Church Music Terminology: What Is a Hymn?

Most likely, you have used a term like hymn, song, praise song, chorus, worship song, praise chorus, “praise and worship music,” etc.  What do these mean?  Are there associations with the terms?  What is the history of the term?

Specifically, the word I want to address is the word hymn.

Why Is This Important?

This is important because the words we choose to use when discussing the merits of songs tend to vary.  For example, when someone says “I prefer hymns over praise music” or “I like modern worship songs more than hymns,” what are we really meaning with “hymns.”  Or, if I say that I really like singing “hymns,” am I meaning a musical style?  A lyrical style?  Is it a reference to the age of the songs I like to sing?

For clarity, it’s good to have an idea of what we mean; or, better yet, it’s good to know whether or not we are going to be confusing by using certain words alone, in which case we should be more specific :)

Etymology

It’s relatively easy to trace this word back to the Greek word hymnos.  Ok, so what’s hymnos mean?  According to Strong’s, it means:

  • A song
  • A song of praise, specifically, a song of praise to God.

It is not a Christian nor Hebrew term, and there were many Greek hymns to other gods.

In the slightly less distant past, the word simply meant a praise of God in a song form (Thomas Aquinas used this definition, see this page).  In other words, using this ancient usage, all songs, regardless of how many stanzas or what meter or how poetic or how repetitive or how old or anything else, would be “hymns.”

How about more modern usage?  Today, the word carries a variety of meanings, but there are some common meanings.  However, in different contexts, we tend to conflate what we mean by “hymn” with other concepts.  So, first…

Common Connotations of the Word Hymn in Modern Usage

In modern usage, the term does carry some connotations that differentiate what we might refer to as a “hymn” from some other sort of song text form.  You may not mean all these when you use the word; these are simply connotations or meanings that I have come across or used myself.  The purpose for listing these is to show the variance of usage of the term.

Age and Musical Style

These will be discussed more in depth below where we talk about things it doesn’t make sense for the word to refer to.  These are common connotations in usage, though I have met few people, if any, that would actually consciously say that that is what they mean.

Multiple Verses

Commonly, the word “hymn” will be used to refer to a song with multiple verses.  Actually, it used to refer to songs without a refrain; hymns with refrains were referred to as a revival hymn.  Todaythough, that distinction is not made.  However, a song with only one verse would not usually be classified as a hymn.

Some Sort of Metrical or Poetic Form

Typically, the word will connote some sort of metrical or poetic form of writing…. e.g., imagery, rhyming, recurring meter, or any combination of these.

Depth or Progression of Thought

Typically, hymns are thought to be “deeper” than a non-hymn in some way.  Again, typically, this is evidenced by a progression of thought that the author goes through.

What the Word Shouldn’t Mean

When talking about hymns, there are two main things that the word should not refer to, otherwise it won’t really make sense.  The first of these is age.  The definition of a hymn shouldn’t be used with reference to how old (or young) a song is… otherwise, we would be forced to say that Wesley’s and Watts’s hymns were not hymns when they wrote them, but became hymns at some later date.  This seems illogical.

Secondly, the definition of a hymn shouldn’t refer to a specific musical style… otherwise, again, Wesley’s and Watts’s hymns that were intended to be sung would not actually be hymns until someone puts them to a specific musical style at a later date.  Hymnbooks that do not prescribe music but simply provide the text and assume the singer will pick an appropriate tune in the correct meter would no longer be hymns.  Also, in common usage of the term, we have a variety of styles of music associated with songs recognized as hymns; e.g., Of the Father’s Love Begotten vs. Christ Arose vs. Holy, Holy, Holy.

As a side note, there is a musical style that could be referred to as a “traditional hymn style of music,” but the word hymn refers to the text, not the style of music.  The musical adjective in this case is the word traditional.

What’s the Problem?

Having gone through a variety of things people do mean, including things it shouldn’t mean… what’s the problem, aside from a lack of clarity?

Here is the problem.  No one that I have talked to will actually say that yes, a song needs to be old for it to be a hymn.  At the same time, most people that I have talked to generally call songs that have a lot of good meaning and depth to them “hymns.”  The problem comes when we, for some reason, do not refer to modern songs as hymns; in other words, when we combine the extolling of the virtues of hymnody but then use hymn to only refer to old songs or songs in a specific musical style, then what we are implying is that only songs of that age or in that style can be good songs.

Here’s a practical example.  If I were to set an old hymn text to modern music, some might refer to it as a “praise song” or “praise music.”  If I set a new hymn text that sounds traditionally hymn-ish but set it in a traditional style, or using an existing hymn tune, suddenly it is a “solid hymn.”  This is a problem!  We’re being inconsistent and, based on music style and age, precluding songs from being referred to as hymns regardless of the lyrical content, while at the same time maintaining that good church music is primarily made up of hymns.

Here’s another issue; we refer to the great hymns of the faith… but by precluding modern songs from this list, we’re automatically implying that in order to be a great hymn, it has to be old.  That means the merit of the song comes, in some way, from age and popularity, apart from content of the lyrics.

So Now What?

I have a few suggestions at this point.

Firstly, we need to make sure we are clear about what we mean with the words we choose to categorize songs with.

Secondly, we need to make sure we’re not assuming that our preferred style of music is not making us think more highly of songs in that style of music, nor less of songs in other styles.  We should judge lyrics based on their lyrics.

Thirdly, if necessary in conversation, we should define our terms to mean what we want them to mean and consistently use them in that way.  For example, here’s how I typically think of what some common terms mean and how I typically use them:

  1. Song: a song.  E.g., “modern song” or “old song” or “traditional song.”  Just … a text set to music.
  2. Hymn: a text meant to be sung, typically having multiple verses.  Adjectives to denote when a hymn was written would be something like “traditional” and “contemporary” or “modern.”
  3. Praise song: this seems to be a rather ambiguous term that typically actually refers to the style of music, and I don’t really like using it.  However, I would understand it to mean a contemporary song that does not manifest elements of hymnody, such as multiple verses or a depth and progression of thought.
  4. Chorus: a simple, one-thought, one-“verse” song.  Example: Create in Me a Clean Heart.  I believe these are also referred to, at times, as “Scripture songs,” due to the typical basis or quoting of Scripture, albeit briefly.

With these definitions … many songs fit into the category of “hymn.”  Modern songs like O Wondrous Love or The Precious Blood or The Power of the Cross are hymns alongside How Great Thou Art.  Furthermore, the inconsistency of changing our definition depending on what age or what musical style we’re talking about should not happen.  If it’s a hymn text, we should call it a hymn, regardless of whether it is currently set to traditional or contemporary music.

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