Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Podcast: Musings Under the Sun 003 | Providence, Part 1: Introduction

Today on Musings Under the Sun, I begin a series of thoughts and reflections on John Piper’s new book Providence.


John Piper, Providence (free PDF of the book) - https://bit.ly/3sgZIH0

John Piper, “Boasting Only in the Cross” (sermon from Passion 2000) - https://youtu.be/XajXpH908Yg

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Thursday, March 11, 2021

"The Bible Recap" Podcast Links | The Gospel of John

March 14th, John 1

March 15th-17th, John 2-4

March 18th, John 5

March 19th, John 6

March 20th-21st, John 7-8

March 22nd-23rd, John 9-10

March 24th, John 11

March 25th, John 12

March 26th, John 13

March 27th-30th, John 14-17

March 31st-April 1st, John 18-19

April 2nd-3rd, John 20-21

April 4th, Resurrection Day

Thursday, January 28, 2021

What Makes A Hymn?

It’s a question that I’ve often been asked, but also one that I’ve often asked myself. In the context of Christian worship, the term hymn gets tossed around fairly regularly. But what exactly is a hymn? Is there something that makes a hymn different from your average worship song?

The dictionary defines a hymn as “a religious song or poem of praise to God.” That definition seems generally accurate, and is probably in line with the origin of the word “hymn” (Greek humnos, meaning song of praise). However, by that definition, virtually every Christian worship song in existence could be called a hymn. But in terms of modern usage, most Christians probably sense that some distinction should be made. Not every worship song is a hymn. After all, the apostle Paul exhorted the church to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19), which seems to imply a distinction between “hymns” on the one hand, and general “spiritual songs” on the other.

Granted, understanding exactly what Paul means by those words would require a detailed look at what the specific Greek terms meant in the ancient world. Which would be interesting and worthwhile, but it’s not what I intend to do here. Maybe another time. Here I’m mainly interested in explaining, at least in terms of English usage, what I believe musically distinguishes the concept of a hymn from worship songs in general.

One common perception is that a hymn is basically an old worship song. So according to this thinking, if it was written over 100 years ago, then it’s probably a hymn. But while it’s true that many hymns are old (i.e. Amazing Grace), I don’t think that’s what makes them hymns. There are modern hymns like “In Christ Alone,” which was written in 2001. And there are still hymns being written today.

Some people distinguish hymns as having a unique emphasis on doctrine and theology. I think that’s generally true, but I don’t think that’s what makes them hymns. For one thing, general worship songs can be just as theological as any hymn. And conversely, there are some hymns out there that I wouldn’t describe as greatly theological, like “Softly and Tenderly” for example. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad song. I’m just making the point that hymns are not necessarily “deep” or “rich” in theology.

Another take I’ve heard is that a hymn is basically any song that would qualify for printing in a hymnal. In other words, whenever a worship song becomes such a well-known standard in the Christian world that hymnal publishers see it as worthy of printing in their publication, then that song effectively becomes a hymn. For example, Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” is printed in some hymnals, which is understandable because it’s been a well-loved song in Christian worship for years now.

Nevertheless, I don’t think being printed in a hymnal makes a song automatically a hymn. I think there can be more of a definitive musical standard undergirding what we classify as hymns. And here goes my best effort at spelling one out. In my view, a worship song is a hymn whenever its melodies are specifically written in a way that carries the timing of the song, making it naturally singable by a large group of people with or without musical accompaniment. This is the reason why hymns work very well a capella—with no instrumentation. (Fun fact: The term a capella literally means “in the manner of the chapel.”) Of course, hymns are great with accompanying music too, but they’re also not held back without it. This is part of their beauty and appeal in congregational worship.

The rest of this post is going to show some specific examples of what I’m talking about. People who are non-musical may lose interest beyond this point (if they haven’t already). I don’t read traditional musical notation, at least not very well, but I do have some understanding of time signatures, beats, etc. I visualize songs more from the mindset of a drummer than a piano player. I’m just going to display things visually in a way that makes sense to me. The simple goal here is to show where each syllable of the melody occurs in relation to the beats.

