Musically, when does a song become a hymn?
  • Criteria #1: The melody may be sung without accompaniment.

    Any melody that relies upon any other melody or accompaniment to be sung is not a hymn.

    A hymn may be accompanied by other vocal melodies or instruments. But it cannot require them.

    It's sort of like being Amish. They are known to use modern things, even including electricity, in some ways, but only if they do not rely upon it.

  • With respect, Noel, I don't quite understand your reasoning about a melody that can be sung without accompaniment. Other than tunes of the Gregorian repertory, the harmonised tunes of latter times, while certainly capable of being sung without accompaniment or vocal parts, really do have an implied harmonic underlay or substructure and are musically incomplete without it. Singing a translated office hymn to a Gregorian tune sounds like what it is, a complete and coherent musical entity. Singing the same hymn to a tune such as Newman, or Regent Square, etc., begs for the harmonising parts that are implied and really demanded by its major-minor mode structure. Such tunes, unlike chant tunes, are not really monophonic in nature.

    A hymn, actually, is a text whose subject matter is divinity or the extolling thereof. Such a hymn may be sungen to a plainchant tune or a more recent tune which rather begs for accompaniment and part-singing. A text whose subject is not an objective laudation of the divine or of theological categories is not, properly speaking, a hymn. It is a song. It may be a spiritual song.
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  • Can you sing One Eagles Wings without accompaniment?

    This is just Criteria #1...there are others that cover the issues you present.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,350
    Can you sing On Eagles Wings without accompaniment?

    I've witnessed it.
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  • Was it an inspiring moment? Did they pantomime flying wings during the long nonexistent introduction or just gun the engine and hit the chorus running?
  • I've seen it done, but they skip all the rests in the vocal part and just sing the tune. That is what is done at my parish when there is no organist to accompany, i.e. I'm absent and there's nobody to cover. Fortunately though, we sing traditional hymnody most of the time, so we don't run into this issue. OEW was one of the first ones I shelved two years ago. We do it from time to time, but not often.
  • What are your other criteria, Noel?
  • Me, I'm barely literate enough to come up with one! I hoped to one this up for others to list their thoughts. Having points like this to bring up can be very helpful when confronted with, "Why aren't we singing _____________?'#2.

    #2 The music and words must match throughout. If the text is not in strict poetic form, then this reduces the number of people who will want to sing it.
  • The music should sound holy.
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    "Anything can be chanted."

    Anyone here want to venture a guess who declares that? (He's still alive.)
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,142
    I believe MJM says that anything can be chanted RECTO TONO.
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  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,350
    It seems like people (including the OP) are answering the question "What makes a hymn good?" rather than the question "What makes a hymn?"
  • ronkrisman
    Posts: 1,349
    Adam, are you trying to confuse us? Are you trying to avoid the REAL question of the moment? Namely --

    The earnings of Grumpy Cat - Is outrage!!!!
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,370
    The distinction is, I believe, between "traditional" hymns and "worship"(or "praise") songs. A (generic) song is simply a set of lyrics (text) with music (tune).

    A traditional hymn is a formal song intended to be sung to God by the body of people in public worship, the lyrics having a specific meter and a specific tune in that meter. Most often, the tune is given with a sung (typically SATB) harmonization (or even several such), although for plainchant tunes there may be no original harmonization (nor one required). Metrical psalms can also be considered hymns. Different lyrics and tunes with the same meter may be used more or less interchangeably, although some lyrics become intimately associated with a particular tune. In all cases, the music of a hymn must reverently serve and highlight the text of the hymn. Traditional hymns, even modern ones, exist and are identifiable by their being part of a centuries old history of traditional hymnody.

