What Makes A Hymn A Hymn?

Posted by Craig Borlase on 6 January 2015

To help kick off our Search For A Hymn contest, we thought we’d start at the very beginning and try to help define exactly what we mean when we talk about hymns.

Writing on his blog [http://mysonginthenight.com/2012/10/01/what-makes-a-worship-song-a-hymn/], Bobby Gilles makes some nice points about the key identifiers of a hymn. Inherent poetic value, disciplined use of words, the lack of a chorus and the extent to which they unlock praise.

 We like these points a lot, but want to add a few more thoughts.

1. There’s a reason why hymns often have the same tune and phrasing throughout. Typically the writing process for a hymn was different to the way we have come to expect modern worship songs to be written. Lyrics were often written separate to the melody, in fact, it was (and still is) entirely normal for a hymn to be set to a variety of different tunes. Most of the time, it was the music that came first (even starting out life as popular bar songs). All in all, it adds to the sense that when it comes to hymns, the lyrics do the bulk of the heavy lifting.

2. How come hymns lack a bridge or chorus? Over the last five or ten years we have learned of the importance of a well crafted bridge and chorus. These are the nitrous oxide in our songs’ tanks, the boost delivered at just the right moment to propel us into a new gear. Without them it’s hard to imagine an anthem ever really getting off the ground. And so, with our soaring melodies and building pre-choruses, we have succeeded in one of the unspoken aims of the modern worship movement and brought the sound of the church into step with the mainstream sounds of contemporary pop. And yet few hymns have choruses and barely any have a bridge. Perhaps now it is time for us to discover a new type of freedom; the sort that flows from the lyrics when it is the words alone that drive the emotion of the song.

3. Is it true that hymns tend to have more profound theology than worship songs? OK, well obviously there are plenty of examples to draw on that can knock this question back (think of the political weirdness of a hymn like Jerusalem and the eternal truth of The Servant King for starters) but somehow there’s something resonant about the idea that hymns go deeper than worship songs. They don’t hold the monopoly on theological truth, but perhaps some of the above helps to explain the reasons why they often appear to pack a heftier punch than traditional choruses.

Whatever way you take your hymns, and whatever way you like your worship songs, these are good days to have a blank sheet of paper in front of you, to own a decent pair of lungs and know what it feels like to have a heart beat inside of you that is thankful to God.

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