Unless you have a background in poetry or hymnology, even those of you who are experienced songwriters may feel lost while discussing the mechanics of hymn text writing, and terms like “iambic,” “77.77,” and “tetrameter.” So let’s take the mystery out of it today with a simple glossary. Use the “Print Friendly” button at the bottom of this post to turn this Glossary into a printable PDF.
Before we go over the various units of line length in hymnody, let’s look at the standard units of metric feet in these lines. This term, “metric feet,” is just a way to categorize the way different syllables are emphasized when we speak or sing them. Here are the most common units of metric feet in hymns (and all songs, for that matter):
Iambic: two syllables with the first one unaccented:
Trochaic: two syllables with the second one unaccented:
Anapestic: three syllables, the first two unaccented:
Dactylic: three syllables, the last two unaccented:
You will also occasionally notice examples of Spondees (two accented syllables, such as “GET OUT!”) or Pyrrhics (two unaccented syllables, like the words “in the” in the phrase “SONG in the NIGHT”). But the four metric feet listed above are the basic building blocks, and for the most part you can focus on just the first two, Iambic and Trochaic feet.
So Now Let’s Learn About Line Length In Hymns:
Hymn text writers put those metric feet into lines of varying length. Here are the names of those lines:
Dimeter: two feet
(So if you primarily use iambs in a dimeter line, we’d call the line “iambic dimeter.” This would be a line of four syllables (because an iamb is two syllables long, and “Iambic dimeter” is two iambs). Here is an example of one line of Iambic Dimeter: “aLONE aGAIN”
Trimeter: three feet
“i SAILED aCROSS the SEA” (iambic trimeter — six total syllables)
Tetrameter: four feet
“a PENny FOR your PRICEless THOUGHTS” (iambic tetrameter — eight syllables)
Pentameter: five feet
aCROSS a CROWded ROOM i SAW her SMILE (iambic pentameter)
Hexameter: six feet
and, FORaging through WOODed HILLS, we SAW a BEAR (iambic hexameter)
Notice I substituted in a dactyl, “foraging,” in the last example — FOR-a-ging. It’s okay to make substitutions. But we’d still call this line “iambic hexameter,” because iambs are the dominant unit of metric feet in the line.
The most natural line for English poetry is four beats (tetrameter), which is the most popular line length in English hymnody, or five beats (pentameter), the line length of sonnets and blank verse.
Our founding English hymn writers chose to use forms out of the “ballad” tradition of English folk poetry, which generally uses four-and-three-beat lines. We see this in the three most popular hymn meters, all of which are primarily made up of iambic feet:
Primary Iambic Hymn Meters
Hymn meters with predominantly iambic patterns work well for propositional texts because they allow time to develop ideas and reach a climax at the end, like a series of waves that gradually gain strength.
SM – Short Meter (66.86, meaning two lines of trimeter, one line of tetrameter, and one final line of trimeter). Some hymnologists call this the “exhorting meter.” The short opening line is direct and abrupt, demanding to be noticed. You can hear an example of short meter on “Savior King,” by Sojourn, written by our friends Joel Gerdis, Eddy Morris and Dave Moisan:
CM – Common Meter (86.86, meaning alternate lines of tetrameter and trimeter). As the name implies, this is the most popular meter in hymnody. It’s a good meter for simple, direct words that briefly teach, state facts or recount a story. Listen to this example of Common Meter in “Let Your Blood Plead For Me” by Sojourn, written by me, Mike Cosper and Jeremy Quillo:
LM – Long Meter (88.88, meaning all lines are written in tetrameter). Because of its length, this is a good meter for grand themes, epic stories and sweeping theological studies. The danger is that because of the symmetry and length of lines, you may end up with a dull sound. Tunesmiths need to be on their toes. Here is an example of Long Meter: “Warrior” by Sojourn, written by me, Dave Moisan and Neil Robins:
If you see a designation like “LMD” or “88.88D” the D means “double.” So instead of four lines in the verse, you’ll have eight (“In Christ Alone” by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty is a “LMD” modern hymn).
Primary Trochaic Hymn Meters
Hymn meters with predominantly trochaic feet are terse and abrupt. Trochaic start with a bang, with the strong accent on the first syllable, then they fade away. While iambic lines build to a crescendo of accent and thought at the end, trochaic lines get right to the point. Trochaic hymns aren’t often good for gentle, meditative themes, but they shine as imprecatory prayers, commands, and plaintive cries.
77.77 — Seven-syllable trochaic lines are long enough to express ideas and theology, but still remain urgent. This is a good hymn meter for excitement, as well as for expressing lament or repentance. A modern example is Sojourn’s “Lead Us Back,” written by me and Brooks Ritter:
87.87 — This pattern works well for texts that require strength yet are expressing grand themes. You can carry out big ideas but still convey exuberance or longing. Charles Wesley’s “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” is a classic example. Here’s a version by Bill Mallonee:
Other Hymn Meters
A glance at the back of your hymnal will show many more meters than we’ve covered here, although the three iambic meters and two trochaic meters I’ve introduced you cover miles and miles of hymnody.
Here are some quick examples of other meters, just to show what they can do:
664.6664 — This meter can express hope and euphoria well, though the short lines don’t lend themselves to deep topics. The most famous example of this to U.S. readers will be “My Country, Tis Of Thee.”
85.85.888.5 — I used this meter on “All I Have Is Yours,” for which Rebecca Elliott of Sojourn wrote the tune. The 8’s are iambic and the 5’s are trochaic. Just when you settle into that “8585” rhythm of the first four lines, you give the congregation three lines of 8 in a row. This is where you can explain or explore the theme you’ve declared in the other lines. Listen to my example here: