Posted by: rcottrill | February 27, 2010

About That “Metrical Index”

In the back of many hymnals you will find a Tune Index (because many of the tunes have names separate from the title of the text). Sometimes tune names are chosen to relate to a particular set of words. Other times, they may honour a saint, or the composer’s home town, or even be named after his wife! Then there’s that Metrical Index. For many, the latter is wasted space. What good is it? Who cares?

Well, there is value in the Metrical Index if we know the basics of how to use it. Take as an example the hymn The Church’s One Foundation. The name of the tune commonly used for this hymn is Aurelia. The Tune Index of the hymn book will list it, followed by some funny looking numbers. After Aurelia you will likely see D. (The “D” stands for doubled, so the number becomes

That number describes the metre of the hymn. It tells us that each stanza contains eight lines of poetry, and each of those lines contains either 7 or 6 sounded syllables, alternately. Take a look at the first stanza of The Church’s One Foundation as an example. Count the sounded syllables and you’ll see what I mean.

The Chur – ch’s one foun – da – tion = 7
Is Je – sus Christ her Lord = 6
She is His new cre – a – tion = 7
By wa – ter and the Word = 6
From heav’n He came and sought her = 7
To be His holy bride = 6
With His own blood He bought her = 7
And for her life He died = 6

Now, you may still be saying, “So what?” But that is valuable information, because it makes it possible for us to use a different tune for The Church’s One Foundation if we want to, or to use the tune Aurelia with another set of words.

Maybe the hymn you want to sing has an unfamiliar tune, or one that is more difficult to sing. By knowing the metre, you may be able to make a switch. Or what if you discover some great lines of poetry that have no tune at all, but you think the poem might work as a hymn? With the Metrical Index you may be able to find a tune that fits. A change of tune may also give a familiar hymn a new feel, helping us to appreciate the words in a new way.

We’ll get to some cautions in a moment, but first, let’s see what we can do with the above example. In the Metrical Index, all the tunes with the same metre are grouped together. You should be able to find a group of tunes under the heading D. In the hymn book I have in front of me at the moment, there are a dozen such tunes, followed by the number(s) in the book where the particular tune is used. Here’s the list of D tunes: 

Missionary Hymn
Passion Chorale
St. Hilda
St. Theodulph

The last of these (Webb) is used with the hymn Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus. Try singing the words of The Church’s One Foundation to the hymn tune Webb, and you will see that the two fit together quite well. But the tune Aurelia is not as good a match for the hymn Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus. The metre fits, but not the mood. And this is where we get to a few cautions.

1) Think of the music as functioning like the frame of a great painting. If we were to put a big gaudy frame with pink and purple polkadots around the Mona Lisa, it would detract from the masterpiece. We’d want a frame that enhances the painting, and draws attention to it, not to the frame itself. In a similar way, a tune needs to support and enhance the message of the words, not get in the way of our understanding of them.

The tune Webb works with The Church’s One Foundation because it feels strong and sturdy–like a “foundation” should be. But Aurelia has a beautiful smooth-flowing, more contemplative melody that does not seem the best way to enhance the idea of soldiers fighting for the Lord. (This is not an exact science, and you may disagree with me. But try it and see.)

Here is an illustration I’ve sometimes used to demonstrate that tunes with the same metre do not necessarily match the mood of all the texts they fit metrically. Isaac Watts’ hymn, Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed? often uses the hymn tune Martyrdom. Next to the tune name in the Tune Index you’ll see either CM (which stands for Common Metre), or the numbers (a very “common” metre for hymns). Now, find the gospel song Faith Is the Victory in your hymn book. It doesn’t happen to have a tune name, but if you count the sounded syllables, you will see that the stanzas (excluding the refrain) have an Doubled metre.

