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What can the psalms teach us about good hymn tunes?

Studying the inspired psalms can certainly teach us much about hymn texts, but can they also teach us about what makes a good hymn tune? Terry Johnson believes so:

Many are quick to point out that God has not given us a book of tunes. No, but He has given us a book of lyrics (the Psalms) and their form will do much to determine the kinds of tunes that will be used. Put simply, the tunes will be suited to the words. They will be sophisticated enough to carry substantial content over several lines and stanzas. They will use minimal repetition. They will be appropriate to the emotional mood of the Psalm or Bible-based Christian hymn. Sing the Bible.1

What else can we learn from the psalms about what makes a good hymn tune?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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.

  1. Terry L. Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That is According to Scripture (Greenville: Reformed Academic Press, 2000), 37-38. []

32 Responses to What can the psalms teach us about good hymn tunes?

  1. All of the things listed in the above quote about tunes that fit the Psalms (the tune suited to the words, able to carry weighty content, appropriate to the mood of the Psalm) are all excellent points. When I look at the Psalms in relation to music I see that God really cares about what we sing. The fact that the book of Psalms, written by several authors, has been preserved for us as our biblical ‘hymnal’ tells me how important it is to the Lord. It seems logical to conclude that the tunes we choose to sing these Psalms also matter to God and are deserving of great thought and care. We should not be flippant or casual about the music we use in worship. The tunes should reflect the glory of God.

  2. I find it interesting that Terry Johnson says that hymn tunes should not be terribly repetitive if reflecting the psalms. When looking at most hymns, there is much repetition in those that are commonly sung. Think of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Jesus Paid it All” and so on. These and hymns like them have multiple A sections. Just an interesting thought as I was flipping through the hymnal.

  3. After reading this article, I have no idea what to write. But then, Dr. Aniol’s lecture pops up in my mind. “Hebrew singing followed the natural accents of the text”. With this statement, I believe that what psalm can teach us about hymn tune is, when composing a hymn tune, we need to pay attention on the natural accent of the text. Hymn tune that does not accent on the natural of the text is really annoying.

  4. I believe that Christian composers (of any genre) should bring their first fruit offering to the table when writing for these divinely inspired texts. The music should proclaim the text above all else (being done for God’s glory alone and none other). Psalm 150 (and many others) continually speaks of praise the Lord. From this psalm we can learn that our music should praise the Lord. May we glorify, honor, and praise the sovereign, omnipotent, Holy Godhead through our music and every other aspects of life.

  5. I am enjoying learning about the parallelism in the Psalms and processing it as I read the Psalms. I would think that the tune should support the parallelisms in the Psalm. For example, if a Psalm has repetitive parallelism, you could compose the tune so that each consecutive line builds on the previous one.

  6. Even the simplest of the psalms is theologically rich. So, too, our hymns should have textual depth and a tune that well-structured and well-thought-through. Like Ai-Chin said, the tune should flow well with the natural accents of the words. Also, as the psalm-writer chose specific words and word order to create a picture and communicate meaning, so a good tune should “paint” the words. For example, “I lift up my eyes to the hills” might have an ascending, rather than descending, melody. A good hymn tune will bring out the meaning of the text, reinforcing and illuminating its truth.

  7. In psalms there are abundant poetic devices, such as metaphor, chiasmus, and personification. If I can read them by Hebrew, I could find more poetic devices, including alliteration and anaphora. Especially Hebrew parallelism makes psalms be rhythmical. If there is a climactic parallelism in a psalm, for example, the tune may naturally go up. Thus, using poetic devices and parallelism can make good hymn tunes.

  8. Johnson makes a good point when he says that Psalms may not be a book of music, but it is a book of lyrics. Music should reflect the idea that’s being conveyed in the lyrics, so it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Psalms can also reflect what kind of music is appropriate for worship. One point Johnson makes I kind of disagree with is when he says that hymns should have minimal repetition. One of Ben’s examples, “Jesus Paid It All,” is repetitive, and it’s one of the most well-known hymns out there. Sometimes, it’s good to use a little repetition, because the congregation has an easier time learning it. Repetition shouldn’t be overused though, otherwise it makes a good tune annoying like a child asking “are we there yet?” every five minutes during a long car ride.

