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Musical Form in Christian Hymnody

This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series

"The Hymnody of the Christian Church"

You can read more posts from the series by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Musical form shapes content in very similar ways to poetic form, yet it is a bit more abstract and thus considerably more difficult to readily recognize. But because music communicates by mimicking natural human expression, anyone can discern the basic meaning of music by simply listening closely and asking a few penetrating questions.

Music contains many different structural elements that work together to shape the content like cadences, tonality, tempo, meter, rhythm, dynamics, density, timbre, register, texture, and motives. Thankfully hymns are very simple musical forms, and so we really only need to concern ourselves with three of the most basic musical elements—melody, rhythm/meter, and harmony. We will also briefly consider the way a song is performed since that, too, shapes the content. Keep in mind that all of these elements work together to shape content, so evaluating each individually is a bit artificial. Out goal in considering these individual elements is that we might be able to evaluate how they work together to shape the biblical content of the hymn.

Melody

Let us first consider melody. The melody is the tune you sing. Melody is really just a step above human vocal intonation. When we want to shape the way a word or phrase is perceived by a listener, we use tone of voice to do so. So if you were to ask me how I am doing, I may answer with the word, “Fine.” But my tone of voice can shape that content to connote very different messages.

If my voice begins high and moves down quickly, I am expressing genuine pleasure.

If my voice is relatively low and I stretch out the word in a soft tone, I am expressing that I am doing ok despite some kind of disappointment.

If my voice is harsh and quick, I am letting you know that I really am not fine.

Again, in each of these cases the content itself remains the same while tone shapes the underlying meaning. It is also important to recognize that tone of voice can actually contradict the normal meaning of the content, as when I express harshness using the word, “fine.”

Every parent is experienced in discerning the underlying meaning of phrases based on tone of voice. Have you ever said to your child, “Don’t speak to me in that tone of voice”? Was the reason for your displeasure the content of what was said? Often not. Often you are displeased with your child’s tone, because tone shapes the perception of content. So your child can respond, “Yes,” to a question you ask him, but by his tone you perceive underlying disrespect.

At its root, melody is merely an intensification of natural vocal intonation. We’ll see this better later, but the earliest forms of music were simple chants—not much more than intoning a text. Musical form has certainly evolved and developed far beyond that today, but at its root, melody is still based on natural human vocal inflection. American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein summarized this point well:

Music is Heightened Speech. After all, what causes such a heightening? Intensified emotion. Hunger. Impatience. Certainly the deepest universals we all share are emotions, or affects; we all have the same capacity for passion, fear, anticipation, aggression. We all display the same physiological manifestations of affect; our eyebrows go up with anticipation; our hearts pound with passion; and fear affects us universally with goose flesh. And in the sense that music may express those affective goings-on, then it must indeed be a universal language.1

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Tobias Clausnitzer, "Blessed Jesus, at Thy Word"

This is why any person should be able to basically discern the way a textual content is shaped by a melody. We can hear what is going on because such shaping is natural to us; we do it every time we speak.

Meter/Rhythm

The next structural element of a hymn is its meter and rhythm. This is very similar to the meter and rhythm of poetry that we discussed above. The meter of a song is based on patterns of weak and STRONG beats, just like with poetry.2 The weak and STRONG beats themselves, combined in a variety of durations within the song, are the rhythm. And just like poetry, meter in a hymn tune is usually either a feeling of two (weak- STRONG or STRONG-weak) or three (weak-weak-STRONG or STRONG-weak-weak).

Understanding this, you can see parallels between meter in poetry and meter in music. Just like with poetic meter, two-beat patterns usually shape the content to feel more serious, stately, or declamatory, while three-beat patterns often shape the content to have more of a light, waltz-like, or skippy feel. And this is why tunes with a two-beat feel will fit texts with iambic or trochaic poetic meter, and tunes with a three-beat feel will fit texts with anapestic poetic meter. There are exceptions to all of this, and this explanation is a bit simplistic, but it does summarize meter fairly accurately.

