Fitting Hymn Tunes to Words
by John Morris FRCO, GRSM, ARCM

Virtually all hymns have a metre. This is a simple device measuring the number of syllables per line. The most usual metres are:

Long metre (LM)   8, 8, 8, 8
Common metre (CM)   8, 6, 8, 6
Short metre (SM)   6, 6, 8, 6

"D" signifies double length, e.g. DCM = 8, 6, 8, 6, 8, 6, 8, 6

The three metres shown above are for four-line verses; "D" will therefore indicate eight-line verses. It is necessary to be careful on occasions as a particular hymn (e.g. Love Divine or Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow) may be published as so many verses of eight lines, or twice as many verses of four lines. An unfortunate event which I witnessed as a choirboy, (alas, many years ago), involved a somewhat truculent member of the congregation setting about the organist with a stout umbrella. At the end of a long day the unfortunate musician had played the shorter tune to the latter hymn but with his thoughts on his first pint of beer after Evensong had only played it four times, forgetting that each of the four verses in the book actually has eight lines. The result of this was a huge intake of breath after verse four shortly followed by an explosion of splutters. The less than charitable language between the two of them was enough to make anybody blush!

Precisely why 'Common Metre' is known as such is something of a mystery. In most books there are as many, if not more, Long Metre tunes.

Any tune is interchangeable with another providing that they both have the same metre. Hymn books will often suggest alternative tunes, but these are not mandatory. It is sufficient to look up the metre in the metrical index of the book and any one of the tunes under that heading will fit the words in question. Usually it is only the full music edition of the hymn book which has a metrical index. Ancient and Modern Revised (AMR) has a total of 144 different metres plus fourteen irregular hymns.

Sometimes there is only one tune that will fit a particular hymn, some examples being Jesus lives! (St. Albinus), Angel Voices (Angel Voices), Now thank we (Nun Danket), Let all the world (Luckington), We plough the fields (Wir pflugen) and Onward Christian Soldiers (St. Gertrude). So, in other words, if you don't like the set tune for any of the above hymns, you will have to compose your own (or get somebody else to!)

The fourteen irregular hymns in AMR include O come all ye faithful, In the bleak mid-winter, God is working his purpose out and St. Patrick's Breastplate. If you are familiar with these you will appreciate the problems that can occur, especially in In the bleak mid-winter. In cases such as these, it is essential for the organist to know the hymn inside out. Each verse has a similar but not identical metre. That accounts for the notes in small print, the bar-lines between the words or both. These are cases when a well rehearsed choir is a boon.

One final word: the same metre can exist in both iambic and trochaic form; in other words there is the same number of syllables involved, but the accentuation is different. The tune would fit the words but all the accents would be in the wrong place.

Back to Training Page