  9. Johnson says that the tunes should be used to fit the text which is very true. One of the best bad examples of this is “Love Lifted Me.” It is a jolly tune with the first line of the text being, “I was sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore….” This is a good example of what happens when a good text and a bad tune are put together. For the sake of the text many composers have taken this text and have put new tunes to it that express the anguish that the text lends itself to instead of a happy happy joy joy tune.

  10. I believe a good hymn true should fit the natural accent of the text. (and if it is doable have some level of “word painting”) Then, follow the poetic devices of the text and brings out the main message of the text. Singable and memorable need to be put in consideration.

  11. Through the book of Psalms, there are so many images that describe how great our God is. Like using “Simile”, imagery effect will describe more to the congregation.
    For an example,
    “O Lord my God, I take refuge in you;
    save and deliver me from all who pursue me,
    or they will tear me like a lion
    and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me (psalm 7:1-2)

    God described as a refuge and evil and oppressors
    described as a lion. Those images will give, reader or composer, effective
    pictures and melodies about God oppressors.

  12. I agree with the point here that the tune should fit and naturally flow with the accent of the text. If we notice the poetic devices in the text, then a good hymn tunes should not be too much of repetitive. Based on Dr. Scott’s lecture, I think to be well known the poetic devices is important, it will help us to distinguish what kind of tune would fit a text better.

  13. Most of the Psalms are praises to God as prayer and confession. For a good hymn tune, good words must be present. I believe that the words are the most important thing for a good hymn tune. If the words change, the tune should change, as well. From the Psalms we can learn that our music should praise the Lord and only focus Him.

  14. I think Terry Johnson made it very clear that a good hymn tune should fit the words. Thinking about Christians in China, I think a good hymn tune would not only fit the words, but also make Christians feel “home”, which means singing from inside out. For many Chinese Christians, a pentatonic melody sounds more like the what they sing from the bottom of their hearts. When someone is still struggling with singing, what he sings will only be singing, instead of worshipping from his heart.

  15. We can see the movements, throbbing lightly and its living breathes from the lyrics from the book of Psalm. It can be said as its own “natural accents of the text” like Ai-chin said. The lyrics from the book of Psalm already has its rhythms, beats and melodies. In a good hymn tune, we may be able to feel the correct rhythm and motive. The hymn is a prayer to God. It is important for us to keep the true meaning of the text with its own melody.

  16. I agree with most of the people who are saying that the tune should fit the text. Matt made a good point about “Love Lifted Me.” The question I have is, do we learn from the psalms that the tune should fit the text? Because we don’t know how they were originally sung, we are just inferring that fit for every psalm. Just a thought.

    Singing the Bible is a noble goal. How far can a song be paraphrased before it is considered extra-scriptural? By looking through the hymnal, a good portion expresses biblical truth but I would not know what exact passages they are trying to communicate if it were not for the index in the back (or the reference at the bottom of the page). It appears that as long as the general idea remains unchanged and biblical truth is communicated, the exact words or expressions are subject to free creativity.

  17. Psalms are God’s word they are the best things to learn how to praise and worship God. Many of the Psalms were written by King David who is described by Paul in the NT as being a man after God’s own heart, because of this and inspiriation, David writes the Psalms in accordance to God’s desires for us in our praise and worship towards Him. This idea is important because we must worship God on his terms, not on our own, and we can learn this from the Psalms as God himself tells man how to worship Him.

