Posts Tagged 'Practical Ideas'



Tunes (Part 6)

When a new hymnal comes out, scholarly church members tend to pounce on songs with bad doctrine.  Older congregants might grumble about altered lyrics in the old hymns.  Younger congregants might complain that not enough of their own favorites were included.  What about church musicians?  For us, the most objectionable items in a new hymnal are often the keys of its tunes.

Welcome to Part 6 of the URC Psalmody Tunes series, where we’re slowly but surely weaving our way through some of the most important technical aspects of church music.  While we’ve previously considered meter, time signature, rhythm, and accent, today’s article brings us to the unbelievably controversial subject of key signatures.

For our non-musical readers, the most concise definition I can give is that the key signature of a piece determines its pitch—how high or low it is.  That’s why keys are so important (after all, they are called “keys”).  That’s also why even non-instrumental congregations often begin their songs with pitch-pipes: so the congregation can begin, and hopefully end, on key.

One unique aspect of key signatures is that the key of a tune can be changed.  Meter, time signature, and accent are all inherent to each tune, and altering them is usually ruinous.  Keys, on the other hand, can be raised or lowered at will, and that’s what makes them such a volatile subject in musical analysis—because, although the key of a tune always can be changed, it’s an entirely different matter to decide when it should be changed.

That’s a debate for another day, but in this series I would like to consider some of the ways in which key signature affects a hymn tune.

First, choosing the right key is essential to making the tune sing-able.  The average woman in your church isn’t going to be able to hit a high A, and neither is the average man going to be able to rumble away in the chasms beneath the bass clef.  Each of the four harmony parts in the music must fall within a normal range.

Key signature also determines whether the music can be sung in unison.  Congregants without vocal training sing the soprano line by default, since it carries the melody.  Thus, the melody line must fit within an attainable range for both male and female voices.  The generally accepted range begins somewhere around the B-flat just below middle C and ends at the E one octave higher.

The most significant impact of key regards the tone color of the music.  Each key signature has its own unique color: D-flat, A-flat, and E-flat are warm and mellow, whereas keys like A, E, B, and F-sharp are acute and brilliant; C, D, and G tend to sound bright and brittle, while B-flat and F fall into a comfortable middle ground.

This last property of key signatures can often make or break a particular tune.  Try playing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” (Psalter Hymnal number 318) in E as it’s written there, and then in D as it is commonly found in newer songbooks.  Or try playing “Nearer, Still Nearer” (number 454) in D instead of D-flat.  In both cases you’ll hopefully notice a drastic difference.  While a properly-chosen key powerfully complements the theme of a particular psalm or hymn, a poorly-chosen key makes the music at best colorless, at worst painfully jarring.

With these concepts in mind, let’s turn our attention once again to our ongoing experimental psalm setting, “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.”  In Part 5, we narrowed down our list of potential tune matches to this extent:

CANONBURY, 229
LOUVAN, 249
OLD HUNDREDTH, 280
ROCKINGHAM OLD, 26
TRURO, 122
WINCHESTER NEW, 170
WOODWORTH, 288
CREATION, 282
NAZARETH, 300
SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER, 105

The next question we should ask is this: What color is implied in the text of this versification of Psalm 118?

(1) 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.

The answers to this question will of course be subjective, since musical aptitude and taste vary from person to person.  (Hence the need for committees in order to publish new hymnbooks.)  However, I think we would mostly agree that Psalm 118 is a song of jubilant praise, with a theme that implies a bright or brilliant tone.  Key signatures that match these qualities include C, D, G, A, and E; I’ve disregarded B and F-sharp simply because they’re extremely difficult keys that don’t often appear in hymnbooks.

