What is a hymn?


If you talk to Christians about the music at their churches, it will not be long before the topic becomes the relative merits or demerits of “hymns” versus “praise songs.”  These conversations often operate on a shared set of assumptions that are not explicit to the outside observer.  For instance: What is a hymn?  And what makes a hymn different from a praise song?  When people say, “That song sounds like a hymn,” what do they mean?

At the beginning of this online conversation about church music, I want to simply propose a definition to a term, or rather suggest a way of understanding the term “hymn.”  (This definition may to be modified as  this blog evolves).  What is a hymn?  A hymn is a song for corporate worship that has survived a process of social selection over more than one generation. A hymn is a survivor of musical and theological trends; a hymn is a song that, upon testing over time, proves to be translatable into different cultures.  A hymn is a song that, if contextualized properly, can be sung earnestly by old people, young people, rich people, poor people, American evangelicals, Korean Presbyterians, Catholics, rural churches in southern Africa, and urban churches in Mexico City. A hymn is a song with a poetic and musical heart strong enough to be adapted into a wide variety of settings and still sound beautiful.

Think of it this way: Between 1800 and 1900, a whole lot of songs were written for corporate worship.  (Fanny Crosby alone wrote over 8,000 in roughly this period).  Most of them, the vast majority, you and I have never heard.  But out of the thousands and thousands that were written, a relatively small number, are still being used widely today.  These, I submit, should be considered hymns.

Likewise, today songwriters are composing a tremendous volume of songs for church usage.  Most of them will never get a wide hearing, and most that do, even many that are tremendously popular today, will be extinct in 20 years.  Time will reveal them to possess any number of unendurable qualities–they are too hard to sing, or too repetitive, or not repetitive enough, or they are simply too musically specific to the cultural moment in which they were written–they were too much products of their time.

So, for the sake of our conversation about church music, I think it is useful to think of hymns as those songs that have survived a process of social selection.  They are still around because their musical and lyrical content has been approved by a “democracy of the dead” as Chesterton would call it.

But why?  Why do some songs endure and become considered hymns while others disappear?  What are the features of a song that make it adaptable and able to survive?  We’ll talk more about this in subsequent posts.


8 Responses to “What is a hymn?”

  1. 1 Richard Magill

    As I said in my email to you, this is a much needed (and I’ll add here) soarly lacking resource for the church, and I think you have the skills, talents, and gifts needed to fill that gap. My only thought at the moment is, I wonder what those who would consider themselves modern day hymn writers, such as Keith and Kristen Ghetty, Steve Green, and Michael Card, would think of your definition of Hymns.

    John Frame also has some enteresting thoughts about this. I can’t remember the book that I am quoting, but he talks about the difference between hymns and contemporary praise songs being that hymns generally carry the weight of many, many theological truth’s, whereas praise songs typically take one truth, and endeaver to really drive it home to its singers. It is performers/audience. Interesting that he, being the classical musician that he is, states that both have their place in contemporary worship.

    • 2 churchmusicblog

      Thanks so much for your encouragement. Just starting a blog wouldn’t have happened without your input. Real quick: the only thing I’d say to Ghetty and the other talented songwriters you mention is that we are using the term “hymn” differently. I wouldn’t argue to them that my definition is better. We could call what I’m talking about “good hymns” or “the best hymns” or make up another term entirely. But whatever we do, we, musicians in the church, definitely need to have this concept in our minds–the idea of a song that is not just a representation of our instruments and our cultural preferences, but that is, musically, striving to be universal, singable anywhere and anytime by people who love the Lord.

      Specifically to Ghetty, et. al, I can only encourage the work they’re doing, and I hope many of what they define as “modern hymns” do in fact become enduring hymns by my definition. I intend no slight against their work.

      And I would agree with Frame, that both types of songs have an important place in corporate worship. But, again, I’d just say I’m defining the terms differently. We sing a song at our church called “Look and Live” (http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/i/v/iveamesg.htm). It would typically be defined as a “hymn” because it was written in 1887 by a dead white guy. But it’s similar in lyrical content to what Frame would call a praise song–it focuses on a simple truth, “look to Jesus and you will live.”

      Exceptions like that are why I’m going with a musical/socio-cultural definition of “hymn” rather than one based only on the lyrical content.

      This turned into rather a long comment. Thanks again, Richard!

  2. I think that songs which have endured, or have processed social selection are ones which use solid words and Biblical language. Let me expand. In my eyes, the great classic hymns are still popular today because they have richness to their lyrics which other songs do not have. Not only that, but their richness is “universally” recognized, and appreciated. We’re not talking about ambiguous nonsense which many of the contemporary worship songs seem to be. In those songs one can barely differentiate a song to a love, or a song to or about the King of Kings. Think about it, there are few, if any “traditional” hymns which we sing that could in any way confuse the singer about whom they are singing. The language of them is packed with scriptural truths, and most important convey the truth of Jesus and His majesty, supremacy, compassion, and every other adjective by which He is known. They stand the test of time, because they are about one who transcends time and people revere them as such.

  3. 4 Lewis Grant

    A hymn is a survivor of musical and theological trends…..proves to be translatable into different cultures.

    NIce definition. A pretty good start.

    A hymn is a song with a poetic and musical heart strong enough to be adapted into a wide variety of settings and still sound beautiful.

