(Thank you to Darrell Ritchie for broaching this subject and inspiring this article.)
The definition of the word “hymn” spans a variety of traditions and may be applied to the creative output of most language groups around the world, but I’m limiting “hymn” to the context of the English speaking Christian population for the purposes of this article.
Also, I’m not attempting to elevate hymns, bash modern songs or vice versa. Most of us would agree that “Amazing Grace” is a hymn while “10,000 Reasons” is not. Meanwhile, the music of Keith and Kristyn Getty is said to be “modern hymns,” while the modern music popularized by someone like Matt Redman isn’t. We know it when we hear it, so let’s try to define it. I simply want to put my finger on what separates “hymns” from the rest.
Dictionary definitions notwithstanding, the term “hymn” is not an all-encompassing word for all Christian songs that have ever been, or ever will be written. There must be some reason we don’t think of certain Christian songs as hymns but do think of others collectively as hymns.
Of course, we could just state some obvious traits found in a hymn like “Amazing Grace” that “10,000 Reasons” lacks, but that isn’t the same as defining hymns as a group. Let’s consider and rule out a few of the more common, knee-jerk definitions.
1. A hymn is NOT a hymn simply because it appears in a hardback book with other songs that may be considered to be hymns. Occasionally, you’ll see a song in a hymn book that isn’t a hymn.
2. A hymn is NOT a hymn simply because it contains sound theology and/or rises to a high level of artistic scrutiny. Sound theology is not exclusive to hymns, and some hymns, while memorable, are not particularly creative.
3. A hymn is NOT a hymn simply because the lyric is directed to God as opposed to being about God or vice versa. The are numerous examples of Christian hymns from both angles. Some even focus more on a person’s relationship with other people within a Christian context.
4. A hymn is NOT a hymn simply because it’s been around for centuries. A brand new song should be considered a hymn if it features enough of the common characteristics found in traditional hymns. By the same logic, an old song should not be considered to be a hymn if it bears little resemblance to other songs commonly considered to be hymns.
A hymn can certainly have all of the characteristics I’ve just listed, but these aren’t the characteristics that separate hymns from other forms of music.
So, what is it that sets a hymn apart?
1. A hymn may be arranged in many ways just like any other song, but when it’s all said and done, a hymn can be condensed down to verses and choruses, or even just verses with no choruses. If a bridge, coda, vamp section, etc. is crucial to the song, it’s not a hymn in the strictest sense of the word.
2. Hymns feature a fixed, predictable lyrical structure. Once established on the first pass, the pattern is repeated on subsequent passes, whether it’s just verses or verses with a common refrain. There can be mild variations in the number of syllables from verse to verse, but not to the point that the character of the melody is lost.
3. It is not enough that the number of syllables in verse two matches the number of syllables in verse one; the accents need to fall in the same spots as well.
4. Rhyming structures are consistent from verse to verse. If the first line rhymed with the third line in verse one, the first line of verse two should similarly rhyme with the third line of verse two.
5. Most hymns begin each line at the same point in each measure, so if the first line of the first verse starts on beat four, each line that follows will start on beat four.
There are some exceptions, of course. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (Adeste Fideles) has some lines that begin on beat four, while other lines begin on beat one (due to having one less syllable). This is a mild example of “irregular” meter. The lyric still adheres to the other characteristics of a hymn, however, so it would not be disqualified as a hymn.
When a hymn writer completes the first verse of a new lyric, writing the following verses is like completing a puzzle. Not only is the songwriter attempting to match the structure of the first verse, they’re also trying to deliver a clear message. The very best songwriters can also work in an appreciable level of artistic merit.
Their attention to structure detail and predictable entrance points on each line is why Keith & Kristyn Getty are often called “modern hymn writers.” Conversely, a general lack of attention to structure detail and predictable entrance points on each line is why most of the songs on Blessed Assurance: The New Hymns Of Fanny Crosby seem inauthentic. Fanny Crosby wrote very structured hymn lyrics, not modern worship songs, so to present her lyrics in that manner just seems like a bizarre choice.
The most frequently used meter structures will often appear in a “Metrical Index” of a hymnbook with codes like 126.96.36.199. showing the number of syllables per line. Tunes with the same meter can be swapped. For example, you might sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Am I A Soldier Of The Cross?” and vice versa.
You’re not likely to find a metrical index in the back of a collection of modern songs. The number of syllables per line in “10,000 Reasons” is not consistent, for example. Modern songs may incorporate a song bridge or a vamp section. Because most people first experience a modern song through a recording rather than the printed page, they may associate ad-libs by the singer to be just as much a part of the song as the main lyrics.
It’s true that a single-verse hymn doesn’t display how it’s structure might have been repeated. That being said, one should still be able to appreciate the framework that is set by a single-verse lyric that uses a predictable meter of syllables like “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” More verses could be written using an identical structure. In fact, if you look up the tune “Old Hundredth,” which is the one most commonly sung to that lyric, you will find that very same 188.8.131.52 meter and tune was employed for five verses of another lyric titled “All People That On Earth Do Dwell.”
That’s the long answer with expanded explanations and various examples.
The short answer is that a regular structure of syllables and lyric lines limited to verses and a chorus is what makes a hymn a hymn.