A friend recently asked how I would define a “traditional hymn” in contrast to a “contemporary worship song,” so I thought I’d post my response here as well:
The difference has nothing to do with when the song was written, which is why I actually don’t like “traditional” or “contemporary” as modifiers. I prefer to call what I’m describing here “classic hymns.”
First, a classic hymn is strophic, that is, it has multiple stanzas with the same melody. This aids congregational singing rather than being a performance. Refrains are not common in classic hymns, but they do exist. A classic hymn does not have a “bridge” or other pop conventions.
Second, the lyrical content of a classic hymn is doctrinal and theocentric. Even more subjective texts are more directed toward God or about God than self-referential.
“Contemporary hymns” might fit the two previous characteristics, but they fail the following:
Third, the tunes of classic hymns are objectively singable, a combination of the best of folk qualities and the most accessible of art music. The vocal range of the melody is typically around an octave or just over with the tessitura (where the melody mostly stays) not too high or low. Again, this makes the hymn congregational rather than performance. Even “contemporary hymns” have huge ranges that are not objectively accessible.
Fourth, rhythmically, the tunes of classic hymns are simple. I think this is one of the key differences between classic and contemporary tunes, and again this aids singability. The interest in a classic hymn tune lies in the melody and (if present) harmony. Classic hymns have interesting and singable melodies and simple rhythm with a lot of interest in the harmony. Contemporary songs have boring, static melodies and practically no harmonic development at all. So where they have to create “interest” is in very complicated rhythm. The problem is that people can’t sing it. People can sing simple melodies with simple rhythm, and then the interest is in the harmony. But if the only interest is in complicated rhythm, they’re not singable unless you already know it (from radio). I think this is an essential difference between classic and contemporary songs.
Finally, classic hymns can be sung without technology or even instrumentation. Contemporary songs require them.