    With praise (or worship) songs, the music is all important for setting the mood, the text being generally subservient to the musical effect. Often the lyrics have a loose or informality of tone, generally lacking in nuance, and often poorly metered and rhymed, if at all. Often their structure features numerous repetitions and passages more suited to soloists than to an entire body of people in public worship, usually having only a single vocal line that prevents voices not in that range from negotiating the melody (whereas four-part hymns are suitable to multiple voice ranges for anyone who can read music). Such songs are probably best "performed" by praise groups, with any real congregational participation being generally limited to simple refrains. If anything, praise songs are influenced, not by the long tradition of hymnody of the church, but by the prevailing pop & secular music culture of the present and recent times.

    Note: The above is my paraphrase of thoughts expressed in Difference Between Song and Hymn

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  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    The question being asked, and answered, is, "what music do I like, and how can I come up with objective criteria with which to force it upon others in place of music I don't like?"

    I believe that Jackson's answer above is the only one needed.
  • how can I come up with objective criteria with which to force it upon others

    A bit harsh, no? Songs that are hard to sing are sung badly, if at all. Identifying the characteristics of what makes a "good" singable hymn for people is not like force-feeding a goose.
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  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,350
    Sometimes I wish I was a Byzantine, so I could more authentically sneer at what I take to be a characteristically Latin compulsion to define rules and categorize things.
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  • While loth to disagree with the esteemed CHGiffen, who I suspect knows more about music in his little finger than I will ever know in a lifetime, I don't think the definition offered which divides hymns from praise songs is accurate. It may speak to quality, or appropriateness in a certain setting or liturgy, but to the basic question of is it a hymn?
    I am more towards MJO's take on this = a hymn is a text praising God. What you do with it musically thereafter may serve the text well or poorly, but it is the text which is determinative.

    I think one problem here is that in church, most people make their choices based on the music first, with the text a secondary consideration(if at all); hence their lack of understanding of chant , which gives us very rich text (mainly scripture) with what sounds to the modern ear, at least initially as very sparse melody.

    Imagine you are approached by a new PP (waiting to hear the likely fate of your carefully crafted Schola repertoire). Would you rather hear him say 'What tune will you be singing today?' or 'what text will you be singing today?'.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,109
    A traditional hymn is a formal song intended to be sung to God by the body of people in public worship, the lyrics having a specific meter and a specific tune in that meter... identifiable by... being part of a centuries old history of traditional hymnody.
    Well, it's hard to avoid circles sometimes. But as to meter, is "peculiar" really a specific meter? Is the ICEL Gloria a hymn or does that honor belong only to Allein Gott in der Höh'? Do the angels continually cry aloud in some tongue that has rhymes for Sabaoth?
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    Perhaps it can be said that there are two definitions for hymns. One is very broad, and the other, in common usage, refers to strophic metrical hymnody. The second kind became a very considerable body of work in the early years of Christianity in the West and has been a treasure guarded by the monasteries since those first centuries.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,827

    a hymn is a text praising God. What you do with it musically thereafter may serve the text well or poorly, but it is the text which is determinative.

    Remember, the scriptures exhort us:

    "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is luxury; but be ye filled with the holy Spirit, Speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody
    in your hearts to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things, in the name of our Lord Jesus
    Christ, to God and the Father:" Ephesians 5:19-20

    ...nothing about songs in there, per se.

  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,370
    My point about the praise song genre (as opposed to the traditional hymn genre) is that, much more often than not, the text is NOT determinative but instead is subservient to the music.

    As for traditional hymns (text with added music), I was speaking of strophic hymn texts. I also admit that there are some "Irregular" meters out there, but they are generally few and far between; morevoer, but these are, first and foremost, features of the text that may require musical accommodation ... not the other way around.

