The “Tunes” series continues here on URC Psalmody. In our last article I introduced the concept of time signature. Today, we’ll consider a closely related element of music: accent.
Just like “meter” and “time signature,” the term “accent” can mean a lot of different things. In this discussion we’ll take it to refer to which syllables and musical notes are emphasized in a song.
The theory behind rhythm and accent can appear pretty daunting, but it’s essential to remember that you already know how to apply these principles—even if you don’t realize it. For instance, if I asked you to recite Psalter Hymnal number 13 (“Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”) and give it special emphasis, the result would probably sound something like this:
LORD, our LORD, thy GLOR-ious NAME
ALL thy WON-drous WORKS pro-CLAIM;
IN the HEAVENS with RA-diant SIGNS
EV-er-MORE thy GLO-ry SHINES.
How GREAT thy NAME!
LORD, our LORD, in ALL the EARTH,
How GREAT thy NAME!
THINE the NAME of MATCH-less WORTH,
EX-cel-LENT in ALL the EARTH;
How GREAT thy NAME!
The crucial tenet of accent is simply this: Every beat in poetry (and music) is either weak or STRONG. Don’t let the fancy terminology (including mouthfuls like “dactyl” and “spondee”) overwhelm you; as long as you can locate the weak and strong beats in a psalm or hymn, you have a fully functional understanding of accent.
In the accent pattern shown above, the syllables of each line alternate between weak and strong, and the first syllable of each line is strong. Most hymn poetry is similar, though often the lines begin with weak beats instead. A rarer form (known as “amphibrachic meter,” which I mentioned in Monday’s post on Psalm 121) has strong syllables only on every three beats (weak-STRONG-weak-weak-STRONG-weak-weak-STRONG).
So far, I’ve described how accent applies to the text of a song. But how is accent manifested in a piece of music? In three ways, namely:
- Downbeats. The first note in every measure of music is called the “downbeat,” and it nearly always corresponds with a strong syllable in the text. You can confirm this with a quick scan of number 13—the strong syllables “LORD, GLO-, ALL, WORKS, IN, RA-, EV-, and GREAT” all occur on downbeats.
- Strong beats within a measure. Each time signature has a unique internal structure which contains its own strong and weak beats. In 4/4 time, the third beat is strong (though usually not as strong as the downbeat). In 6/8 time, the second beat (counting by the dotted quarter note) is strong. In time signatures like 3/4 and 3/2, only the first beat is strong.
- Long and short notes. Most often these will correspond with the strong beats described above (for example, all the quarter notes and dotted quarters in “Lord, Our Lord” are located on strong beats). The length of the notes becomes more important when setting a particular text to music, as explained below.
As with everything we’ve discussed so far, there are plenty of exceptions to these rules. For instance, the first “How” in the refrain of number 13 is a weak syllable located on a downbeat. Still, these principles are reliable enough to provide a solid basis for an understanding of accent.
Now comes the time to step out of the theory and back into the real world. In the third installment of the “Tunes” series, I chose an obscure rhymed text of Psalm 118 as the base for a practical experiment in psalm versification. The full text can be found in that article, but for now I’ll just copy the first stanza:
Give thanks and praise to God above,
For everlasting is His love;
Praise Him, ye saints, your Savior praise,
Forever good in all His ways.
To get an idea of the pattern for the accent of this poetry, we need only treat it as we did number 13.
Give THANKS and PRAISE to GOD a-BOVE,
For EV-er-LAST-ing IS his LOVE;
Praise HIM, ye SAINTS, your SAV-ior PRAISE,
For-EV-er GOOD in ALL his WAYS.
This is the typical emphasis pattern for a long-meter (126.96.36.199.) poem. With this knowledge, we can proceed to check our prospective list of tunes against the pattern of this text. Neither time nor space permits us to examine each possibility in detail, but let’s work with two examples: numbers 236 (APPLETON) and 237 (DUANE STREET) in the Psalter Hymnal. In theory, both long-meter tunes are compatible with the text, but that doesn’t mean they’re equivalent.
In number 236, the first note of the tune is located on a downbeat. Thus, even though the first syllable of the text (“Give”) is weak, its location on the downbeat (rule number 1 above) and on a long note (rule number 3) gives it a greater-than-usual emphasis. This is repeated throughout the four lines of the tune, leaving us with something that might sound like this:
GIVE thanks and PRAISE to GOD a-BOVE,
FOR ev-er-LAST-ing IS his LOVE;
PRAISE him, ye SAINTS, your SAV-ior PRAISE,
FOR-ev-er GOOD in ALL his WAYS.
Now we are confronted with a difficult question: Is this emphasis pattern compatible with the text? In order to come to a conclusion, we must consider the accents implied in the text of each stanza. This is a tall order! For the sake of time, I won’t analyze each verse here, but I would like to point your attention to the fourth stanza. Here it is, in the same “revised” metrical pattern as v. 1 above:
THOUGH foes as-SAIL I WILL not FEAR,
FOR at my SIDE the LORD is NEAR;
THE Lord my HELP-er, I shall WIN
THE vict’ry O’ER the HOSTS of SIN.
While this emphasis pattern might be suitable for the first stanza, it dramatically stilts the poetry in this verse. The “helper” words at the beginning of each line (articles and prepositions) are given precedence over the “main” words (foes, Lord, victory). This problem also occurs in most of the other stanzas. Using the tune of number 237 instead, we encounter none of these difficulties.
So, if you’ve followed my reasoning process so far, hopefully you’ll agree: APPLETON, sadly, is a dead end for “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.” DUANE STREET, however, is still a viable option. For convenience, I’ll sort out about ten tunes that follow the pattern of each of these selections; then we can narrow down our choices to the tunes that are fundamentally similar to number 237.
Like 236, APPLETON
Like 237, DUANE STREET
This seemingly small distinction of accent can make a huge difference in the final combination of text and music. With the ten selections listed on the right, we have a pool of a much more reasonable size from which to determine the final tune of “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.” Next time in the “Tunes” series: mood and key!