Learning to understand metrical indexes and similar concepts
  • SusanW
    Posts: 2
    Hi all,
    I've been a volunteer pianist at church since I was a young teen, and have always attended small parishes where all music is done by volunteers who learn to do by doing, with little to no actual training or direction. (And no, the results aren't always pretty, but such is life in small towns! :) ) While I've learned a lot over time just by necessity, there's a lot I don't know about hymnody. In particular, I only recently discovered how useful the metrical index at the back of the hymnal can be for setting texts to tunes and vice versa. It was kind of a "where have you been all my life?" moment!

    I'd like to know how to use that resource better. Right now, if I know the metrical numbers for the text and have tunes that match those same numbers, I can match them together. But I don't know what those numbers *mean*, or how to figure out what metre a given text or tune is in if it's not listed for me, and I don't know the terminology. I'd also like to learn more about hymnody in general, as I'm sure there are things like this that are super helpful, but I don't know that I don't know them. I have only a fairly basic background in music theory, having grown up playing more folk than classical music, but am not afraid to learn.

    Can anyone recommend a resource that teaches this kind of thing without getting super-technical, and helps a person gain facility with traditional hymn structures? Free and online would be my preference (of course!) but good print resources are good too!

    All suggestions are appreciated. Thanks and God Bless.
  • ZacPB189ZacPB189
    Posts: 70
    Those numbers signify syllables. Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise's meter number is because the tune (St. Denio) and verses have four lines, each with 11 syllables. To give a second example: one of my absolute favorite tunes, Ellacombe, which is set to many different texts which are in the following meter: This means you've got 8 lines per verse with 8 syllables on the first and third lines, 7 syllables on the fifth and seventh lines, and 6 syllables on all the even-numbered lines. I really hope I helped and didn't make this more confusing.
    Thanked by 1SusanW
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,335
    Also several meters have names. For example 8888 is Long Meter, commonly shortened to LM. 6666 is Short Meter (SM) and 8686 is Common Meter. If you see a D, as in LMD, it means "double" --- LMD is Long meter Doule, or eight lines of 8 syllables.

    [EDIT: As per below, SM is 6686, not 6666]

    Most of the meters have a typical syllabic accent pattern. For example: LM is ideally iambic, the eight syllables being made up of four two-syllable feet with the first syllable unaccented and the second syllable accented. Not all texts or tunes adhere to this rule, but the classics mostly do (with a bit of fudge form time to time).

    The thing that matters is that if a text has a definable meter, it can be sung to any tune with the same meter. So, looking at your metrical index, the texts and tunes under any specific heading are interchangeable.

    For example: You can sing the words to "Joy to the World" to the tune NEW BRITAIN, which you likely know as "Amazing Grace." (You can do this. That doesn't mean you should do it.)

    In some musical cultures, it is common to swap texts and tunes regularly. It is not particularly common in contemporary Roman Catholicism --- we usually just sing it to whatever the hymnal editors decide, even if its a bad choice (I'm looking at you, WALY WALY with "Take Up Your Cross").

    There really isn't that much more to learn, but if you have questions I'm sure many many people here on the forum can answer them.


    Two interesting side notes:

    - I have a Scottish Hymnal where the tunes are on the top and texts are on the bottom, and the pages are split --- so you can flip to any tune and text at the same time.

    - Office Hymnody is mostly in Long Meter (except the odes to saints which are mostly Sapphic, I think). Many office texts are set to multiple tunes over the course of the year or in different chant books.
    Thanked by 2SusanW Hildegard
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,347
    Short Meter (SM) is NOT 6666, but rather it is 6686. Moreover Short Meter (6686). Common Meter (8686) and Long Meter (8888) are all iambic meters, with syllables having alternately, short-long, stress.
    Thanked by 2Adam Wood SusanW
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,080
    CPL has a Category:Hymn meters; suggestions & improvements are always welcome.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen SusanW
  • SusanW
    Posts: 2
    Thank you all so much...that makes great sense! I really appreciate you taking the time to offer clear and detailed explanations. :) Zac, that totally made sense.

    Adam, your comment about being discriminating when exchanging tunes and words is very well-taken. I know what you mean about certain tunes just not *fitting* certain texts and vice versa, and taking a care that the text and tune match in more than metre only. As you say, I usually go with what the hymnal suggests (if it ain't broke, I don't aim to fix it), but at times when I have a text with a tune that my choir finds particularly difficult, or a text without a tune given, it's great to have the tools in my belt to make some modifications if I need to. :)

    Richard, I'll look at that wiki!

    Thanks again all.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,014
    And, the typical contrasting poetic foot for 2/4 or 4/4 time English tunes from iambic is trochaic - a trochee (tro-kee) is LONG-short.

    (In triple-time tunes, there are dactyls (LONG-short-short), anapests (short-short-LONG) and amphibrachs (short-LONG-short) - the last is the classic foot of a limerick....)
    Thanked by 1SusanW
  • The best published resource on the structure of hymnody that I'm acquainted with is the short book (112 pages) by Austin Lovelace entitled "The Anatomy of Hymnody," first published in 1965:

    Thanked by 2Adam Wood SusanW