Unless they are irregular[i] or have prose texts, hymns follow a “metrical” pattern – that is, the hymn meter indicates the number of syllables in the lines in each stanza of a hymn. The number corresponds to the number of syllables per line of poetry. It further, in some cases, implies a certain stress pattern, such as iambic, trochaic, dactylic, or anapestic.[ii] This 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 (a symbol at the beginning of the musical staff, e.g. 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, etc.). The hymn meter is the pattern of syllables and stresses in the text itself. While there is some relationship between the two, they are not the same thing.
The listing of meter in hymn and tune books is generally based on a four-line stanza. The named meters – e.g., Common, Long, Short – are usually quatrains (four lines).When the letter “D” follows the meter designations, the pattern is repeated (doubled). For example, rather than four lines of stanza there will be eight lines.
Another metrical variation is the hymn with a standard meter and an added chorus or refrain. Most hymnals and songbooks do not count out the number of syllables in refrains. In this case, if a hymn is listed as “C. M. with Refrain,”[iii] it means the stanzas are Common Meter, and the refrain is in addition to and does not correspond with that. (See At the Cross for an example.) The only way to know for sure is to count the syllables in the refrain.
Common Meter (C. M.) is often referred to as ballad meter outside of hymnals (though some make a difference in common meter and ballad meter).
M. T. means Meter Twelves (four lines of 12 syllables per line).
William Gadsby’s A Selection of Hymns, for Public Worship uses 104th for the 10.10.11.11 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. (22.214.171.124.8.8.) was the meter for the Old Version Psalm 148.
Most of the numerical symbols are reasonably intuitive, but some are not. For example, many books use the label 8.7.4. The actual pattern of the hymn is 126.96.36.199.4.7.
The numerical symbols vary in the ways they are printed in different hymnals. For example, a four-line stanza of eight syllables might be listed in any of the following ways (and probably others).
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[i] Not the same from one stanza to another. Some editors call anything that does not fall into one of the more common metrical categories either “P. M.” or “Irregular.” Others distinguish between these terms, using P. M. for lyrics whose meters are definite, regular, but rare (an unusual meter that is unlikely to be matched by another hymn or tune) – as opposed to using “Irregular” to denotes lyrics whose syllable counts do not bear definition (as above, the syllable counts are not the same from one stanza to another). In this case, P. M. is “Peculiar Meter” or “Particular Meter.” Tunes labeled P. M. is usually not interchangeable with other tunes labeled P. M. However, in some books, P. M. stands for Psalm Meter, which is 8s.7s. or 188.8.131.52.
[ii] Some designations by some editors may intend to encompass rhyme patterns as well.
[iii] Or, “C. M. D. with Chorus.”