Thursday, September 13, 2018

Hymn meter

Hymns, unless they are irregular or have prose texts, follow a “metrical” pattern – that is, the hymn meter indicates the number of syllables in the lines in each stanza of a hymn.[i] The number corresponds to the number of syllables per line of poetry. It may also imply a certain stress pattern, such as iambic, trochaic, dactylic, or anapestic.[ii] For example, Long Meter and 8s. both have four 8-syllable lines, but have different stress patterns.[iii]

The listing of meter in hymn and tune books is generally based on a four line stanza. Knowledge of hymn and tune meter allows the pairing of hymns and tunes that share the same meter. In theory, any hymn of a certain meter may be sung to any tune of that same meter. However, for the most edifying usage, the mood and motion of the tune should agree to that of the hymn. Below is an explanation of some of the metrical symbols used hymn books, including a few examples of how to read the numerical symbols.

C. M.                Common Meter (
C. M. D.           Common Meter Doubled (8 lines rather than 4)
C. M. E.           Common Meter Extended (
C. P. M.            Common Particular Meter (
H. M.                Hallelujah Meter (
L. M.                Long Meter (
L. M. D.           Long Meter Doubled (8 lines rather than 4)
L. P. M.            Long Particular Meter (
S. M.                Short Meter (
S. M. D.           Short Meter Doubled (8 lines rather than 4)
S. P. M.            Short Particular Meter (
7s.                    (
7s. D.               (, 8 lines rather than 4)
8s. 7s.               (
10s. 6 lines       (
12s. 11s.          (

The more common symbols (C. M., L. M., S. M.) [iv] are almost universally standard across hymn books. Some vary by editors.[v] “D” means the pattern is repeated or “doubled.” Most of the numerical symbols are fairly intuitive, though some aren’t. For example, many books use the label 8.7.4. The actual pattern of the hymn is P. M. (usually explained as “peculiar meter” or “particular meter”) is often used as an abbreviation for hymns that have an unusual meter that is unlikely to be matched by another hymn or tune.

To find the meter of hymn, count the syllables in the lines of each stanza. If they fit a common tune – for example, fitting with Hamburg/When I Survey the Cross – then they are that same meter. Nevertheless, the same number of syllables with different stress patterns that don’t fit the tune well exclude them from being strictly the same meter.

[i] Hymn meter – the pattern of syllables and stress in the text – is different from the meter of the music, which is the arrangement of the rhythm into measures and signified by the time signature.
[ii] Anapest: a metrical foot consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable; Dactyl: a metrical foot consisting of one stressed and two unstressed syllables; Iamb: a metrical foot consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable; Trochee: a metrical foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. In a sense anapestic is the opposite of dactylic, and iambic is the opposite of trochaic. C. M., L. M., and S. M. are iambic. 7s. and 8s.7s. are trochaic. (Don’t you wish you had paid attention while in school? I do!)
[iv] Common Meter is often referred to as ballad meter outside of hymnals (though some make a difference in common meter and ballad meter).
[v] William Gadsby’s A Selection of Hymns, for Public Worship  uses 104th for the pattern, 112th for L. P. M., 122nd for S. P. M., and 148th for H. M. These less common meters were related to old psalm tunes. For example, H. M. ( was the meter for the Old Version Psalm 148. Some variations by some editors may intend to encompass rhyme patterns as well. Another metrical variation is the hymn with a standard meter and added chorus or refrain. These may be labeled as “C. M. with chorus” or “C. M. with refrain.” See At the Cross for an example.

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