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What is a “traditional hymn”?

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.

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Finally, classic hymns can be sung without technology or even instrumentation. Contemporary songs require them.

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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

7 Responses to What is a “traditional hymn”?

  1. Thanks for this, Scott. In the few contemporary worship settings that I have been in I have noticed exactly what you describe. Nobody knows the songs, aren´t singing, and most look around awkwardly to see if anyone else is:)
    To your last point, contemporary songs can be scaled down to ¨unplugged¨ versions with guitars and/or piano. Thanks again.

  2. “if the only interest is in complicated rhythm, they’re not singable unless you already know it.” What songs, classic or otherwise, are singable if you do not know the song? Try “And Can it Be” without prior rehearsal– this is guaranteed frustration.

  3. “Objectively singable” means… nothing. “Singable” is self-defined as “able to be sung.” The objective measurement of this is whether someone can sing the song. Therefore, any song that has been sung is objectively singable.

  4. This article is condescending to people who enjoy and are capable of musical performance.

    Just saying.

    And I am done trolling now.

  5. Hey Scott, thanks for the thoughtful article. I enjoy interacting with your posts and they have been helpful to me in many ways. Are you familiar with a group called CityAlight? Particularly “All My Ways” and “Christ Is Mine Forevermore”. This is not an endorsement, but simply to point out that there are (I believe increasingly more) examples of songs in the “contemporary” style with bridges and “other pop conventions” whose range and tessitura are quite accessible, whose melodies are artistic and memorable, and whose rhythms are not complex. Matt Boswell who, granted, also writes some in the “classic hymn” idiom, has some good examples of this as well.

    In short, I find your general principles of singability accurate, but do not agree that they are distinguishing marks of “classic hymns” vs “contemporary songs”. It’s easy to cherry pick the poor examples (of which admittedly there are many) and ignore the (relatively few, but not as few as you lead us to believe here) good ones. But it’s been the work of the minister of music in any age to sift through the available in search of the useful. I’m not sure limiting ourselves to the traditional or classic hymn is the right test.

    Thanks for letting me chime in!

  6. Hi, Stephen. Thanks for your contribution.

    With this kind of thing, there are always generalizations and exceptions, for sure.

    I listened to “All My Ways.” I will say that you are correct in that it’s singable. However, strip away that band, and it’s melodically boring. You can probably find examples of “traditional” hymns whose melodies are boring as well, so again, I get that this is just generalization. But I can’t see a song like this being sung without the rock accompaniment, and that distinguishes it from a traditional hymn, in my opinion.

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