    Kathy is entirely right with her comments about two kinds of hymnody, and it is strophic hymnody which became the basis for and the core of our traditional hymnody. A hymn such as the Gloria (in Latin or in non-metrical translation) is an older, non-strophic, non-metered form. Psalms (in non-metrical translations) are also examples of strophic but non-metered hymns (or songs, if you prefer), yet the text is all important and the poetic structure of the Psalms is of a different, non-metrical sort.
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  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    To answer my own question, the person who remarked that "Anything can be chanted" was Br. Rufino Zaragoza, OFM, whose musical/liturgical affiliation is with the dread OCP. But he's absolutely right. You can take the meter out of anything, and render it decently chanted. That's not saying anything is worthy to be chanted, but it does call into question whether in certain situations, chanting some of these option fours would actually improve that rendering.
    As regards hymns, some of you might remember that out here we've been reading and performing Peter Kwasniewski's choral anthology for about nine months. (Another digression- his "Silent Night" and "Huron Carol" are gorgeous.) Peter has a number of metric hymn settings in addition to his motets and ordinaries. They meet the most basic criteria in terms of construct: they're strophic, homophonic (for the most part), syllabically mensurate, etc. However all that said, his hymns were likely written for chapel use at WCC where the student body and the resident choir would have consistent access and occasion to use them. WCC's alma mater hymn is stunningly beautiful, for example.
    But out here, we have employed them as choral anthems as there is no way they could be used in any way other than seldom and occasional. (A crossover reference to the ideal hymnal thread.) And, of course, their harmonic elements would not be found in 19th to even 20th century standards, which makes them more intriguing for choral use.
  • Here is my technical criteria: the movement in all the parts, not just the melody. And example would be "Grosser Gott / Te Deum": most respectable hymnals will have the bass and one other part moving through a measure that is otherwise one chord / tonality. Other "songs" that are in 3/4 ONLY change at the beginning of each measure - like "Let There Be Peace on Earth" which makes it sound like a roller skating rink background. Even something like "Onward, Christian Soldiers" changes inner part at least every two beats. In short, if a guitarist can strum through it, it's just a song.
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,370
    Off the top of my head, wouldn't "Now the day is over" to MERRIAL (65. 65) in the second measure ("ov-er") be a counterexample to Steve's criterion? The second measure is an A-major chord, with static SAT voices on each of the two syllables, while the bass moves in a descending arpeggio A chord.

    For that matter, in "Onward, Christian soldiers", the fifth measure (beginning of second line), has no moving inner or bass parts ... only the soprano part moves, up an arpeggio E-flat major chord.

    I'm not trying to be contentious, but I think there needs to be more explanation of Steve's criterion (or additional criteria).

  • There seems to be some confusion of meanings here. A hymn is a text. It may be set to any number of tunes, Gregorian or other, which exhibit the same metre. The tune may be poorly or excellently composed and/or harmonised. But a tune is a tune, and a hymn is a hymn. We have already suggested the proper content of an actual hymn. It so happens that certain categories of songs (non-hymns) are predictably wedded to rather poor tunes rather poorly harmonised. On the other hand, some very good hymns may be made or broken by the quality of tunes to which they are set. Also on the other hand, a good tune can be ruined by wedding it to a plethora of texts because 'everybody knows it and we just can't possibly learn that new one', which is the musical equivalent of 'everything I need to know my mother taught me or I learned by the third grade'. This last syndrome is one to which our major hymnal publishers have become expert in exploiting.

    An observation about the question that Noel originally put forth to us: a song never becomes a hymn. A hymn is a hymn, objective praise of divinity or theological categories. A song is a song, relatively subjective and focusing more on emotional states, me, I, we, and us, than upon God. Such songs are just what they are. They never 'become' hymns. This is not to suggest that all of them are of no value - they may merit a treasured place in personal devotions and at extra liturgical events.
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  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    I think Steve's criterion works, not as absolutely strict analysis, but as a statement of purpose. Hymns have a certain sophistication in the movement of the voices against one another.

