21 qualities of a “good hymn”

“He put a new song in my mouth
a song of praise to our God.”
Psalm 40:3

ONE OF THE GREATEST JOYS OF LIVING IS THE JOY OF SINGING A GOOD SONG. While taste in music is undeniably subjective, some hymns are of notably superior quality. Perhaps the greatest test of the quality of a hymn is the test of time. Good hymns are sung and passed down for generations. Some in today’s disposable society are advocating that a song that is good for a little while is good for a little while. But it is likely that the reason some contemporary songs are soon discarded is that the initial thrill of a catchy tune wears off and singers realize there is not much left worth singing. What makes a “good hymn” enjoyable to sing? More importantly, what makes a hymn suitable for congregational worship and edification?

Whether a hymn is good or bad transcends culture, genre, and era. It does not matter if a song is new or old, contemporary or traditional, classical or pop inspired. Culture may play a role in defining our personal tastes, but as long as it can be understood, most thoughtful individuals can appreciate quality art wherever it is found and from wherever it originated.

Worship leaders are the final filter of the church’s repertoire. Certainly, hymnal editors (whether digital, bound, or both) play a key role in bringing music to the church. But ultimately, what the church sings will be decided by the one planning and leading the worship. It would do some good, then, for that man to have some training in selecting suitable hymns to introduce to the congregation. Just as our preaching and teaching require thoughtful intentionality, so also our worship repertoire should be carefully considered. Especially as a church thinks about learning new music, it would be beneficial to be intentional about selecting songs that are worthy of the church’s investment in learning them.

We must avoid merely choosing our personal favorites. Sometimes one may be tempted to introduce a song to the church because that particular song is personally sentimental to him. Spiritual songs of personal value are a beautiful encouragement to the soul of the individual. But sometimes those songs, while meaningful to an individual, may be special due to the blessed relationships and memories associated with them more so than the intrinsic qualities of the hymn. In short, what may be very moving for one person may do little to inspire the rest of the congregation. We must consider what is best for our church and choose hymns for their worshipful quality, not their nostalgic worth, for it is the gospel story that resonates in every heart.

What follows are 21 qualities of a “good hymn” as found in “A Good Hymn,” by Craig A. Roberts (including a couple that I took the liberty to add).

Content

  • Truth — theologically and doctrinally consistent with biblical teaching
  • Meaning — expresses a thought or related thoughts that generate feeling
  • Focus — whether broad or narrow, it does not ramble or digress

Song & Verse

  • Structure — ideas are interconnected and progress intuitively
  • Meter — follows a consistent, reasonably predictable pattern
  • Rhythm — is married to the lyrics, predictable, and relatively simple
  • Phrasing — concisely captured thoughts expressed in direct sentences
  • Rhyme — follows a clear and consistent rhyme scheme
  • Imagery — tastefully paints impactful “word pictures” in the mind
  • Feeling — spiritual thoughts are lifted by the music to invoke emotion
  • Melody — a tune that purposefully carries the lyrics, staying within average range
  • Harmony — accessible and follows Common Practice rules

Words & Phrases

  • Tone — reverent and suitable for the occasion of worship
  • Clarity — accessible language that is readily understandable
  • Originality — fresh expression that avoids cliches
  • Variety — presents related thoughts while avoiding repetitious monotony
  • Accuracy — precisely articulates truth or truths
  • Connotation — intended and perceived meanings align
  • Detail — specific enough to be understood while avoiding the feel of a “story”
  • Inclusion — relevant to the diversity of the congregation

 

A good hymn is the most difficult thing in the world to write.
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON

 

Source:

A Good Hymn, Analysis & Composition of Congregational Hymns, by Craig A. Roberts, 2003

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