When songwriters learn about hymn meter (also called poetic meter) it can seem like rocket science. But meter is simply built on the natural stresses of words. Look at these opening lines from William Cowper’s The Lord Proclaims His Grace Abroad:
The Lord proclaims His grace abroad!
“Behold, I change your hearts of stone;
Each shall renounce his idol god,
And serve, henceforth, the Lord alone.
Each line is eight syllables, known in the world of hymns as Long Meter. When you say these words aloud, you will naturally put more stress on some syllables than others. Look at the first line. The most natural way to pronounce it is:
the LORD proCLAIMS his GRACE aBROAD
So this is an iambic line — a line in which the stresses fall on the even syllables. Once Cowper establishes this pattern, we will hear each line that way even if he slightly varies the pattern. So the second line, most naturally, would sound like:
beHOLD I CHANGE your HEARTS of STONE
Although, having caught the iambic pattern in the first line, we would end up singing the line this way (unaccented “i”):
beHOLD i CHANGE your HEARTS of STONE
Along with the term “iamb/iambic,” units of metric feet can be trochee/trochaic (DUMdum), spondee/spondaic (DUMDUM), pyrrhus/pyrrhic (dumdum), anapaest/anapaestic (dumdumDUM) or dactyl/dactylic (DUMdumdum). But let me ease your mind about all these terms. Most likely you already know what all these terms mean. This isn’t a matter of learning new concepts so much as learning how to put a name to the things you instinctively feel when you hear a line of music. For instance, even if you don’t know that the word “quietly” is dactylic, you know it is pronounced “QUIetly.”
If you have a good ear for music, you don’t have to get hung up on counting exact syllables per line or thinking to yourself “I need to find a trochee here” unless you enjoy it. Just ask yourself if the stresses feel natural, or if you’re cramming words into a line that is too small for them (usually because you’re trying to get to a rhyme at the end).
What if Cowper’s first line in the song above was:
“Well, the Lord proclaims His grace abroad” (9 syllables) or “You know, the Lord proclaims His grace abroad.” (10 syllables)
Would that make this line unsuitable? No, because even though there are now nine or ten syllables instead of eight, there are still only four accents. In contemporary music we recognize that words like “Well” or “You know” are often filler, almost like “Huh,” or “Uh huh.”
I’m not saying filler words are a good thing, mind you, only that songwriters don’t necessarily need to pay strict attention to syllables per line when writing new songs, as long as they get the accentual meter right.
I mentioned accentual meter in our Modern Hymns page, using the Bob Dylan song “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” That song generally uses what we call Common Meter, eight syllables on on odd-numbered lines, six syllables on even:
I gazed down in the river’s mirror
And watched its winding strum
The water smooth ran like a hymn
And like a harp did hum.
But notice the first line contains nine, not eight, syllables. It still works because the last word “mirror” ends on such a soft syllable that we don’t really hear it (and if you listen to Dylan’s recording, he actually sings it as one syllable “mir’r.”
You’ll find this in hymns all the time: two-syllable words that are contracted down to one, because that is how people tend to pronounce them. Look at this line from Charles Wesley’s All Praise To Our Redeeming Lord:
E’en now we think and speak the same,
And cordially agree;
Concentered all, through Jesus’ Name,
In perfect harmony.
Another Common Meter hymn, except the first line would be nine syllables rather than eight, had not Wesley contracted the first word “Even” into “E’en.” Regardless, while the word “even” would generally be pronounced “E-ven,” (accent on the first syllable) in this line it is an entirely unaccented word. While it might not be “filler” in the literary sense, we sing it the same way we often sing filler words like “Oh,” “Uh,” or “Yeah.”
So in Accentual Meter, only the accents (also called “stresses”) are counted. Look at this verse from the Sojourn song “There Is A Peace,” written by our friend Charlie Richardson :
Youʼve been TEMPted and SHAken, TESTed and FAILED (11 syllables)
Youʼve been SO far from JEsus, TOO close to HELL (10)
Your VIsionʼs been CLOUDed by this WORLDʼs deLIGHT (11)
But I tell you youʼre NOT of this WORLD so STAND up and FIGHT (14)
Youʼre NOT of this WORLD so STAND up and FIGHT (10)
Although the syllables-per-line ranges from 10 to 14, each line has just four accents (which I indicated using ALL CAPS).
Charlie doesn’t count syllables when he writes. He composes with his guitar, but he has a good ear for accents, and for creating enough musical space that he can squeeze words and phrases into lines (like “But I tell you” in the fourth line of the verse above) without their feeling crammed.
Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan do this well. But many modern singer-songwriters cram so many words into tight musical spaces that their skill at navigating them becomes part of the appeal of the song — “Look how many words I can sing without running out of breath.” This is fine as performance art, but remember that worship music is not performance art. The goal is for people to be able to sing along, even if they aren’t musically talented, and even after hearing the song just one or two times.
Give them space to breath, and keep the accents of your lines even. Whether you do this by strictly attending to syllable counts or by “playing by ear” is up to you.
- Photo above by Evelyn Saenz, used via Creative Commons license
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– Bobby & Kristen
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