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I'm improving a web site that has indexes of hymnals, and one of the things I'd like to do is add an index of hymns' meters. I've learned a little bit about meters but I'm confused about a few points.

I have a "hymns" table, a "texts" table, and a "tunes" table. Each hymn – instance of a song in a hymnbook – is cross-referenced to a text and a tune. Some hymnbooks have a text with one tune, and others have the same text with a different tune, and this allows me to avoid duplication of data like the author's name, etc.

Is a meter something that should be tied to a specific text-tune combination, or can it be tied to a specific text?

Should I assume that if a hymn in one hymnbook is marked as common meter (8686), that all other hymns with the same text, no matter the tune, will always be in common meter? Does the meter ever change when a song is translated, or when a person makes a different arrangement (keeping the same basic melody)?

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He's talking about "meter" as number of syllables per line. Hymnals frequently include a "Metrical index" of tunes. A lot will be listed as "Common Meter" or "CM", because so many hymns are 8.6.8.6. Think "There is a green hill far away". There's also "Short Meter", "Long Meter" and a few more. It's purely a syllable count with no thought to stressed and unstressed syllables, but then many hymns barely fit the music after the first verse anyway! There's quite a few possibilities - here's two of the 8 pages of Metrical Index in my old "Hymns Ancient & Modern"

You should have meter as a property of both text and tune, so that you can look up both "Other possible tunes for these words" and "Other possible words for this tune".

I see little point in indexing by key, as hymn tunes always aim at an "easy" key for a congregation, and organists routinely transpose if a particular group of voices require it.

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  • Yes, this is the type of meter I'm talking about. The hope is that the index would allow someone to choose a different tune for a given text, or vice versa, just by using the index – I like your suggestion of tying meters separately to both a text and a tune. I didn't think about tunes having "syllables" so to speak. – Samuel Bradshaw May 4 '16 at 3:53
  • Sometimes one-syllable words are held out while the note changes – for example, the "-zing" in "Amazing Grace" is held out for two notes. Is that an instance where the tune's meter and the text's meter wouldn't match? – Samuel Bradshaw May 4 '16 at 4:05
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The "meters" in English-language hymn books describe the words, not the tune. They show not only the number of syllables per line, but also the rhyme scheme (that's what the dots in the meter signify). The rhyme scheme can be relevant for selecting alternative tunes to fit the words.

Except for the most common meters (CM, SM, LM), the meter is not a complete description of the musical rhythm required for the tune, because it ignores the pattern of stresses of the line. For example an 6-syllable line could be any of

  • three iambic feet (weak strong weak strong weak strong)
  • three trochaic feet (strong weak strong weak strong weak)
  • two dactyls (strong weak weak strong weak weak)
  • two anapests (weak weak strong weak weak strong)
  • etc.

A particular tune would only be suitable for one of those rhythms.

Another consideration is that "iambic" and "trochaic" tunes may have equal length notes (i.e. 2 or 4 beats per bar) or unequal length (e.g. a half-note plus a quarter-note, in 3/4 time). The words of a particular hymn may fit better to one of these alternatives than the other. And this ignores the fact that many old (16th century) hymn tunes originally had irregular rhythms, but were bowdlerized into conventional 2/4 or 3/4 time in the 19th century.

There is no logical reason why a translation must have the same meter as the original, and for some combinations of languages achieving that might be unnecessarily difficult. Personally I would consider a translation (whatever the language) to be a different hymn from the original. Translations which do preserve the meter are sometimes closer to a paraphrase than a literal translation.

In summary, "all this may be a lot more complicated than you first thought"!

  • Thanks for clarifying about the words' stresses not being noted in the meters. Is there a standard way to write a song's meter including the stresses? – Samuel Bradshaw May 4 '16 at 3:55
  • Can you give an example of rhyme scheme shown with dots? I haven't noticed dots in the hymnbooks I've looked at so far. – Samuel Bradshaw May 4 '16 at 4:01
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Meter, in the musical sense, is a property of music. If by "meter" you mean 4/4, 3/4, etc., then that can be independent of the text and would be part of the music to which the text is set.

In a set of hymns, you'll probably only have a few different musical meters represented, so you may not get much value by listing the meters of the hymns in this index. They will mostly be 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, if I remember correctly.

Listing the key might be a lot more helpful to someone searching through the hymns for something specific, if that's not already part of your plan.

  • I think this was part of my confusion – there seem to be different definitions for the term "meter" in music. I'm referring to the type of meter that Laurence has a photo of in his answer. – Samuel Bradshaw May 4 '16 at 3:57

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