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This is "A mighty fortress is our God". Two versions: The one with lyrics is taken from the 1939 Church of Sweden chorale book, the other from a book on how to play the organ.

In the first phrase "Vår Gud är oss en väldig borg", one example has the melody beginning on beat 3 and a long note on "borg" with a long pause. The other has a shorter pause and the melody beginning on beat 4.

Why aren't they the same when it is the same hymn (with the same lyrics)? If I were to read the lyrics/text I could accent different words. These two versions sound different if I just read them as written.

4 Answers 4


The history of hymn tunes is all about evolving musical styles and adapting old material.

The Wikipedia page gives a summary for this particular tune.

It's original form was...

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The German Wikipedia page shows that mensural notation in modern notation and then in metered form...

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The point is that we can't even begin talking about different forms of the tune without first acknowledging that there are several historic phases adapting the tune to changing notation and rhythm systems. This addresses directly the first difference in the two examples you give where the barline is placed at different points. It also sets up the general idea that these tunes are adaptable.

Now let's move on to the harmonization.

Your harmonizations of the two examples are:

C: I |   V6 iii vi   V/V | V

C: I | I V6  V  vi | V/V   V

It should be clear that the general harmony of those two is basically the same. I tried to line up the similar chords visually. Both phrases use six chord. The only difference is the first one uses a iii mid-phrase and the second uses V to harmonize the B natural of the tune.

Bach wrote three harmonization that appear in the 371 Harmonized Chorales:

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One of the examples has the melody beginning on beat 3 and a long note on "borg" with a long pause. The other example has a shorter pause and the melody beginning on beat 4. Why is this happening?

The second example follows the notation of the Bach examples using only a quarter note with fermata (or comma) to indicate a pause.

The first places the barline differently, but strong beat positions are still the same. The first note is on a weak beat.

Both move by quarter notes until the phrase end (indicated by the fermatas).

The wiki page shows two the difference between the original, rhythmic form, and the later isometric (an "even" meter, i.e. without the irregularities of the original) one

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Ultimately, I think the answer is the rhythm of the original mensural tune is open to interpretation when you put it in metered form, but overall the general rhythm is the same: start with a weak pulse, three strong pulses, end on a long, strong pulse.


These are not two different versions of the same hymn. The only difference is that one note is held longer in places. People in different places hold that note longer, so to keep it in a standard 4/4 time signature, the first note is moved to beat two to make up for the extra beat in the half note (then rest.) I have heard it sung both ways. The pick-up to the second phrase, whether after a half note and rest, or after a breath mark, still begins on beat 4.

You don't need to change the accents of the words. 4/4 is just about the same as two groupings of 2/4. In both of these, you can see that the same words and notes fall on the same part of a grouping of two.

Two versions of hymns (same words) happen all the time, but they are called alternate melodies. The melodies are completely different, not just one note held longer.

  • How would the accent be the same? If "Gud" is on a medium beat rather than a strong beat it must be different. Beat 3 and beat 1 don't have the same accent. How would they then sound the same?
    – user20754
    Aug 3, 2019 at 16:44
  • 1
    @Hank, the difference between strong and medium (1 & 3) is very slight. All time signatures are combinations of groups of two or groups of three (or both, such as 5/4). Michael's answer above even gives an example written out of what I am talking about, a version in 2/4.
    – Heather S.
    Aug 4, 2019 at 10:40

The original tune is rhythmic (syncopated), but by the time of Bach it had been rewritten to be isorythmic (even, regular). My guess is that the change reflects the move of the culture away from Renaissance rhythmic patterns to more classical ones. Music is very sensitive to shifts in culture. Very few music survives through history completely unchanged.


One element as to why the two versions sound different that is not covered in Michael's excellent answer is the difference in the harmonisations, which despite the "basically the same" nature of the underlying chords, are still significant and more importantly explainable differences (more than just "the whim of the person who did the harmonisation").

The first one, intended for organ and seemingly for the purposes of supporting congregational singing (the Swedish text is additionally describing a legato playing style), has very simple internal voices, which although not very interesting from a compositional point of view (and full of dubious voice-leading, which won't be that obvious on a full organ with different stops sounding the same pitches in multiple octaves), do allow for a clear focus of the listeners' ears (and thus singing) on the melody. The choral version, on the other hand, provides something that is more interesting for the singers, so that each voice isn't repeating the same pitch for too long, which would otherwise sound a bit stagnant and not give the full four part sound of a choir.

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