First let’s look at a few classic hymns that are written in 4/4 time, meaning each measure in the song has four beats in it. Syllables in blue occur directly on the beats, which are indicated by the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. Syllables in red occur on off-beats, which are indicated by the “and” symbols.

As you can see, the movements of the melody consistently follow the beats of the song. This is what gives the melody an audible rhythm. In fact, there are not even any off-beat syllables in this portion of the song.

Also, notice that there is never more than one beat of empty space. (In this example, all of the 1-beat syllables are being sustained melodically through the 2-beat.) This is because in order for a melody to effectively carry the timing of a song, it has to keep moving. We have to keep singing. You can’t have significant stretches of empty space in the measures, like other worship songs sometimes do.

Let’s look at another classic hymn.

Again we see a regular pattern of on-beat syllables, and this time we see several off-beat syllables as well. But the off-beat syllables always, without exception, immediately lead into on-beat syllables. They’re consistently “tethered” to the on-beat syllables in this way. They do not occur “by themselves.” They melodically support the on-beat syllables.

Whenever a significant number of off-beat syllables do occur “by themselves,” it’s referred to as syncopation. According to one technical definition, “syncopation occurs when a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent occurs.” So the simple presence of off-beat syllables does not automatically indicate syncopation. It’s only when off-beat syllables are present in a way that disrupts “the regular metrical accent.” In other words, I would say, when the off-beat syllables are not tethered to and supporting on-beat syllables.

In the example from “There Is A Fountain” above, the off-beat syllables are always supporting on-beat syllables. And this causes a natural “metrical accent” to be maintained (similar to how some poems have a da-DA-da-DA rhythm). There’s a consistent rhythmic cadence that can be heard in the melody, even without musical accompaniment. And that, in my judgment, is the hallmark of a hymn: melodies that carry the timing of the song, which generally requires there to be little or no syncopation. In a video discussing song-writing, Keith Getty, a prominent figure in the modern hymns movement, says this: “Generally speaking it’s easier to teach a mass of people to sing a melody that doesn’t have syncopation.”

More of the same here. The melody is consistently oriented on the beats, and the off-beat syllables support that pattern, rather than disrupt it.

Now let’s switch gears and look at some popular worship songs that I would not classify as hymns. I think you’ll be able to see a clear difference.

Now we’re actually seeing a prominence of off-beat syllables, many of which are not tethered melodically to any on-beat syllables, but occur “by themselves.” In other words, syncopation. And notice how, between the first and second line, there are almost two entire measures of empty space, which are simply carried by the music. For these reasons, a song like Glorious Day does not work well without instrumentation; the song heavily relies on it. This does not make it a bad song. It just makes it not a hymn, in my view.

These next two may be more difficult to see, since I had to expand them to include 16th notes, which is just a further sub-division of off-beats between the beats and the “ands.” But as you can see, this chorus melody is heavily syncopated. If someone were hearing Revelation Song for the first time, but without any instrumentation, it would be very difficult to discern the time signature of the song by only listening to the melody.

Again, lots of syncopation.

But the point is not that syncopation is bad. Songs that are not hymns are not therefore bad songs. They’re just not hymns. But all three of these non-hymn examples I’ve shown are songs that we sing at our church and enjoy. I’m in the middle of writing a worship song myself, and the melody is quite syncopated throughout. So it’s not a song I would consider a hymn.

Anyway, there you have it. My best attempt to explain what a hymn is, and what makes it different from general worship songs. A hymn is a song composed of melodies that inherently carry the timing, making them ideal for singing by a large group of people without the need for instrumentation.

I do think the term hymn should be reserved for songs that are actually spiritual and worship-oriented. For example, the traditional New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” is melodically structured very much like a hymn in the way I’ve described here. Its melodies carry the timing of the song. But since it’s not a song that’s spiritual or worship-oriented in its content, I would not call it a hymn. (Although Dustine Kensrue used the “Auld Lang Syne” melody to write a great hymn called “All Glory Be To Christ,” popularized by Kings Kaleidoscope.)