    Except for altos. Altos have a number of Ds in a row. Then a C#. Then one last D.
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,370
    In my hymn tunes and harmonizations, I try to make the Alto parts more interesting.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    I know, and thanks!
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  • Again, the music is not the hymn. Saying (with respect, Kathy) that 'hymns have a certain sophistication in the movement of voices' is to equate the hymn with a tune. The hymn is the words, and even a good hymn, such as 'Alleluia, Sing to Jesus', can be sung to a poor tune, such as Erie. In such a case we would have a beautiful hymn sung to a perfectly dreadful tune, well-harmonised and voice-led or not. Conversely, 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus', a song much-beloved in some quarters, can be sung to a very fine tune, namely Hyfrydol. The hymn remains a hymn, whether well or poorly wedded to a given tune; and the song remains a song whether sung to a poor or a good tune.

    Should our question rather be 'what makes a tune a good and well-harmonised one, and what makes a tune a poor one poorly harmonised'? This seems to be the object of most of the answers here, not 'what is a good hymn', and certainly not 'when does a song become a hymn'! It never does.
    Thanked by 2dad29 francis
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,308
    Should this thread turn into a discussion of:

    What makes a good musical setting for a hymn (text)?
  • Can a hymn turn into a song because of poorly chosen music? I am thinking about the case where a true hymn text (praising God ) is wedded to so self indulgent a tune as to deflect the attention from the text to the tune, or worse again to the performer. It seems to me that once you do this, the importance of the text becomes so obscured that it wold eventually be in danger of being abandoned.
    Oh wait. Has this happened already?
  • Further explanation (should have continued a bit in the first place): listening to the Gregorian Office hymn tunes, they flow, like all chant. Even if there is a meter, the accents within that meter a downplayed in order to maintain a free flow. Indeed, the chant tunes can have a typical mix of duple and triple groups of notes which, while one needs to feel them, one doesn't over accentuate them. Having constant (at least for the most part) movement of the inner parts keeps the downbeat of each measure from having too much emphasis - thus, the hymn-tune keeps flowing.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,370
    I don't wish to say that my friend and colleague Jackson is wrong, but I feel that he uses a narrow (and perhaps older?) definition of "hymn" that does not match the present day accepted definition:

    noun: hymn; plural noun: hymns
    1. a religious song or poem, typically of praise to God or a god.
        "a Hellenistic hymn to Apollo"
      synonyms: religious song, song of praise, anthem,
        canticle, chorale, psalm, paean, carol; spiritual
        "singing the old familiar hymns"
      • a formal song sung during Christian worship, typically by the whole congregation.
      • a song, text, or other composition praising or celebrating someone or something.
          "a most unusual passage like a hymn to the great outdoors"

    verb: hymn; 3rd person present: hymns; past tense: hymned; past participle: hymned; gerund or present participle: hymning
    1. praise or celebrate (something).
        "Johnson's reply hymns education"
    2. rare
        sing hymns.

    Old English, via Latin from Greek hymnos ‘ode or song in praise of a god or hero,’ used in the Septuagint to translate various Hebrew words, and hence in the New Testament and other Christian writings.


    Notwithstanding ancient origins of the word, it is, I think, generally accepted today that a "hymn" is something that is sung (not recited) and, as such, comprises both text (lyric) and music (tune). In common parlance, a "hymnal" is a book that contains "hymns" - ie. texts set to music for singing (lyrics & tunes), although one does see "hymnals" with only the text published together with the name(s) of the intended tune(s) to which the hymns are to be sung.

    At CPDL, the term "hymn" is given this meaning, while "hymn text" has an evident meaning, "hymn tune" refers to the melody, and "hymn setting" (a contrived term) is used to refer to a particular harmonization of a hymn tune (this latter term might just as well have been "(hymn) harmonization").