But does this mean we can simply switch the two tunes? No, because the mood is utterly different. Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed? is a sober, worshipful meditation by one standing before the cross of Calvary, utterly amazed that Christ would die for him. It seems almost a mockery to sing the words to the bouncy tune Ira Sankey provided for Faith Is the Victory. Won’t work the other way either. The slow meditative pace of Martyrdom would put all of the soldiers to sleep who are to “press the battle” in Faith is the Victory. Sankey’s tune appropriately seems to call to mind galloping horsemen! Give it a try, and you’ll see what I mean.

2) Another caution is in order. Sometimes, though the number of sounded syllables is the same, you will find that the em-PHA-sis is not on the right syl-LAB-le. Both What a Friend We Have in Jesus and James Small’s I’ve Found a Friend have an D metre. But try switching the tunes by Charles Converse and George Stebbins and you will see they have different beat patterns (technically known as trochaic and iambic, respectively). This is a less common problem, and sometimes even the traditional tunes used with our hymns don’t fit every stanza precisely. They require a bit of a compromise. All you can do is try the new combination to see if it works for you.

3) And one final caution: Don’t overdo it. Changing the tune of a hymn can be helpful for the reasons given at the beginning. But use the technique sparingly. A steady diet may not only defeat the purpose, it will be unacceptable to many. It is surprising how many folks love a hymn because of the tune. Change the tune, and to them it’s not the same hymn. But make it an occasional thing, and choose carefully, and you will find it a great help. Here are more than a dozen variations to try:

1. Sing Philip Bliss’s My Redeemer to the tune Hyfrydol. (Some hymn books have actually printed the hymn with this tune because it works so well.)
2. Sing Arise, My Soul, Arise! to the tune Darwall.
3. Sing Come, Thou Almighty King to the tune for God Save the Queen (or My Country, ‘Tis of Thee). (That is actually the tune used with the hymn originally.)
4. Sing Jesus Loves Even Me to the tune Slane.
5. Sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus to the tune Holy Manna, or to the wonderful tune Blaenwern. (This tune is a little tricky to find. Check it out on the Cyber Hymnal where it is given as a secondary tune. The site also provides the tune as a PDF file that can be printed.)
6. Sing Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart to the tune Eventide (used with Abide with Me)
7. Sing And Can It Be? to tune Sweet Hour (used with Sweet Hour of Prayer).
8. Sing How Firm a Foundation to the tune Portuguese Hymn (used with O Come, All Ye Faithful).
9. Sing either In Heavenly Love Abiding or O Jesus I Have Promised to the tune Aurelia. Or if your congregation balks at Bach, try singing O Sacred Head, Now Wounded to Aurelia as well.
10. Sing Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling either to the tune Hyfrydol, or Blaenwern. Both are great tunes.
11. Sing How Great Thou Art to the tune Finlandia. This works well, with a slight change in the refrain. Add two words, as you see below, and drop the repeat of “Then sings my soul…”

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, my God, how great Thou art.

12. Sing Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, or What a Friend We Have to Jesus (or a combination of part of the two hymns, to the tune Hyfrydol (to which we sing “Jesus, what a friend for sinners…” and “Come, Thou long expected Jesus…”)


  1. A wonderfully informative post–your explanation of metre is spot on.
    I am one of those odd types who a) knows what the metrical index is for (I was an English lit major, so I had better), and b) actually uses it. I look at the rhyming schematic and see what other tunes the words could be set to.

    • Thanks for the compliment. Maybe if a few read the article we won’t be such “odd types”! I actually taught college English many years ago, so I’d better know a bit about it too–though I must admit I’d forgotten the word trochaic! (Old age creepeth on.)

  2. This commentary was very good. It’s important for hymnals to have these indexes in the back — not only the hymn titles, but also authors and composers, metrical, tunes, scriptural bases, and possibly more — and for congregations to know how to use them. And this is one flaw with the hymnal “Living Hymns”: it has only the “titles” index, and maybe a topical index. I often wanted to ask Dr. Smith why he did not include all the indexes, given his wealth of knowledge about the hymns and their authors and composers, but I never had the opportunity.