Having made this decision, our final step is to comb through the list of tunes above and select only those with matching keys.  Once this process is complete, our list contains the following selections:

OLD HUNDREDTH, 280
TRURO, 122
CREATION, 282
NAZARETH, 300
SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER, 105

Look at that!  Even though we’ve only considered a few elemental aspects of music, our original master list of 60 tunes has already shrunk to the convenient number of five.  Next time, Lord willing, we’ll wrap up this discussion with a few final considerations, and then I’ll reveal my personal preference for the final tune.  Meanwhile, readers, which tune from this “semi-final round” do you think should win?  Cast your votes!

–MRK

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Tunes (Part 5)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 (8.8.8.8.) 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

ARCADIA, 247
BISHOP, 240
DUKE STREET, 299
FEDERAL STREET, 289
GERMANY, 222
HAMBURG, 293
MARYTON, 169
PARK STREET, 35
QUEBEC, 292
HOLY COMMUNION, 199

Like 237, DUANE STREET

CANONBURY, 229
LOUVAN, 249
OLD HUNDREDTH, 280
ROCKINGHAM OLD, 26
TRURO, 122
WINCHESTER NEW, 170
WOODWORTH, 288
CREATION, 282
NAZARETH, 300
SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER, 105

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!

–MRK

Tunes (Part 4)

Welcome back to our ongoing series on the tunes behind the music we sing.  So far, we’ve talked a bit about the basic importance of a tune to a good psalm setting, and we’ve begun the process of actually selecting a tune.

If you’ve been following the series thus far, you’ll remember that we left off at the topic of meter, the first step in narrowing down the available choices for a particular song.  When we applied the principles of meter to a practical situation, we amassed a list of about sixty potential matches just from the tunes in the Psalter Hymnal!  It’s obvious that we need to introduce some more criteria in order to pare down our working list to a reasonable size.  Today, then, comes the second major element of a tune: its time signature.

“Time signature?” you might ask.  “Isn’t that the same thing as meter?”  Erm, well—yes and no.  In general music theory, the two terms are often used interchangeably.  But in church music, these are two distinct concepts, so I will try to be a little more precise:

  • Meter refers to the number of syllables in each line of poetry, which translates to the number of syllables in each line of music.
  • Time signature refers to the number of beats within each measure of music.

Although a full-scale dissertation on the elements and implications of time signature is far beyond the scope of this series, I hope the following explanation will suffice for the present.

If you glance at nearly any selection in the Psalter Hymnal, you’ll notice regularly-spaced vertical lines in between the musical notes.  These are “measure lines” or “bar lines,” and their purpose is simply to mark off each measure.  Although the measures contain notes of different beat lengths (eighth notes are usually half a beat, quarters a single beat, and halves two beats, for instance), the total number of beats in each measure will always be the same.  Thus, a measure with eight eighth notes, a measure with four quarter notes, and a measure with two half notes are all equivalent in duration.  Usually beats are measured in terms of quarter notes, so three quarter notes are said to equal three beats, while three half notes equal six beats.

The time signature of any piece of music is indicated by two numbers at the left edge of the first staff—3/4, 4/4, 4/2, 6/8, and so on.  In this notation, the top number indicates the number of beats per measure, and the bottom number indicates the beat value (2 for a half note, 4 for a quarter note, 8 for an eighth note).  A few examples:

  • 3/4 time signature contains three quarter notes in each measure.
  • 6/8 (for example, numbers 13 and 267) contains six eighth notes in each measure.
  • 3/2 (number 38 for example) contains three half notes per measure.
  • 4/4, such a common time signature that it is sometimes abbreviated as “C”, contains four quarter notes per measure.

