What Makes a Great Hymn Tune?

What Makes a Great Hymn Tune? January 18, 2013

Just like the title says. I love to think about what makes a great tune tick. When it comes to hymns, it’s especially cool.
Here is how I would describe a great hymn tune: A great hymn tune is one that sounds beautiful and interesting even when it’s presented simply and sung by a congregation of mostly average singers.
Now it’s your turn. What makes a great hymn tune?

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  • It passes the test of time and is easily adaptable across cultures and genres.

  • Good one! So in other words, it doesn’t sound “dated” in the sense that a BeeGees song sounds dated (even though we may be able to place what particular era of hymn-writing it comes from).

  • Janet B

    Ok, first of all – don’t diss the Bee Gees! 🙂
    As for your question…it really is a subjective thing, isn’t it? I’ve always loved harmony…so that part of a hymn has always been really important to me. Boring alto part = zzzzzzzz
    Marry great harmony with an interesting, beautiful lyric…and that’s a great hymn.

  • The Bee Gees helped me keep my sanity on the first day of school, but I hope you would agree that they are hardly high art. 😀
    I think excellence is to at least some extent objective, so I’m not prepared to say this question is all subjective. However, great harmony implies that there is a great tune to harmonize with, so going back to our original question, that seems like a good criterion.
    We haven’t even ventured into the realm of lyrics yet!

  • Saved Girl

    I like Dawn’s definition as well as yours. I would just add that it should be singable. Meaning, the average congregation should be able to sing it easily in tempo after hearing it played through once. Some songs just have strange beats and timing and the congregation doesn’t even have them down by the 4th verse. Those songs just don’t typically tend to make the “great” list. Just my two cents, having been in two churches that have the tendency to sing those types of songs half the time.

  • Saved Girl

    My sister is a nurse. Did you know that the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” has the perfect beat and tempo for CPR compressions? 🙂

  • Lydia

    Amen to that, about singability.
    It needs to be singable without being jingly and have harmonic progressions that are natural without being dull. A great hymn tune should have a definite telos. The congregation should be able to feel it going somewhere and leading them along, toward its high point and/or its resolution and conclusion. The tune should fall naturally into a limited number of lines or phrases, and those phrases should in turn fit naturally with rhymed and metered poetry. The tune should be short enough to be remembered without, ideally, being simply repetitious. It’s sometimes interesting to notice how many short, great hymn tunes there are out there.

  • Janet B

    We could have a whole ‘nother discussion about the Brothers Gibb. Like I said – harmony. 🙂
    Just to be clear: In order for a congregation to sing a hymn, it has to have lyrics. N’est pas?
    If you’re talking about just the music…I love instrumental hymns. But, it really depends on the arrangement.
    One hymn that keeps coming to mind in this discussion is Lord I’m Coming Home. It plods…it has strange timing (at least the way our congregation sang it!)…it just never did anything for me. However, I have heard some lovely arrangements of it since way back when, so maybe it’s all in how it’s treated?

  • No Saved Girl, I didn’t know that. Hilarious.
    Janet, obviously we could have an even longer discussion about what makes a great hymn lyric! I was just trying to narrow the focus a bit, that’s all. 🙂
    That hymn doesn’t ring a bell, but if it really does sound plodding when sung with no “bells and whistles,” then I don’t think it can legitimately be called a great tune. The greatest tunes stand on their own feet.

  • Janet B

    Check out the Tent Revival Homecoming cd/video – Michael Sykes sings it. (Tried to find it on YouTube for you – no luck.) Does a beautiful job with it…which was my point (maybe it depends on the treatment it’s given?).