    Hymn writers (ie. those who write the lyrics) often have a tune in mind or may embark on a search for a (possibly newly composed) tune that fits the text. Hymn composers often work the other way around, sometimes composing a tune with one or more specific and suitable texts in mind or, more rarely (although less rarely these days than might be advisable) compose a tune and embark on a search for a (possibly newly written) text that fits the music (which is often less than ideal). Occasionally (and perhaps not often enough), hymn writers and composers engage in a collaborative effort that can produce excellent results.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,827
    A hymn, psalm or canticle (as per Ephesians) I believe, explicitly means the text, although a tune may be commonly joined to the text. Hymns as we know them today are more easily associated with a particular tune, and a hymn today is usually defined as both the music and the text. So both MJO is correct (in the exactness of theory) and CHG is correct in the more modern definition of how the term is applied today.

    Whatever you want to CALL a hymn, in my mind refers to the text, not the music per se. Same with a psalm. It may have had music attached to it when David composed it, but the music is not eternally attached to the text, and the TEXT drives the music, not the other way around. This is the case with sacred music as it is defined for the liturgy. The text is married to the music in that it accentuates and magnifies the text. Text is king. Many so called hymns today are a catchy little trite ditty that someone slapped some words on. That is not a hymn. That is a DITTY!

    So, from now on, let us call a DITTY a DITTY (spade a spade) when referring to weak hymn texts with music. Classic example of a ditty, OEW.

    And as Charles put it, I will also add my two cents:

    "Almost always, (and way too often), hymn writers and composers engage in a collaborative effort that can produce excellent results... but almost always create a new DITTY."
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  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,827
    OK... so the other half of my thinking about a hymn is this: it must be of the highest quality in MUSICAL content. Whether it is a melody alone or has an SATB harmonic structure it must be excellently composed. The ones that fit into that category can be found in most major hymnals, of which I believe we only have a few hundred (excellent hymns tunes) that fit that category.

    Onward Christian Soldiers is closer to a (musical) DITTY in my hymnal. So is Flowers of the Rarest and all the other sentimental ones. Shubert's Ave Maria? DITTY! Mozart's Ave Verum, DYM. (that's half ditty, half hymn)
  • Is On Eagle's Wings a hymn?
  • ronkrisman
    Posts: 1,349
    Is On Eagle's Wings a hymn?

    No, it's a (non-metrical) paraphrase of Psalm 91.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    With some extra thoughts and feelings added thereto.
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,370
    Just in case you wanted to know, a "ditty" is defined as "a short simple song." This seems to be a rather misplaced and pejorative term applied to the music of certain hymns (even bad hymns) and songs. By the way, Francis's quote referring to my statement is a rather severe misquoting and a distortion of what I actually wrote, his "dittyful" addendum notwithstanding.

    Endless arguing over whether a "hymn" is just a (certain kind of) text or a sung [text+music] is really pointless. It's as if Johnson Beauregard Schmoe insists that if he a "gas station" should sell hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, laughing or other gasses, not petrol or gasoline, because "gas" refers to chemical substances in a certain state (gaseous) that is neither liquid nor solid.

    Moreover, the original post in this thread concerned not just the text but also the music of hymns (or songs), and the single takeaway one should get from several comments, including my own, is that the text is paramount with the music serving the text.

    For those who want to discuss hymn texts (or hymns as defined to be texts with certain properties) perhaps another thread on that topic would be appropriate.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,109
    One person's narrowness is another's precision, I guess.

    But in metrical hymnody, how can the text be paramount when the same tune is applied to N verses?
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  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,827
    (CHG et al)

    Clarification. Charles is right. I am not trying to put words in his mouth. I was simply rewriting his sentence from another perspective, which is the fact that most hymns/songs/texts/ditties are not worthy of the liturgy. That's all.

    And yes, Charles, I was using the term 'ditty' as an overarching category that may be wider than acceptable, but still makes the point that there are far less few 'hymns' floating around our world than deserve to be called so. Even the Mozart I mentioned, you must admit, borders on sentimentality and almost doesn't make it into the category of truly sacred music.

    And yes, I must admit, the original topic is when a hymn 'musically' becomes a hymn. I may have strayed a bit from that topic too, and this slant may deserve another thread.

