Posted by: rcottrill | July 15, 2009

What Makes a Good Hymn?

It is not easy to define what makes a hymn memorable, or great. But here are five key ingredients to watch for. Not every hymn that has blessed the saints over the years will exhibit all five of these. But usually the hymns that are retained in hymn books published decade after decade will have several of the following characteristics.

1) The hymn should be truthful.
It should express the truths of God’s Word clearly and accurately, and also be true to human experience. If a song is doctrinally in error, or spiritually unrealistic, that is a major flaw.

2) The hymn should be devotional.
It should be devotionally appealing, with a warmth of feeling that strikes a responsive chord in the heart.

3) The hymn should be universal.
Great hymns are able to span generations and cultures. They have a timelessness that ministers to a wide audience.

4) The hymn should be poetical.
It should be of high literary quality, full of memorable phrases, richly vivid and insightful. And the wording should be appropriate, worthy of the sacredness and importance of its subject.

5) The hymn should be singable.
Though they can often be simply read with profit, hymns are intended to be sung. That means the words need to be wedded to a tune that is skillful, suitable, and singable. But there are some fine tunes that don’t suit the text they are put with. The tune must act like the frame of a picture, supporting and enhancing the message of the words.

In the end, if the words are biblically sound, and the tune is appropriate to the message, the Spirit of God can use the hymn to challenge and encourage those who sing it. That thought is expressed in this little poem by an unknown author:

There’s something about a fine old hymn
That can stir the heart of a man;
That can reach to the goal of his inmost soul
Such as no mere preaching can.
It’s more than the tune of the song he sings,
And it’s more than the poet’s rhyme;
It’s the Spirit of God working through these things
That gives them their power sublime.


  1. […] WHAT MAKES A GOOD HYMN. To learn of several other factors that work together to make a good quality hymn, take a look at my article on the subject. […]

  2. […] WHAT MAKES A GOOD HYMN. Not all the hymns in our hymnals are of the highest quality, but some are. And what are some of the characteristices to look for in the best of our hymns? Here are five to consider. […]

  3. […] What Makes a Good Hymn (Ironically, the poem he includes at the end is a bit problematic for me in a couple of points.) […]


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