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 22.214.171.124 D. (The “D” stands for doubled, so the number becomes 126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52.)
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 184.108.40.206 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 220.127.116.11 D tunes:
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 18.104.22.168 (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 22.214.171.124 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 126.96.36.199 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.