Have you ever wondered about the Metrical Index commonly found in hymnals? Let me explain.
If you look in the back of your hymnal, you’re likely familiar with the Index of First Lines and Common Titles. They are, after all, pretty self explanatory, but they are not the only indexes available. There is also likely an index for the following: Composers, Hymn Tunes, and Topics. Although not always included in the hymnal itself, there are also indices prepared with Scripture References, which I always love!
The Metrical Index looks like a listing of numbers and letters. And those, my friends, are magically wonderful.
The numbers indicate the syllable count for each line. If you see a D, that stands for double. So, 8. 7. 8. 7. D (which I often seem to use) is actually 8. 7. 8. 7. 8. 7. 8. 7. for eight lines of hymn text.
The Metrical Index helps you see alternative tunes that follow the same syllable counts. Now, does this mean tunes are inter-changeable? Not necessarily! Syllable count does not convey accents, after all, so one needs to consider how words are stressed, as well as whether the sound is appropriate for the text, etc.
Most hymns in the 8. 7. 8. 7. meter are trochaic (stressed syllable, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, etc.). Think “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
Most hymns in 8. 6. 8. 6. (think “Amazing Grace”) are iambic (unstressed syllable, stressed, unstressed, etc.).
You’ll also notice these:
- C. M. means common meter (8. 6. 8. 6.) with rhyming words in lines two and four and sometimes one and three, like “Amazing Grace”.
- L. M. means long meter (8. 8. 8. 8.), again with rhyming words in lines two and four and sometimes one and three, like “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”
- S. M. means short meter (6. 6. 8. 6), again with the rhyme scheme above. Consider “Not All the Blood of Beasts.”
Refrains are also mentioned. Also sometimes alleluias, since they can act as a musical coda.
Now, next to these numbers are tune names. How do tunes get named? Not entirely sure. Who gets to do the naming? I don’t know. And, how in the world do folks know whether the tune that’s come to them is published elsewhere under a different name? NO IDEA and that kind of drives me crazy. (Former music major here.)
Anyway, I encourage you to view the Metrical Index in this way:
- An orderly expression of poetry
- An international expression of praise
- A vast supply of teaching tools
- A rich history of literary and musical wealth
Each tune and meter has a history that only God can truly know. But we may well get to ask in the age to come. 😀