  18. Joon, I like your idea of climactic parallelism being set to an ascending musical sequence. Nice! A good example of this (I picked my husband’s brain – I take no credit of my own) is Crown Him With Many Crowns (223) when it says “Awake, my soul, and sing / of Him who died for thee / and hail Him… A good related example (not climactic, but of sequential word painting) is All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name (340). The verses talk about bowing down to Christ – Let angels prostrate fall / We at His feet may fall, etc. Then the “Crown Him” refrain has a descending sequence, as if bowing lower and lower.

  19. I had an “aha” moment in church on Sunday about rhyme scheme and its effect on a hymn, particularly whey marrying a text with a new tune. We sang Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies (not in the class hymnal, but tune: DIX) and right away something bothered me about it. Then I realized it was because the rhyme scheme is not an exact match to the tune. This tune is in Bar Form, but more specifically (AB)(AB)C. The tune makes you expect the A & B couplets to rhyme, but they don’t – A & A rhyme, and B & B rhyme. Take a look:

    Christ, whose glory fills the skies / Christ, the true, the only light
    Sun of righteousness, arise / triumph over shades of night

    So, I began to investigate this tune. For the Beauty of the Earth (341 – maybe the most popular setting) has the same problem:

    For the beauty of the earth / for the glory of the skies
    For the love which from our birth / over and around us lies

    But, As With Gladness Men of Old (150) fits perfectly, and lo and behold, this text is written by William C. Dix, whom I presume the tune is named after?

    As with gladness men of old / did the guiding star behold
    As with joy they hailed its light / leading onward, beaming bright

    So, each of the three texts work with the tune (hymnic meter, poetic meter, mood), but As With Gladness Men of Old works the very best because its rhyme scheme also matches.

  20. God has not given us a book of tunes, only a book of lyrics, but He gives us the freedom to sing new songs unto Him. I agree with Terry Johnson’s opinion :”psalms form will do much to determine the kinds of tunes that will be used.” Psalm’s structure can help to set the structure of the hymn tune, psalm’s content of the psalm can set a basic major or minor key of the hymn tune, and the repetition word in psalm can also be reflected in the hymn tune.

  21. I agree with what Janis said about parallelism. This idea will teach worshipers to understand the idea better while singing psalm.
    Again at this post, I would like to re-stress my point in my first post, which is the hymn tune should flow with the natural accent of the text. I remember, a few weeks ago, I posted, when English worship song is translated into Mandarin, even thou the truth is there, but the feel is awkward. I think the reason behind this awkwardness is the tune does not flow with the accent of the mandarin text and the pitch. Mandarin has four different pitches. Sometime the same pronunciation with different pitch means differently. Therefore, the feeling is awkward.

  22. I like how Ai-chin talks about how translating a song from English to another language can make it sound awkward with the original tune. I’ve listened to a few worship songs that have been translated into Japanese, and they also sound awkward with the tune. The singers had to shift the accents of the text in order to match the tune and some words were even run together. So, when translating songs into a different language, should we also modify the tune to match the translated text, or marry the text to a new tune altogether?

  23. I agree with ai-chin and Megan. In Korean Hymns does not match the meaning in English. It needs a lot of efforts to translate in different languages. Sometimes it needs to change some melodies or pitches and rhythm to reflect the meanings of the text. I believe modify the tune to match the traslated text first because text is the most important than tunes and the rhythms.
    If the text does not deliver to other language then, it would be better to sing with original text and tune and translated into their language a side.

  24. I heartily agree with all of you that address tone painting. I see tone painting as a creative way in expressing the text and in speaking to the emotions. Sarah, your example of “All Hail the Power” is a great one. There are three tunes commonly used for the text, MILES LANE (1779), CORONATION (1792), and DIADEM (1838).

    I really enjoyed working on a couple of arrangements of this hymn. One is a capella for trio and one for piano. I used all three of these hymn tunes throughout each arrangement. MILES LANE most clearly “paints” the phrase “Let angels prostrate fall,” as well as, “Ye ransomed from the fall.” I also like the way this specific tune “paints” the repetition

    “And crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,
    Crown Him Lord of all.”