So how does this work? Well, similar to how melody is based on natural human vocal inflection, meter and rhythm are based on natural human body language. All humans express various emotional states using certain physical expressions. This is why you can look across a room at another person and perceive their emotional condition simply by looking at their facial expression, how they are moving, and how they are carrying themselves. Again, if I respond to your question of how I am doing with, “Fine,” but I have a frown, I’m stooped over, and moving slowly, my physical expressiveness shapes that content in a direction other than what would naturally be communicated with that word.

So meter and rhythm are intensifications of natural human physical movement. So just like with melody, any person should be able to basically discern the way a textual content is shaped by meter and rhythm. We can “feel” what is going on because such shaping is natural to us.

Harmony

The third category of structural phenomena in a hymn is its harmony. While melody is related to vocal inflection and rhythm is related to physical movement, harmony is related more broadly to the created order in general. Let me explain what I mean.

Simple harmony is the sound that is produced when two or more pitches are played or sung simultaneously. That sound production can express various feelings based on the natural relationships between the pitches. More complex harmony is pitch relationships over longer phrases of music, used to develop a particular “mood.” We all perceive the “feeling” of harmony instinctively. If I play a C Major chord, the harmony produced by the combination of the notes C, E, and G sound complete and restful to us. Musicians call this consonance.

Example 1: C Major chord

On the other hand, if I play a C and a D flat simultaneously, the harmony produced by that combination is harsh and unappealing. Musicians call this dissonance.

Example 2: Dissonance

In between these two extremes are many, many different pitch combinations and relationships that produce various harmonies. These harmonies can then shape content to “feel” sad, happy, restful, suspenseful, pure, harsh, longing, and much more.

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We perceive this harmonic shaping naturally, as I said, because harmony is rooted in the created order—what is called the harmonic series. There is not time to explain all that the harmonic series is or what it implies. If you remember that all sound is vibration, and that pitches are produced by various ratios of sound waves, you have at least a basic understanding of harmonics. When notes are played or sung that fit into natural ratios, the sound is consonant; when the combination does not relate to natural ratios, the sound is dissonant. The progression of such pitch combinations then create harmony on a larger level. Thus how we perceive such relationships is based on the created order.

Now the explanation I have given is very simplistic and basic. There is much more to harmony than notes played simultaneously. Harmony is about relationships, and some of those relationship occur on much larger scales than just a moment-in-time chord.

But the point is that just like with melody and rhythm, any person can fairly easily perceive how harmony shapes content because harmony exists in the same ordered universe that we do.

Performance

Finally, many other structural phenomena in music can be categorized under performance— how a hymn is sung, arranged, and accompanied:

  • Tempo – the speed at which the hymn is performed. Like rhythm, various tempos correspond to our physical movements.
  • Dynamics – the loudness or softness (or changes thereof) of the performance. Similar to melody, dynamics relate to vocal intonation.
  • Density – the amount of voices or instruments played at once. Whether a hymn is sung just with voices, with a piano, or with a full orchestra shapes the content.
  • Timbre (rhymes with “Amber”) – the tone color of various voices or instrument. The unique sounds of different instrument contribute to shape content. Some instruments sound pure, others mellow, some powerful, and others harsh.

Finally, the way in which an individual sings a hymn can shape the content of that hymn in drastic ways. Just with how a person uses his voice, he can shape a song of love for God to sound reverent, casual, romantic, or flippant.

Consider, as an illustration, the infamous example of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. The words she sang were certainly not controversial, but her tone, body language, and performance style created a scandal. Notice how even Wikipedia describes the event:

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President” was a song sung by actress/singer Marilyn Monroe on Saturday, May 19, 1962, for then-President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, at a celebration for his forty-fifth birthday, ten days before the actual day of his 45th birthday, Tuesday, May 29. Sung in a sultry voice, Monroe sang the traditional “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics, with “Mr. President” inserted as Kennedy’s name. . . . Afterwards, President Kennedy came on stage and joked about the song, saying, “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way,” alluding to Monroe’s delivery, her racy dress, and her general image as a sex symbol.