    In my hymnology classes and seminars I go over the indexes with my students.

    • Ah! You hit upon what is one of the major flaws of a great hymnal, Living Hymns. I just ordered a copy of the new edition, with many more songs added. But it looks as though those important additions are still lacking. It is further too bad they do not include dates for the birth and death of authors and composers, as many hymnals do (or the date when the song was written or published). It is not a problem for pastors or accompanists, since this information can usually be gleaned from other hymnals on hand. But it is unfortunate that folks in the pew can’t see these details too.

      You mention wanting to contact the late Al Smith about this. I have written to his son David a few times about information on various hymns. Maybe I’ll drop a line and ask about the rationale for these omissions. Living Hymns is still one of my top choices for a church hymn book. But you’re absolutely right about this weakness.

  3. […] About That “Metrical Index”A helpful explanation of how to use the metrical index in the back of a hymnal. […]

  4. […] tune than the one employed in the hymn book. (The Metrical Index can help with this. See my article About That “Metrical Index”.) Make sure the tune fits the word emphasis of the metre, and the mood of the […]

  5. Yet *another* outstanding post! Robert, your “batting [“writing”] average” seems very high — please assure us, your faithful readers — that these articles are not being developed by a high-tech machine at your office;—-)! Seriously, I am kidding here! (back to the baseball metaphor) You have covered ALL of the bases (“basses”?), and have not “slid into home plate” by making any ridiculous assumptions either…

    Except for just one minor point: “balks at Bach…” (see #9) What? Are you suggesting that there might be a congregation somewhere on this planet that… “balks”? Maybe… (just a wild idea here, since I suspect that a rather high percentage of your readers are not from a liturgical [in the literal sense of the word] background)… we could put in a request for a post to assist those from churches that might LIKE to *not* “balk at Bach” — perhaps interweaving several of his better-known chorale settings with several traditional hymns (i.e., hymns of the 18-19th centuries) — a “taste test” (imagine here the small wooden spoon for sampling new ice cream flavors…).

    And… thank you (yet again!) for your excellence in including the “finer points” — that simply because the metrical index numbers match does NOT mean that the trochees, iams (not dog food), anapests, or dactyls will also match! Great work, and may Jesus Christ be praised all the more, as some churches will hopefully “test-drive” (or “taste-test”) some lesser-known melodies to assist congregations/choirs in pondering more deeply some very familiar words.

    p.s. Your comment (#3) about not overdoing it is also very wise. Some churches stay stuck-in-the-mud, *never* trying a new tune to old words, while a few (but very, very few) churches jump to the other extreme, with a perpetual stream of new tunes to well-loved, “old” words. Perhaps occasionally having the choir (for churches with a choir) sing a verse or two of the “new” (i.e., less-familiar) tune with the well-loved “old” words would be a helpful way to introduce a new melody/harmonic setting. Just a thought!

    • Thanks for a fun response. As to balking at Bach, that was said a bit tongue in cheek. (And I liked the alliteration.) Even so, I’m trying to make the tent as broad as I can. I recognize that some are not used to that style of music. Should they be aclimatized to it? Sure. But in the short term, perhaps a more familiar tune will help to deliver the message of the text to them.

      P.S. Did you catch my article today about 30 Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing in your church? I’m waiting to see what the response is. Hope folks don’t miss it because it’s a ways down in the post.

  6. No, but I’ll take a look right now! (I’m still working my way through the “stacks”! Someone bring me a hymnbook to sit on!) By the way, I do so enjoy your “—re” (“Canadian-style”) way ~ w/the British English — of writing m-e-t-r-e! Makes me think of that wonderful verse… that “people of every language, nation, tongue…” will be in Heaven! Yes!

    ps Quick question: Every now and then I drop in to visit bookstores with used books — and am forever on the “look-out” for (surprise!) old hymnbooks! Not necessarily anything of “antique” value, but for the wonderful discovery of “new” (but really quite “old”) hymns — both the texts and the music. Would you please name a few that might have hymns written by Canadians/for use in Bible-believing churches in Canada? NB: I have only a faint reading knowledge of French, so I am requesting that your reply would kindly recommend only hymnbooks in English! (British/”Canadian” English would be lovely!) Thanks!

