Tunes (Part 2)

Let’s imagine that you just obtained a copy of a new kind of Psalter Hymnal.  It contains versifications of all 150 psalms as well as a collection of hymns.  All the lyrics are complete, well-worded, and Scripturally accurate.  They’re easy to understand and beautifully expressive of the Reformed tradition.  To put it simply, this would be a perfect Psalter Hymnal—except for one problem: There’s no music.

Let’s imagine that it’s your task to match each of the texts in this songbook with an appropriate tune.  You don’t have to write any new music; you have access to a complete library of every psalm and hymn tune written from the time of the Reformation until now.  All your options are open.

But where do you begin?

Welcome to the second installment in URC Psalmody’s ongoing series on the music behind our worship.  Two weeks ago, I introduced this series with the following comments:

Although the tunes to which we sing the psalms are often taken for granted, they are crucial to the practice of psalm-singing—or any vocal music, for that matter.  That seems like an obvious statement, but stop long enough to think about it.  When was the last time you pondered the music of a particular psalm setting sung on a Sunday morning?  Did you study its melody, harmony, and rhythm to discover how the music interacted with its textual counterpart?  Did you play around with alternate harmonizations or test a different tune?  Though we may not often realize it, music is, put simply, the salt of our psalter.  Subtle yet permeating, it profoundly affects the significance of the text as well as the impact on its singers.

We’ve already considered the question of whether the original tunes of the psalms have survived.  Now, passing by many centuries of psalm- and hymn-singing traditions for the moment, we’ve returned to the present day.  What is the role of the modern hymn tune in our worship services?  How does the music of a psalm or hymn interact with its accompanying text?  And what criteria should be used to select tunes for our worship songs?

Let’s again consider the theoretical situation I’ve described above.  Your job is to select tunes for each song in this imaginary Psalter Hymnal.  How should you proceed?  In the next several installments, I’ll try to give a step-by-step analysis which will hopefully impart some practical advice while highlighting the most important features of hymn tunes.

Assuming the texts involved in this project are pre-existing, then, your first task would be to find tunes that match each versification in meter.

Meter refers simply to the number of syllables in each line of poetry.  For example, the song “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” (blue Psalter Hymnal number 399) has a meter of or “long meter.”  If you count the number of syllables in each line, you can confirm that they add up to eight.

Je-sus shall reign wher-e’er the sun
Does his suc-ces-sive jour-neys run;
His king-dom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Every psalm or hymn text has its own meter; some are delightfully simple (number 275,, whereas others are hopelessly complex (number 324,  The meter should be indicated along with every selection in a good hymnbook; in our blue Psalter Hymnal, it’s featured prominently along with the tune name, right under the title of the song.

When you’ve got a few moments, flip through the Psalter Hymnal and take note of the variety of meters contained therein.  If you discover two songs with the same meter (for example, numbers 202 and 203), try singing the words of one to the tune of the other.  In all but a few cases, they should be interchangeable.

To help church musicians navigate the sea of possible tunes for a particular selection, the Psalter Hymnal (along with most other songbooks) includes a Metrical Index of Tunes, found on page xlviii in the front.  This index lists all of the hymnal’s tunes arranged by meter.

“All right,” you may be saying, “I get the numbers, but what on earth are all these other abbreviations—S.M., D., With Refrain?”  Here’s a basic overview of this metrical notation:

  • Some meters occur so frequently that they’ve been assigned special names.  These are “short meter” (S.M.,, “common meter,” (C.M.,, and “long meter,” (L.M.,  Very old hymnbooks add more abbreviations to this list: C.P.M. (, L.P.M. (, H.M. (, C.H.M. (, and L.H.M. (  As to what those initials stand for, your guess is as good as mine.
  • The notation “D.” doubles what precedes it, so is equivalent to, and “S.M.D.” is double short meter (
  • Some tunes include a repeat or an extra line.  In these cases, the hymnbook usually specifies how many lines the tune contains (“L.M., 5 lines” is  (Curveball: Sometimes, as in the case of number 277, the repeat will not be indicated.  In these cases, the only remedy is your own memory.)
  • Some tunes include a refrain.  For reasons unknown to me, most hymnbooks do not provide the meter of the refrain.  Although this would certainly be a helpful addition, the only information you’ll get from the Psalter Hymnal is the notation “with Refrain.”  However, the meter of the refrain is usually patterned after the rest of the tune, so it’s not hard to predict.
  • Some tunes include “special features” like “Alleluias” at the end of each line.  These are nearly always listed in the metrical index.
  • Tunes whose meter varies from stanza to stanza, or is simply too difficult to notate, are marked as “Irregular” or “P.M.” (peculiar meter).

In many ways, musical meter is like a language unto itself; although it is usually based upon the preceding rules, it just as often makes exceptions to these guidelines.  Here are a few curveballs to watch out for:

  • Even if the metrical numbers of two tunes are the same, sometimes the emphases do not fall on the same syllables.  Try singing the words of number 274 to the words of 284.  Even though the meters look identical, it simply can’t be done.  Fortunately, this mutation is pretty rare, but be especially aware of it when working with the more irregular Genevan tunes.
  • If you’re not that good with math, watch out: two meters that look very different may actually be the same.  For example, it’s entirely possible to sing number 166 to the tune of 340.  (The meter of ZION is, which is actually with a repeat.  The meter of REGENT SQUARE is, which is actually with the 4. repeated.  Thus, if the last line of 166 is sung only once, but with “God’s own city” repeated, it will match perfectly.)
  • Some tunes can be adapted to fit multiple meters—ELLACOMBE occurs in in numbers 194 and 449, but also occurs in for number 349.  ADESTE FIDELES is probably the worst example of a double-faced tune, with a meter of 12.10.11. (with refrain) for 341 and a meter of (with repeat) for 411!

Now, if you’ve managed to endure reading through this article, you probably have one of two reactions.  If you’re already an experienced church musician, this may seem like old hat.  If you’re just starting to take interest in church music, on the other hand, I’m afraid I may have lost you amidst the swirl of technical jargon.  In either case I do apologize.  In our next installment, Lord willing, I’ll try to apply the principles I’ve described above to a practical situation: We’ll pick a metrical psalm text and try to begin compiling a list of tunes to which it could be set.  Then, hopefully, some of this abstract theory will begin to take shape.

Your feedback is most welcome; I’d especially like to know if you feel that this series will be helpful.



7 Responses to “Tunes (Part 2)”

  1. 1 gafisher August 2, 2012 at 7:07 am

    Thanks for a very helpful article, Michael, and what looks to be a very good series. I’m neither an experienced musician (church or otherwise) nor a total neophyte but have long recognized the importance of music in worship.

    Your article clearly explained some things which have long interested me.

  1. 1 Tunes (Part 3) « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 3, 2012 at 6:08 am
  2. 2 Tunes (Part 6) « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 22, 2012 at 6:00 am
  3. 3 Tunes (Part 7) « URC Psalmody Trackback on August 29, 2012 at 11:00 am
  4. 4 “Dutch Door” Psalters « URC Psalmody Trackback on September 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm

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