Unlocking the Hymnal: Six (Secret) Tools in Church Music

After reading this fun article about questions from first-time symphony goers, it occurred to me that some things church music folks take for granted in their work might not be obvious to everyone. What are those strange sets of numbers printed at the bottom of the hymn’s page? Why do I see words like SLANE, KREMSER, and AURELIA underneath a hymn and what does it have to do with what I’m singing? How does the music director find which hymn is appropriate to use? Here are six tools found in most hymnals that church musicians use to create great worship music.

First Lines and Titles Index

Flip to the back of nearly any hymnal and there is an alphabetical listing of all the hymns. However, many hymnals take an extra step and include the first line of the hymns in the same alphabetical listing. So, if while looking for a particular hymn the only thing that comes to mind is “There’s a land that is fairer than day” or “Will you come and follow me,” a quick flip to the back of the hymnal will turn up In the Sweet By and By or The Summons.

Topical Index

Most hymnals organize hymns by topic (or theme): Advent, Easter, Praise and Thanksgiving, Confession and Forgiveness, Justice and Peace, etc. It keeps the Christmas hymns from being mixed in with ones for Lent and enables those who plan music to quickly find all the hymns that relate to the theme of a worship service. But helpful hymnal publishers provide an added feature with two small words: see also. So when looking up hymns on the topic “Grace and Faith,” the hymnal will remind you to also check the section on “Trust and Guidance.”

Hymn score with an example of a topical index listing.

Unfortunately there is no standard across publishers or denominations for classifying hymns topically. The example above shows Be Thou My Vision in a section called “Trust and Guidance” while another hymnal classifies it under “Pilgrimage and Perseverance” and a third uses “Prayer and Aspiration.” (Spending some time with a hymnal to learn its categories – along with some creative thinking about related themes – usually overcomes any differences.)

Scriptural Index

If the pastor says this week’s service will focus on Psalm 23, a quick check of the Scriptural Index will immediately give a music planner the eight hymns in the hymnal that reference Psalm 23. Some hymnals – including recent ones from large denominations – do not include this index. (I say shame on them!) In those instances, a perusal of the topical index – once again creatively thinking about related themes – usually suffices. (But it takes longer.)

Tune Index

This is the index of those strange words like SLANE, KREMSER, and AURELIA (always printed in capital letters) found at the bottom of a hymn’s page:

Hymn score with an example of hymn tune names.

Because a hymn’s melody or “tune” can have more than one text associated with it – and more texts for old tunes are being written every day – each tune is given a name that is (usually) separate from the title or text of the hymn. Tune names are fairly consistent around the globe and since some texts use different tunes in different countries, tune names are handy to make sure you are talking about the same melody across borders. (Using tune names is also a way for hymn snobs to sound erudite but I won’t go there.)

Musicians use a hymnal’s Tune Index to locate the tunes to use with newly written hymn texts (like those by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette), to find alternate texts that use the same tune, or (in my case) to see how many hymns use a particular tune to determine the tune’s familiarity/popularity.

And if you’re wondering how tunes earn their names, they have acquired them in different ways over the years. Some are named after the composer, some after the location where the tune originated, and at least one was even named for a tree.

Metrical Index

Likely the most hazardous tool in the church musician’s box, this index corresponds to those goofy-looking sets of numbers found at the bottom of a hymn’s page:

Hymn score with an example of a poetic meter.

The sets of numbers are the poetic meter of the hymn text. (Note: this is not the same as the meter – or time signature – found at the beginning of the music to indicate how to count musical rhythms.) The numbers refer to the number of syllables in each line with each line being separated by a dot or a space. In the example above, 10.10.10.10 indicates that there are four lines in Be Thou My Vision with ten syllables in each line.

Using the Metrical Index, this “code” makes it possible for musicians to mix and match texts and tunes. Technically, the text Be Thou My Vision can be matched to any tune that has a meter of 10.10.10.10 and any text with the 10.10.10.10 meter can be sung to the tune SLANE. In reality, though, it’s not always that simple to switch things around as sometimes the em-PHA-sis of the text will end up on the wrong syl-LA-ble. Additionally, the sentiment of some texts don’t lend themselves to some tunes. For a great example of both problems, try singing Be Thou My Vision to the tune for Lift High the Cross (CRUCIFER.) Although both are 10.10.10.10, the results could be disastrous during a worship service!

(My thoughts on using a metrical index to switch up texts with tunes? Do so with caution, only for good reasons, and always sing through all verses of the text with the varying tune before turning it loose on a congregation. It’s also a great way to mess with the minds of music-reading congregants…)

Multiple Hymnals

The last and most powerful tool in a church musician’s arsenal is not found in a hymnal. It’s hymnals themselves. No matter which church a musician serves, I’ve learned that the wisest musicians own several hymnals from different denominations and different eras. No one hymnal is ever all-inclusive and accessing more than just the hymn-books used on Sunday mornings broadens a musician’s scope (varying Topical and Scriptural Indices!) and provides extra hymns for the odd occasion when something outside the “standard” hymnal is needed. (“But that was Grandma’s favorite hymn – what do you mean you can’t play it at her funeral because you don’t have the music?!?”)

Personally, I have over two dozen hymnals ranging in age from the turn of the last century to the current one and ranging in faith traditions from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist to Jewish to Mennonite to Lutheran. I’ve never regretted owning them (except when I dust) and feel I’ve become a more well-rounded musician thanks to them. (And I’ve never had to tell Grandma’s family I couldn’t play her favorite hymn.)

Thanks for reading!