  7. […] ABOUT THAT METRICAL INDEX. Perhaps your hymn book has at the back something called a Metrical Index, with lists names followed by funny looking numbers. What’s it for? How can we make practical use of it? My article will explain. […]

  8. […] Sometimes there is value in singing a hymn to a different tune. But be warned! You will soon discover that many love a particular hymn as much for its singable tune as for the spiritual significance of its words. Even so, a different tune–as long as it provides an appropriate vehicle for the lyrics–can bring new insight into the meaning. Don’t overdo this. But used occasionally, it can be refreshing. To see some possible tune switches, check out my article About That Metrical Index. […]

  9. […] back tomorrow, for new Reflections on a hymn. Meantime, I invite you to read the Topical Article About That Metrical Index. Some hymn books have one, and you may have wondered what all those numbers mean, and how they can […]

  10. AAAaaaaahhhhhhh! So simple when you know! 😉 Yes, that’s very valuable information. Now I get it (I think)! 🙂

    • Well! Nice to see your smiling face. Glad to be a help. With a little care and creativity, the metrical index can enrich our hymn singing. God bless.

  11. […] Meanwhile, here’s a nice general explanation (from a hymnology site) about metrical hymns and how to use them: […]

  12. I appreciate your suggestions about which tunes to match with words. I would suggest that you post every so often about some songs that you have tried with different tunes. Sometimes I feel like I am reinventing the wheel when I try new ideas. Thanks again for the wealth of information in this site.

    • Thanks Charles. Changing tunes (if it’s not done too often) can be an effective way to revitalize the text and its meaning. As you’ve seen, I list a number of examples in the article About That “Metrical Index.” And every once in awhile I’ll get a suggestion from readers about another switch that works.

      The tunes of some hymns and gospel songs were written especially for certain lyrics, and use what’s called an “Irregular Metre.” The metrical index isn’t going to help much there! But many hymns were written with common metres in mind. The reason for this is that the hymn writers were often not musicians, so they wrote their lines of verse to fit a tune already in existence. A bit of experimentation with the metrical index will uncover some tunes that work well with another hymn than the one they were printed with.

      Be aware though, that sometimes folks love a particular hymn because they like the tune. In that case, they won’t think a new tune is an improvement! But stick with it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes. God bless.

  13. […] than the one employed in the hymn book. (The Metrical Index can help with this. See my article About That “Metrical Index”.) Make sure the tune fits the word emphasis of the metre, and the mood of the […]

  14. […] you need to know what this is. These few pages in the back of a traditional hymnal are called a metrical index: from Church Hymnary, Canterbury Press, […]

  15. I have for years tried to comprehend the use of the period in the meter. What is the difference between (Celeste) and 8 8 8 8, or 8 8.8 8? The stresses are different, but what does the period, or absence thereof describe?

    • Well now! You have touched on something that I didn’t really notice before. Maybe it’s just a matter of choice. Checking several hymn books, I find that most use periods (, and one uses commas (8,8,8,8)–though periods seem to be the standard.

      I did find one hymn book that had a combination. For example, for the hymn Amazing Grace, it has 86.86. This appears to be a way of distinguishing lines of poetry in each stanza (of which there are four) from lines of music (of which there are two). Maybe that’s the answer. If you come across more information, I’d love to have it.

      • Thank you for your efforts

      • My current opinion on the use of a period in meter is that it represents a caesura or cesura., in other words 8 6 . 8 6 could be 14.14. In the poetry of a hymn the absence of the period suggests that does not have to be clear break between the two lines, and the presence of the period indicates a definite break or pause. Consider for example, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me (period) I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” or , “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise (period) the glories of . . .”
        That might help in matching words to a tune.

