What makes a good hymn tune?

Balance holds the key to a good tune, says Dan Damon

For the composer, hard work and prayer make a good hymn tune. The proof is in the singing. There are good hymn tunes in every musical style. A good tune will have the power to delight us on first hearing. It will make us want to sing it again.

It will be memorable: we may leave worship humming the tune. It will be accessible: church musicians from urban cathedral to country chapel will be able to play the music with the resources available to them and make the tune come alive. The “original artists” will not be needed for a successful rendition.

Our favorite hymn probably grew into that status over time. We remember singing our favourites at various times and places in our lives. A new tune has no memory associated with it. The tune “Sine nomine” (“For All the Saints”) was new in the 1906 English Hymnal. No memories were attached to it. Did everyone like it on first hearing? I doubt it.

I consider “Sine nomine” to be a great hymn tune. However, it contains some elements that could be challenging on first singing. The range is wide. The text is irregular, causing the rhythm to be different in each stanza. Some congregations in 1906 may have found the hymn too difficult, but over time people came to love this tune.

Repetition gives the tune structure, is an aid to memory, and makes it easier to sing.

A good tune will set the right mood for the text. It will also amplify the meaning of the text. For example, a lively dance tune doesn’t work well with “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts, because the cheeriness of the tune works against the seriousness of the text. The tune helps communicate the theological idea or the biblical story. A good tune must be the servant of the text.

A good tune often makes use of repetition. Many tunes have four phrases in which the first, second, and last phrases are the same. Only the third phrase is different. The repetition gives the tune structure, is an aid to memory, and makes it easier to sing.

In my tune “Night of Peace”, I tried to incorporate these elements. In each verse, both the words and melody of the fourth line repeat the first. The range of the tune is moderate. The tune lifts up the text; its gentle, meditative character helps paint the picture of Mary and Joseph marveling at their newborn baby. The tune will work with the many different musical accompaniments in use in our churches today.

What makes a good hymn tune? Regardless of the musical style, we are looking for a balance between symmetry and asymmetry, unity and variety, activity and repose, repetition and contrast. Rather than having some measures in a folk style and some in German chorale style, a good tune will be written in one musical genre – in other words, there will be a sense of continuity in the music. It will be singable and memorable.

The tune may not start life as a congregational favorite, but if it is given a chance, it may help us reach new generations with the good news of God’s redeeming love.

Dan’s hymn collection, Faith Will Sing, is reviewed here.

Find out more about Dan Damon’s work and publications at Damon’s Tune Shop.

Categories: Articles, Words and music.

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