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In this case, the textual content and even the musical form itself were far from offensive. Yet Monroe’s vocal performance, delivery, dress, and image communicated subtextual messages that were missed by nobody. I raise this point only to illustrate that performance style shapes content.

The same is true when hymns are sung or played in worship. How we sing or play shapes the message of the hymn.

My point in considering the anatomy of a hymn is not to suggest that you need to memorize all of this pick or apart each element to determine how form is shaping content. My goal was simply to demonstrate how each element does indeed shape the content in different ways. In real life, you’re likely never going to try to figure out what the poetic meter is or analyze the harmonic progression. But whether you’ve be aware of it or not, form has shaped your affections and imagination with relation to the content. And so hopefully now you’ll pay closer to attention to whether how the form is shaping the content is worthy of the content.

Conclusion

The hymnody of the church is important to God only because how we express our affections to God is important to him. Some kinds of affections are inordinate—they are inappropriate for expression to God. And because a hymn, through poetic and music devices, can shape doctrinal content to express various kinds of affections, some hymns are appropriate for expression to God, and some are not.

Thus as Christians committed to expressing to the Lord affections that are worth of him, it is our responsibility to parse the meaning of hymns to discern whether they are best for use in Christian worship.

Next, we are going to look at how hymnody has developed over time to where we are today.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.



Endnotes:

  1. Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1976), p. 15. []
  2. Technically the “meter” of a hymn refers to the number of syllables in each line. Here, I am using the term “meter” in a purely musical sense. []

7 Responses to Musical Form in Christian Hymnody

  1. Hi Scott, In this article when you say "shaping content" you are referring to how the music shapes it to the mind of the singer/listener, no? Is that the same way you've been using that phrase throughout the series? I've been understanding you to mean that the form shapes the content as the writer/composer creates the text. Or have you meant that as well?

  2. I'm actually thinking of the shaping apart from the creator or the receiving. The form itself shapes the content in a certain way, similarly to how a vessel shapes a liquid or a mold shapes clay. The creator and receiver are certainly involved, but it is the form itself that does the shaping so that although the essence of the content does not change, how it is presented is effected.

  3. Ok, that makes sense to me, musically at least. If I were thinking of this in terms of packaging then, would I be on the right track?
    As pertains to the actual words though, when you change wording and imagery as in the examples you gave in a previous article, we see a difference more than mere presentation, no? The actual essense is different. There is a different understanding of safety imparted in each, it seems to me.

  4. Yeah, packaging is a good analogy, although packaging usually doesn't actually shape it's content; but I suppose it could.

    By "content" I'm referring to the basic propositional idea being communicated. So, for example, with "A Mighty Fortress," the content is not the lyrics; the content is the idea that God is a protector, etc. So that content (or idea) is shaped by the words and phrases that are used to express it, along with the musical form, presentation, etc.

    Does that make sense?

  5. It does on one level, but ignores the fact that more than one proposition resides in stanza one of A Mighty Fortress, propositions which may not be echoed in the other examples. At the risk of involving more categories than you might desire to use for the purpose of these articlse, I would say they all the examples share a theme, but the content is different.
    I don't mean to split hairs any more than I want you to think I'm calling you an equivocator (I'm not). I just want to nail down the scope here.

    While we're hashing out here, you noted you were talking about shaping content apart from creating or receiving that content, I'm sure your going to connect that specific shaping to the receiving at some point, yes?

  6. Oh, certainly there are many ideas communicated throughout each stanza of the hymn.

    OK, if you want to use "theme" instead of "content," fine. My point is that each of the examples share the basic theme, but how that theme is communicated renders the theme either true or false, right or wrong.

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