  16. If it is worth anything, I offer the following.
    Foot – two or three syllables. A line or verse is made up of a number of feet.
    At least one syllable in a foot is stressed or accented, marked ̄ or ́or ̂
    A syllable that is not stressed is marked ̆

    Types of foot:
    Spondee: ́ ́
    Iambus, iambic: ̆ ́
    Trochee, trochaic: ́ ̆
    Dactyl: ́ ̆ ̆ (Never used by Charles Wesley)
    Anapaest: ̆ ̆ ́ (Used often by Charles in later years, a distinct departure
    from the conventional hymn-writing of that time.)
    Amphibrach: ̆ ́ ̆ (Not a true English foot)

    1 foot to a line: Monometer
    2 feet to a line: Dimeter
    3 feet to a line: Trimeter
    4 feet to a line: Tetrameter
    5 feet to a line: Pentameter
    6 feet to a line: Hexameter
    7 feet to a line: Septameter
    8 feet to a line: Octameter

    Note: In some cases scansion seem to be a matter of taste.

    Ŏ fór / ă thóu /san̆d tonǵues / tŏ sińg,

    Jésŭ, / lóvĕr/ óf m̆y / śoul
    Lét mĕ / tó Thy̆ / bósŏm / flý.

    My̆-y̆ Gód / Ĭ am̆ Thińe, / Whăt ă cóm / fŏrt dĭvińe/
    (From a poetic view, the first foot actually has only two syllables,
    but the popular tune puts it across two notes)
    How happy are they Who their Saviour obey.

    To quote J. Ernest Rattenbury: “A more powerful instrument for expressing
    and creating emotion was never devised than Charles Wesley’s joyous anapaestics.” And, “The chief reason for the disuse of such metres . . . is that no one is ecstatically happy enough to need them now.”

    Dactyl (Not used by Charles Wesley)
    Bríghtĕst an̆d / bést ŏf thĕ / sóns ŏf thĕ / mór̆nĭng.
    (From a poetic view, the last foot actually has only two syllables,
    but the popular tune puts it across two notes)

    John Wesley shows a preference for simple measures, four or six lines of eight syllables each.
    John uses rhyming consecutive lines, In the 1949 Hymnbook, he uses consecutive versus alternate line-rhyming more or less equally.
    Charles prefers alternative lines to rhyme.
    In the 1949 Hymnbook, with eight syllable lines, Charles uses alternative line rhyming about fifteen times more often than consecutive line rhyming.
    John shows a tendency to divide eight syllable lines into two clauses of four syllables, with a pause between. John shows a tendency to elaborate or repeat a thought. (tautology)
    John’s vocabulary is more academic. Practically all John’s hymns are translations, and though he lacked the fluency of his brother, he was more academically correct, and rejected any sentimentality.
    Charles is looser in construction, more fluent, uses more clichés and expletives, is more emotional, sentimental, and passionate, even using erotic language.

    • My, oh my! Your knowledge of the subject is far beyond my own, so I have no basis on which to either agree with you or challenge you. 🙂 It all sounds plausible, though I’m not sure how much is truly helpful to the average service leader, in a practical sense. Usually, a test of singing the words of a hymn to a particular tune will show whether the proper syllables are emphasized or not. That may be sufficient for most. But thanks for the enlightening notes.

  17. Finally found someone on the internet that explains C.M. But still can’t find anything on S.M. or L.M. metres. I figured that L.M. may be but don’t know what the L stands for? Maybe S.M. is and what does the S stand for?

    • Glad you found some answers. The Metrical Index can be a great help in changing the tune used with a hymn. CM = Common Metre ( SM = Short Metre ( LM = Long Metre ( If you go to the Cyber Hymnal page Tunes by Metre, you can find an incredible array of tunes listed in this way–seems like every metre known to man, and a few that aren’t! 🙂


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