    In other words, there is presumably something objectively beautiful about the song that transcends the particularities of its context, including the limitations of its hearers to appreciate it. That is, it is beautiful by a set of objective (at least in theory) standards. It’s not just beautiful in the eye of the beholder. OK, next question: where do those standards come from? I think this question is going to come up again later, in a fuller discussion, maybe in person, perhaps involving Reformed theology, which I’m looking forward to. I may even try to do some writing on this myself, if I have the time and energy, which I probably won’t.

    Time will reveal them to possess any number of unendurable qualities–they are too hard to sing, or too repetitive, or not repetitive enough, or they are simply too musically specific to the cultural moment in which they were written–they were too much products of their time.

    Some people would argue that art is always a product of its time and has to be understood in that context. In other words, we can’t just write songs the same way that they wrote them 200 years ago, because they fit into a particular time and place. We can only appreciate them if we learn to understand the context in which they were written and how they spoke to that context. I’m not necessarily suggesting this myself, and in fact I probably (tentatively) disagree with it; but it’s an interesting question that I haven’t fully worked through.

    • 5 churchmusicblog

      Lewis, thanks so much for your comments and input. Yes, the larger question of “what is beauty?” or “what is beautiful?” does seem to be creeping around the corner, waiting to pounce on us, doesn’t it? I am looking forward to coming back to that question later, but I have a response (or you might say sophisticated cop-out) at this point. And that is this: We don’t have to answer what is “beautiful music” in any sort of objective sense, all we’re trying to get at is “what music most serves the purpose of corporate worship?” Imagine all of music in the universe being represented by a house with lots of rooms–big rooms, like “jazz” or “blues” and smaller more specific rooms like, “jazz flute.” We could argue all day about what is most beautiful. But now think of “music for corporate worship” as only one of the rooms in that house. We don’t have to argue about what is most beautiful in any objective sense in order to say, “Song A works great in this room, and song B does not.” I know this doesn’t really answer the question fully, and you’re right, we will come back to it. But for now, I think it’s okay to begin by answering, “What music best serves the purposes of corporate worship?” And then we’ll tackle the larger aesthetic questions later. Is that fair? You’re the philosopher. : ) Tell me if I’m deceiving.

      • Wendell,
        I wonder if you’re making more of the universality of good hymn music than can really be upheld. The fact of the matter is that people at different points in history respond differently to different musical techniques and styles. So with regard to your example in your later post regarding “Jesus with thy church abide,” I think it’s probably fair to say that at the time the original music was written, if you were to have played Christopher Miner’s version, people would have at least responded differently to it than we do today, and they may even have outright rejected it. Take a look through the music in the Anglican hymnal and you find music (not just texts) that have been treasured by the church for years, but which would be completely ineffective in our context at Church of the Advent today. This isn’t because that music isn’t as good as other music that happens to still “work” today, it just means that our musical aesthetic has changed, and unfortunately left those pieces behind.

        I would suggest that considerations of musical style in hymn writing and singing are similar to considerations of cultural context in preaching. It’s important to preach, and sing, in a manner that is relevant to the people you are ministering to, but you can easily overdo it and end up leaving behind language, imagery, concepts, and musical elements that may still have value, even if they don’t sound like the coolest new trends in the culture. In other words, we should write new songs that draw on the musical styles of the day, without feeling like we have to copy the styles of Bach and Fannie Crosby in order to be legit; but on the other hand, we shouldn’t stop playing Bach’s and Fannie Crosby’s music just because it doesn’t have a 1-4-5 chord progression and a top-40 melody.

        So with regard to your question of “What music best serves the purposes of corporate worship?” I don’t think it’s fair to say that all of it will be “timeless” or “enduring” in a musical sense. Only a VERY small portion of the music of any era is still remembered or played today. To presume that you or I will write anything that will be remembered or sung in churches in 200 years is probably a stretch. Not impossible, but highly unlikely. But the music we write today is still important and valuable, even if tomorrow it will be forgotten forever.

        Sorry for the rambling thoughts here. Hope some of it made sense.


  4. 7 Lewis Grant

    I wonder if perhaps there’s a distinction between melodies on one hand and rhythms and (especially) styles (as defined most by timbre) on the other hand, where melodies would be more timeless and rhythms/styles more likely to change? I guess Levitin lists seven components of music – maybe some of them are limited enough in their possibilities as to make great innovations unlikely? Just throwing that out there off the top of my head. As I alluded above, not sure I’m ready to give up on the element of timelessness altogether.

  5. 8 churchmusicblog

    Adam, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I would echo what Lewis said and expand on it a bit. First, I think the distinction between melody and other stylistic elements is significant, in fact, it’s the whole point of what I am saying. Great melodies survive, regardless of original instrumentation, rhythm, tempo, or other accompanying elements.

    You’re absolutely right that musical techniques and styles vary with time and culture. But a good melody, because it is lovely when sung by the human voice, does not. Or at least, that’s what I’m suggesting. I came to this conclusion when I realized that it’s the common element between all the hymns we still use, whether written in the 14th century or the 20th or anywhere in between–they all have strong, stand-alone melodies. And we, today, can contextualize those melodies with our particular instrumentation, rhythms, etc. But the melodies endure.

    And with regard to you or me or anyone else writing songs today that will endure, I agree it’s a low probability. But that should not stop us from striving to write the best corporately singable melodies we can today. The songs that best serve our congregation today will be the ones with the strongest stand-alone melodies, because people will want to sing them. And those same songs will also, secondarily, have a greater chance of surviving beyond our context.

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