Why Hymn Meter Matters

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Hands raised in Christian worship service at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville“Meter” comes from the Greek word for “measure.” When we distinguish metrical patterns, we’re asking ourselves about the “measurements” of various lines. Hymnals express this by counting syllables, so when you read that “Before The Throne Of God Above” by Charitie Lees Bancroft is 8888, it means that every line contains eight syllables:

Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free,
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me

Here is my friend and songwriting partner Brooks Ritter singing “Before The Throne Of God Above” using the melody by Vikki Cook of Sovereign Grace, on Sojourn’s Before The Throne album:

Horatio G. Spafford’s “It Is Well With My Soul” is, which tells you the number of syllables on each quatrain (unit of four lines):

Though Satan should buffett, though trials should come, (11)
Let this blest assurance control, (8)
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate (11)
And has shed His own blood for my soul (9)

What Good Hymn Meter Can Do, Even Without Music

A well-developed metrical scheme is musical by itself. When we read these poems out loud, the meter comes to us like musical cadence, even if we don’t know the accompanying tune (or if no tune has yet been written for the text).

This gives songs written in hymn meter a head start over song lyrics that have no regular meter of their own, but were instead grafted over the top of a guitar lick or chord progression. By “head start” I don’t mean it necessarily makes them better but it makes them more likely candidates for congregational singing, across musical genres, generations and even centuries.

Like music, the effect of poetic meter extends to physiology. English literary critic I.A. Richards said,

“It’s effect is not due to our perceiving a pattern in something outside us, but to our becoming patterned ourselves … the pattern itself is a vast cyclic agitation spreading all over the body, a tide of excitement pouring through the channels of the mind.”

So just as biblically sound, gospel-centered worship words are an aid to spiritual formation, meter helps by grafting this message deep into our emotions and physiology.

Genesis: Order From Chaos

Kristen and I recounted the Genesis creation story in “You Grew The Tree”:

You spoke into the void, (6 syllables)
Created every star,  (6)
You made the earth and everything (8)
That sin would one day mar (6)
And then Lord, by Your Word (6)
Appeared each form of life, (6)
And in Your image, Adam came (8)
And from him came a wife (6)

From chaos (the void) God creates order (stars, earth, life, humans).  We do something similar on a small scale whenever we write songs (or plow fields, arrange chairs in a room or balance a checkbook). We can’t create something out of nothing, but we can create order out of chaos.

Why? Because we are creatures, created in the image of God, our creator. Theologians call this the doctrine of imago dei (“image of God”). The first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that He is the Creator. Because of this, we are creative, always seeking to fashion order out of raw materials.

Paul Fussell, Jr. wrote:

“Medieval theories of meter, in fact, frequently assume that the pleasure man takes in meter is a simulacrum of the pleasure he takes in the observation of the principle of order and recurrence in a universe which itself is will and order incarnate.”

So the hymn writer takes the passions and knowledge swirling in his head, and shapes them into a metrical pattern that makes them more comprehensible, memorable and pleasing to others. Meter plays as much part as rhyme in ensuring we never forget:

Mary had a little lamb (7 syllables)
Little lamb, little lamb ((6 syllables)
Mary had a little lamb (7)
It’s fleece was white as snow (6)

Say the rest of it yourself now. Because if you ever learned this song as a kid, you know you remember it:

Everywhere that Mary went
Mary went, Mary went …

Photo above by Tom Branch, from Sojourn Church worship service

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