These are the clumsily-explained basics of time signature.  Now, as with meter, there are numerous exceptions to these rules you’ll need to be aware of as you work through the Psalter Hymnal.  Here are a few:

  • Another frequent time signature is 2/2 or “¢”: two half notes per measure.  “But,” I often protested during my studies of music theory, “two half notes are the same as four quarter notes!  What’s the difference?”  Well, whereas a 4/4 piece has four beats per measure, a 2/2 piece—although its measures are exactly the same length—has only two.  This means that a 2/2 piece should be played a bit more quickly than would be typical in 4/4 time signature, and it should never be played with four accents per measure!  (If you try to play number 240 with four beats per measure, you’ll quickly discover why the distinction between 2/2 and 4/4 is so important.)
  • The first measure of some tunes is a “pick-up measure” containing only one beat (rarely two or three, e. g. 387).  These should always be played so that they point forward to the downbeat of the first full measure—don’t get “stuck” on the pick-up.
  • Many of the Genevan settings in the Psalter Hymnal (e.g. number 172) lack both time signature and bar lines.  This is because the Genevan Psalter was created on an entirely different musical system consisting of only two note values (short and long), completely without beats or measures.  Some tunes, like number 56, have been adapted to fit into a more familiar meter.  Just be on the lookout for these, and make sure you’re strong in the area of rhythm.
  • On rare occasions you’ll stumble across something wild, like the time signature of number 371: 3/2 and 4/2!  This notation simply indicates that some measures of the tune are in 3/2 and others in 4/2.  (But that’s just the beginning; in modern music, time signatures like 3/4+7/8 and 31/16 are not uncommon!)

At last, we’ve come to the conclusion of another long bout of music theory.  When we return to the topic of tunes, I’ll try to tie in these principles to our working example.  We’ll also look at accent—the very heartbeat, you might say, of a tune.  So join us again next time!

–MRK

Tunes (Part 3)

Yesterday, we considered a primary element that characterizes a hymn tune: its meter.  Today, in the third installment of our series on tunes, I’ll endeavor to apply some of the concepts we’ve already examined to a practical situation.

Remember our illustration of the imaginary Psalter Hymnal without music?  Well, suppose one of the texts for which you have to find a tune is a versification of Psalm 118.  Its ten stanzas read like this:

(1) 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.

(2) Let all His servants tell abroad
The never-failing grace of God;
Let all who fear Jehovah’s Name
His everlasting love proclaim.

(3) In bondage of distress and grief
To God I cried, and sought relief;
In wondrous love He heard my plea
And set my soul at liberty.

(4) Though foes assail I will not fear,
For at my side the Lord is near;
The Lord my helper, I shall win
The victory over the hosts of sin.

(5) Who put their trust in God Most High
On everlasting strength rely;
Their confidence shall pass away
Who make the arm of flesh their stay.

(6) Ye gates of peace and joy untold,
Ye gates of righteousness, unfold,
That I may enter in and raise
A song of thankfulness and praise.

(7) Within Thy gates, O God of grace,
Thy saints shall find a dwelling-place;
My thanks and praise to Thee I bear,
My Savior, Who hast heard my prayer.

(8) What wondrous things the Lord hath wrought!
The stone the builders set at naught,
Established by no human hand,
The chiefest cornerstone doth stand.

(9) In this the day the Lord hath made
To Him be joyful honors paid;
Let us Thy full salvation see,
O Lord, send now prosperity.

(10) Hosanna!  Praise to Him proclaim
Who cometh in Jehovah’s Name;
May blessing from God’s dwelling-place
Descend on us in boundless grace.

For this exercise, I’ve chosen an old versification of Psalm 118 from the 1912 Psalter.  It’s far from perfect, but it should at least suit our purposes.  As we continue the series over the next week or two, we’ll make it our goal to find a fitting tune for this setting.

The first step in choosing a tune for this text, as I described in the previous article, is to find a metrically compatible tune.  Simply count the number of syllables in each line to determine the meter—but be sure to check all the verses for consistency, since some lines may have been “tweaked” to include more or fewer syllables.  (Note that the last line of verse 4, “the victory over the hosts of sin,” contains ten syllables instead of the usual eight.  This problem is resolved by contracting some of the syllables: “the vict’ry o’er the hosts of sin.”)

If you complete this step, you should arrive at the conclusion that this versification is in 8.8.8.8., or “long meter.”  Since this is one of the most common meters for a psalm or hymn text, we can expect to find a wealth of possible tunes at our disposal.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ll limit the scope of this project to tunes within the Psalter Hymnal.