    It is also interesting how all three hymns begin on an ascending 4th for the words, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name!”

    In looking back at the arrangements, I see that where the tune didn’t descend like I would have liked, I wrote the harmonies to paint that effect. However, especially for the purposes of our class, I would vote that the tune needs to “do the painting.”

    P.S. Perhaps I should not admit this, but I did not know the tune names until now!

  25. Talking about the tune fitting the text, I think we need to consider about the language of the text first. The difference between two language could make a perfect fit hymn tune become odd for the text. A good hymn tune need to fit the language that people are singing. It would take a large amount of time and wisdom to translate a hymn to another language, because the text would be different in rhyme, poetic meter and hymnic meter. It almost as difficult as composes another hymn. For this reason, whenever think about a good hymn tune, I would pray that more Chinese Christians could compose more Chinese hymns.

  26. I think Sarah is right that a good hymn tune will bring out the meaning of the words. It would make sense for the melody to to ascend up the scale on a text about ‘lifting up my eyes’. A descending melody would contradict the lyric.

  27. By reading through the discussion about translating the text in to other languages, I really agreeing with Leyi’s point. Each language is different, even though there are lots of translated hymns, but many texts are still not well enough suiting with the tunes as the original language. I think learn the text well it will help to makes good hymn tunes. If we learn the Psalms text structure in Chinese, I believe it will produce different good tunes to fit the text.

  28. Ben, you hit on an interesting point. How close should the text be to the original. This would have been debated among Luther and Calvin. I believe that it should at least carry the biblical idea, theology, and doctrine. I find it interesting that Tertullian mentions new inventions in the third century. Though we don’t know 100% that the church of Acts did not always quote Biblical text, we know by the third century they wrote new texts. I believe, we must make sure we are speaking Biblical truth, but a paraphrase or new text is fine. Great question to think over though.

  29. As Jiazi mentioned, we have lost lots of details from the original psalms when they translated. Even though there are many crude word-forword translation phrases in the Korean Bible, Psalms still have rhyme and I can sing them with my own melodies.

  30. I don’t think anyone would disagree that the tune should fit with the text. I am just wondering how the psalms specifically give us an idea of what a good tune is? Johnson makes the conclusion that the psalms teach us that tunes should be sophisticated, with minimal repetition, and appropriate to emotional mood. While I agree that tunes should express these qualities, I think it is a stretch to assume that from the Psalms. To me, Johnson is making her own conclusions about how a tune should fit the text and connecting that to what the she believes the music of the psalms was. Because we do not have an idea of what music sounded like back then, what was considered sophisticated, with minimal repetition, and appropriate to the emotional mood could have been much different then now. Just some thoughts.

  31. first, I was surprised to know that Megan has listened to a few worship songs which have been translated into JAPANESE! lol. and she even felt awkwardness from those! Even though Japanese doesn’t have accurate pitches like Mandarin, still we feel awkwardness with those songs that have been translated.Though the meaning is correct, still it gives us uncomfortableness because the movement and flowing subtly does not match when its sung in Japanese. So I agree with Kyu Lee that it would be better to have a translation a side and to sing the original text in stead of translating into other languages and to lose its own beautifulness.

  32. I agree with Brandon that it is tough to be definitive about what the music SHOULD be since we don’t know what their music was. The one thing I think I would differ on though is the statements made about minimal repetition. I would agree that most of the Psalms have little repetition but then you have some like Psalm 136. By the time you get to the end of that chapter (26 verses), you have read “for his mercy endureth for ever” a total of 26 times! To say there shouldn’t be repetition would be a stretch…perhaps we should say it should be used on occasion (Brandon did say minimal though). One thing is for sure, you remember that His mercy endures forever after reading that Psalm so there is at least some merit to repetition. I personally try to keep repetition down to a very bare minimum when I lead the congregation. I skip choruses quite frequently so people don’t tune out.

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