    Since a ditty is a short simple song, I would submit that a longer 'simple' song may belong under a completely different title. Perhaps a 'ditto'.
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  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,827
    But in metrical hymnody, how can the text be paramount when the same tune is applied to N verses?
    In my mind, (you may or may not want to be in it), music is more vague (less categorical) in its application to a particular text in that it can contain a sentiment, pathos, emotion or mood that can embrace a wide variety of texts and still serve the text appropriately.
  • This seems to be a problem with no indisputable solution on which all can agree (although it's plain as day to me and those who agree with me). Such is the nature of non-mathematical categories. Perhaps the problem can be likened unto that of deciding when an apple becomes a peach. Is it an apple if it is baked in a pie, but not if its poached in a poorly harmonised sauce? If the latter, does it, then, become a peach. Or, if a peach is baked in a pie, does it, then, become an apple? Well, one may suggest that apple remains apple and peach peach, but this logic is foreign to those who would think that an apple does not remain an apple if mistreated by a poor recipe poorly harmonised. Under this logic apple may indeed become peach and peach apple, depending upon their raiment (or rags) (or tunes).
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,827
    I prefer rhubarb.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,350
    Whenever the combative objector in the Summa scores a point for his ill-formed opinions by claiming that a recognized authority held a view opposite Aquinas, the good doctor reminds him that words can have more than one definition.
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  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Pop Quiz (works by so-called "songwriters")- Are these hymns or not? Why, why not?

    1. Owen Alstott- GATHER US TOGETHER
    5. Kevin Keil- ALL GOOD GIFTS
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,370
    But in metrical hymnody, how can the text be paramount when the same tune is applied to N verses?
    Good point.

    If I had to guess, it is a question of the overall poetic style of the text that makes it possible to compose a tune suitable for several verses. Also, it happens that a composer (or innovative organist) will choose to harmonize/accompany individual stanzas differently. An example of this harmonization diversity is seen in J.S. Bach's way of harmonizing different stanzas of the Passion Chorale in his St. Matthew Passion. They are all 76. 76. D meter, with essentially the same melody, but quite different in tonal character, as befits the text (sadly, our hymnals tend to choose only one of the Bach settings).

    Texts and tunes with the same metrical structure can, theoretically, be paired in any of many combinations. However, proper hymnody requires some strong and judicious choice in using (or composing) a particular tune for a given text. To wit, continuing the "O Sacred Head Surrounded" (or "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden") example ... I doubt that anyone would seriously consider using the tune AURELIA ("The Church's One Foundation") for that text. In a similar vein, it is unlikely that one would consider using the tune "Tempest adest floridum" ("Good King Wenceslaus Looked Out") for "Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain" which is (in my experience) normally sung to ST KEVIN.
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  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,596
    Whenever the combative objector in the Summa scores a point for his ill-formed opinions by claiming that a recognized authority held a view opposite Aquinas, the good doctor reminds him that words can have more than one definition.

    Schubert's Lieder are "Songs"
    Stephen Foster's works are "Songs"
    Handel headed the arias of Messiah "Songs"
    OEW is a "Song"
    KING'S LYNN is a "Song"
    The 'numbers' in Hello Dolly are "Songs"
    Some English editions head the arias of Figaro "Songs"
    The Beatles wrote "Songs", and so did John Dowland.
    Apart from which, Mendelssohn wrote "Songs without words"!
    And many people simply call all pieces of music "Songs" whether they are technically Sonatas, Rondos, Fugues, Gigues, Ayres, Cantatas, Masses, Symphonies, etc.

    The term "Song" is all-embracing, and therefore highly useless.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,827

    i gave u my criteria... you be the judge. theologically sound text with excellent imagery and excellent musical composition. my standards may differ from others.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,827
    i compose hymn TUNES. the only NEW texts that i have found up to par is kathy's. otherwise, i use standard hymn texts.
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