The next step is to check the metrical index of tunes in the front of the Psalter Hymnal.  In the “L.M.” category I see as many as fifty possible choices—but that’s only the beginning.  You’ll also notice listings for “L.M., 5 lines,” “L.M., with refrain,” “L.M., 6 lines,” “L.M., 6 lines, with refrain,” “L.M., 7 lines,” and “L.M.D.”  How do we differentiate between these confusingly similar meters?

To answer this question, we may need to study our text in a little more depth.  In its original form, “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above” has stanzas of four lines each.  It’s entirely possible that we could leave the text untouched and select a standard L.M. tune from those fifty possibilities.  But here are some other options:

  • We could repeat the last line of each stanza and set the text to a five-line L.M. tune.  (To hear how this would work, try singing the first stanza to BACA, number 75.)
  • We could reorganize the lines into six stanzas of six lines each (with four repeated at the end).  In this case, lines 1 and 2 of stanza 2 would be added to stanza 1, lines 1-4 of stanza 3 would be added to stanza 2, and so on.
  • We could use a L.M.D. (double long meter) tune by changing the eight four-line stanzas to four eight-line stanzas.  (Sing stanzas 1 and 2 to HE LEADETH ME, number 60.)
  • We could adapt PAXTANG, which is essentially an L.M.D. tune (L.M., 6 lines, with a 2-line refrain), to suit the same purpose.

As it turns out, not all of these options are practical.  The first possibility, repeating one line per verse in an eight-stanza song, would make the piece far too long; the second clearly wouldn’t work, since it would break up the flow of thought in each stanza.  However, the third and fourth possibilities are equally valid.

Up to this point, although we’ve eliminated a few options, we still have far too many choices: about fifty regular L.M. tunes, plus nine L.M.D. alternatives.   (The tenth, SCHMÜCKE DICH, O LIEBE SEELE, is unusable due to the layout of its syllables—try singing the text to it and you’ll understand why.)

Hence begins the process of narrowing down our possibilities.  I’ll explain the next steps in a future post, but for now, I’ll leave the ball in your court.  Do you favor keeping this text in four-line long meter, or would you rather repartition it into four longer stanzas of eight lines each (L.M.D.)?  Does the poetry itself give you any clues?  From the L.M. and L.M.D. listings in the index of the Psalter Hymnal, do any tunes strike you as particularly appropriate for this setting?  Why?

I hope we can use this simple exercise to stimulate some practical thought and discussion.  In the next article, we’ll consider two more criteria to be considered in selecting a tune: rhythm and time signature.  But for the present, I look forward to your responses.

–MRK

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 8.8.8.8. 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, 8.5.8.3.), whereas others are hopelessly complex (number 324, 6.6.8.6.6.8.3.3.6.6.).  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., 6.6.8.6.), “common meter,” (C.M., 8.6.8.6.), and “long meter,” (L.M., 8.8.8.8.).  Very old hymnbooks add more abbreviations to this list: C.P.M. (8.8.6.8.8.6.), L.P.M. (8.8.8.8.8.8.), H.M. (6.6.6.6.8.8.), C.H.M. (8.6.8.6.8.8.), and L.H.M. (8.8.8.6.8.6.).  As to what those initials stand for, your guess is as good as mine.
  • The notation “D.” doubles what precedes it, so 8.7.8.7.D. is equivalent to 8.7.8.7.8.7.8.7., and “S.M.D.” is double short meter (6.6.8.6.6.6.8.6.).
  • 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 8.8.8.8.8.).  (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 8.7.8.7.4.7.4.7, which is actually 8.7.8.7.4.7. with a repeat.  The meter of REGENT SQUARE is 8.7.8.7.8.7, which is actually 8.7.8.7.4.7. 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 8.6.8.6.D. in numbers 194 and 449, but also occurs in 7.6.7.6.D. 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 11.11.11.11. (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.

Blessings!

–MRK


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