Recently, I was urged to teach the next generation concerning the qualities of great church music. I realize this is a tall order and one blog post would never come close to what is a life long endeavor. In consideration of the finest church music of the ages, I would be amiss to neglect the basic hymn. In a day when the average hymn book is hardly touched, we may find the hymn going the way of the eight-track player and the vinyl record.
What makes a hymn “good”?
In the fourth century, St Augustine described a hymn as follows:
Do you know what a hymn is? It is singing to the praise of God. If you praise God, and do not sing, you utter no hymn. If you sing and praise not God, you utter no hymn. If you praise anything which does not pertain to the praise of God, though in singing you praise, you utter no hymn.
Psalm 147:1“a song … a song of praise …”
a song of praise addressed to God
Let’s take a look at the textual and musical qualities of good hymns.
Textual Characteristics of Good Hymns
- God centered, not man centered
- Faithful to the Scriptures – doctrinal and theologically sound
- Reverent and devotional: (I Pet. 1:15-16)
- Clear in expression of spiritual meaning (I Cor. 14:14-15; Eph. 1:17-18)
- Poetic and lyrical in expression
- Simple in form with ease of movement
- High in quality (Phil. 4:8)
- Based on mutual experience
The health and energy of Christian life should be strengthened and Christian growth and development aided. Anemic, trite or sickly sentimentalism make no contribution in this regard.
Musical Characteristics of Good Hymns
- Strong tune: singable, easily learned
- Logical form, pleasing rise and fall
- Comfortable in range
- Unity of text and tune: accents, climax, mood
- Suitable change of harmony within the phrase
- Relatively longer rhythmic patterns
- A more melodic bass line and some melodic character to the inner voices.
The text and tune should combine to provide a worshipful experience; not for entertainment. When biblical truths are set to music, that music bears a great responsibility to support the truths of the text.