music depend on each other, work with each other, in order to make a hymn feel right as we sing it.
Sometimes, of course, the accents are absolutely wrong, or the way the music and the words fit together is ridiculous. People as old as me will remember when we sang – and repeated! – the ridiculous-sounding line “You who unto Jesus, you who unto Jesus, you who unto Jesus for refuge have fled.”
It made us sound as if we were singing “Yoo-hoo” unto Jesus – not at all the serious intent of the hymn. So to make the words and music fit together properly, the new hymnbook changed the words to: “Who unto the Savior, who unto the Savior, who unto the Savior for refuge have fled.”
So why was the old, faintly ridiculous version ever written? Because the words and music were not written together. The hymnist probably did not know that the composer would repeat the first two feet of the last line of each stanza.
The hymnist simply wrote “You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled,” which is not a problem, because you don’t repeat “yoo-hoo” three times.
Fit Your Words into Existing Tunes
So for a beginning hymnist, a good starting place is to take an existing hymn and write new words to fit the melody. That may sound like putting new wine into old bottles – but it’s really a time-honored tradition.
In fact, many ancient hymnbooks had no musical notation – not that we’d recognize, anyway! They would simply have the words of the hymn, and then the name of a familiar melody.
Let me give you a famous example. Most people already know that two popular hymns in our hymnbook can be sung to each other’s melody: “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning” can be sung to the tune of “Now Let Us Rejoice,” and vice versa.
Both hymns are unusual because they depend on three-syllable feet throughout: “Now let us / rejoice in / the day of / salva-tion”; “The Spirit / of God like / a fire / is burning.”
(Note that fire is one of those words that can be sung as either two syllables or one, like hour. That’s a peculiarity of English – our retroflex r sound can be experienced either as a syllable of its own, or as part of the preceding syllable, if the preceding syllable ends with a diphthong.)
The three-syllable foot, when read aloud, sounds rollicking and boisterous, a headlong rush through the language.
And the tune to “Now Let Us Rejoice” keeps that forward-rushing feeling by keeping the music in threes. Until the end of each couplet, there are no notes that are held longer than any others.
But the music to “The Spirit of God” tries for a more stately effect, and turns the threes into fours – the accented syllables are held for two beats, the unaccented syllables for one beat each, thus moving us a bit more slowly and with more dignity through the lines.
When you sing one song to the other’s music, even though they are a perfect fit mechanically, it somehow feels vaguely wrong to sing “The Spirit of God” to the tune of “Now Let Us Rejoice,” though the other way sounds fine. That’s because the words to “The Spirit of God” are more solemn, and the rollicking feel of the tune to “Now Let Us Rejoice” seem undignified.
The words to “Now Let Us Rejoice,” however, are not diminished by having the stately feel imparted by the tune of “The Spirit of God.”
“The Children of God”
So here is my first hymn – set to the same metrical pattern as both “The Spirit of God” and “Now Let Us Rejoice.”
Of course you don’t have to use this metrical pattern for your own trial run at hymn-writing. Pick any hymn tune that you really like. You’ll quickly learn that some are easier to work with than others – what matters is that you pick one that is comfortable for you.
The idea is not that your hymn will replace the existing words. The reason for doing this exercise is to give you the chance to write a hymn that already has music so you can sing it immediately and realize some important things about hymnody – some of which we’ll discuss in future installments.
And if you should write a hymn that is completely successful, there’s nothing to stop a composer from writing new music that will fit the metrical pattern you used. After all, identical as their metrics are, “The Spirit of God” and “Now Let Us Rejoice” coexist in the same hymnbook with tunes well-suited to their separate purposes.
The Children of God
by Orson Scott Card
The children of God hear the music of heaven;
They live by the words of the Father today.
Their Lord is alive, and the gates of his kingdom
Are open to all who will walk in his way.
Hosanna, the angels are singing, Hosanna!
Hosanna, the saints in the temples reply.
Hosanna, for Christ is alive in his kingdom
And our alleluiah we sing to the sky.
The Lord tells his will to his servants the prophets;
In all who are faithful his Spirit will dwell.
He knows what we need and our eyes will be opened,
And line upon line all his truth he will tell.
Hosanna . . .
O Father, we search, and our hearts fill with questions;
In mercy and wisdom you grant what is right.
Prepare us for all you will teach us tomorrow,
So we will be ready to live by its light.
Hosanna . . .
Which of the two melodies do you think this new hymn is better suited for? Or is it appropriate for neither? You be the judge.
Post your comments – but not your own hymn texts, unless you wish to surrender copyright! – here on Meridian. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org And don’t send hymn texts to me! I’m not a music publisher.
However, if you’re a composer and wish to set one of my hymns to music, don’t ask for my permission first. I hereby grant you permission to use my hymn text free of charge in your own musical setting, as long as you don’t publish or sell the result.
In other words, you can perform your hymn as much as you want. But the moment you want to publish it or record it or charge for it, then we need to talk – I’ll need to hear your hymn and decide if I approve of it before you can publish, record, or charge for the combined work. I can be reached at http;//www.nauvoo.com or http://www.hatrack.com.