What Is a Hymn?

When most people think of a hymn, they think of a song in a hymnal that Christians sing together during worship.  While Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “a song of praise to God” could encompass just about any type of religious song, the second definition is more helpful and hones in on a subset of religious songs:

“a metrical composition adapted for singing in a religious service.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

1) A Metrical Composition

By saying that a hymn is metrical, we mean that it has stanzas or verses that repeat the same (or nearly the same) syllabic pattern, just like metrical poems.  In fact, the best hymns can stand on their own textual merits as poems.  A regular meter is an important part of what makes hymns more easily singable by an entire congregation of mostly novice musicians; the repetition makes it easy to anticipate the prosody and catch on to the song more quickly.

2) Adapted for Singing

The primary purpose of a hymn is for congregations or other small groups of lay persons to sing, not for artists to present.   While congregations vary in their musical and vocal abilities, the goal of having every member sing imposes certain constraints on a song.  While hymns are certainly poems (as mentioned above), their poetry should be accessible in style, vocabulary, and intellectual depth.  The range, rhythmic complexity, and even harmonization of the music will also need to be tamed in order to be successfully led and sung by the average church-goer, especially as our society has become more and more musically illiterate.

3) In a Religious Service

This aspect of the definition shows us the purpose for hymns: to provide an expression of praise in the context of worship.  Hymns present religious truths in a compelling way that help us experience and express them as a community in a unique and powerful way.  This does not mean that every hymn should address God in the second person; many effective hymns include exhorations to one another or express private devotion in the context of the community, just like the Psalms.

What Is Not a Hymn?

Hymns have historically been written in a strophic form, consisting of many short verses (sometimes a dozen or more) normally sung to the same tune.  Towards the end of the 19th century, refrains were often added which are somewhat like a modern “chorus,” but usually shorter and not necessarily the zenith of the song.  The more a song gets away from this simple verse-verse or verse-refrain form, the more it become less like a hymn.  Most “modern worship music” songs would typically not be considered hymns because they have varying meter, complex rhythms, extensive choruses and bridges, and are generally harder for untrained musicians to learn and lead.

What is a “Modern Hymn”?

A modern hymn is simply a hymn that was written recently, though sometimes we attach an extra connotation that the hymn is designed to be set to a more modern musical style (i.e. guitars strumming rather than pipe organs blowing).  The best hymns are stylistically agnostic, lending themselves to instrumentation and arrangement across a wide variety of musical styles.  This allows them to be adapted according to the gifts and musical sensibilities of each local congregation.