Dinking Around with Meters

The hymnal I’m most familiar with is the red Trinity Hymnal, the hymnal I used for this post. I learned about meters using the “by-guess-or-by-golly” self-teaching method.  Those were the days before you could go here.

C.M. means common meter.  The pattern is 8 syllables, 6 syllables, 8 syllables, 6 syllables, or  Get your fingers out and start counting the most famous C.M. hymn:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (8)
That saved a wretch like me. (6)
I once was lost but now I’m found, (8)
Was blind but now I see. (6)

It’s named C.M. because it is so common.  Do you remember at camp singing these words to House of the Rising Sun?

S.M. stands for short meter.

Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love:
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.

L.M. (long meter) has four lines of 8 as seen in Old Hundredth.

All people that on earth do dwell
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth-tell,
Come ye before him and rejoice.

D. after any meter means to double that meter, as if you are singing two verses in a row.  It Came Upon A Midnight Clear is an example of C.M.DSweet Hour of Prayer is in L.M.D. as is St. Patrick’s Breastplate.

C.M. ref. tells you that a refrain is tacked on to the verse.
C.M. rep. repeats the final phrase.

Can you guess what al. means?  You can if I give you examples.   All Creatures of Our God and King is L.M. al.; Christ the Lord is Risen Today is al.

Are you with me still? 

I know this is obscure and I know you are thinking and why do we care?  There was a time when my husband led worship and picked out hymns and praise songs.  He is not a musician.  He would read the hymn book, find a hymn appropriate with that week’s message, and want to use it.  The problem was that no one knew that tune.  So we shamelessly substituted tunes.  We looked at the meter, went back to the meter index, and found a tune we knew which worked with those words. We swapped words and music like kids swap lunches in school cafeterias. 

Although the syllables match, the words and tunes don’t always complement one another.  I remember in a surge of sophomoric silliness swapping words and tunes between Greensleeves and I Will Sing of My Redeemer, both ref.   Never mind that one is a minor-tuned lullaby and the other a major-keyed Philip Bliss anthem.  Don’t worry, I only did it in the privacy of my own home.

If you get your jollies out of this sort of thing, pretty soon the names of tunes become familiar to you. You get around church musicians who toss tune names around like infielders after an easy out.  

I’m telling you, there are curiosities abounding: Dam Buster’s March cracks me up. Which dam were they busting when they sang that tune? Many tunes are named after saints, even little known saints like St. Etheldreda.  Geography grabs a large segment: countries such as Germany; cities such as Madrid, Jerusalem, and Dumferline; and even streets get their due: State Street and Park Street are two.  Some take the names of their composers, Haydn and Mozart, some tunes honor others, Moody and Rutherford.

Foreign languages abound: Latin – Sine Nomine, Lux Prima; German – SCHÜCKE DICH, and Es Ist Ein’ Ros’ Entsprungen [I love speaking these German names] ;Welsh – Ar Hyd Y Nos; French – Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agreable [we are glad the Agreable is in that name]; Swedish – Tryggare Kan Ingen Vara; and Polish – W Zlobie Lezy.

Certain tune names are lovely in their simplicity: Listening, Peace, Sweet Story and Cradle Song.  

So there it is.  Call me a nerd: I find this great fun.


6 thoughts on “Dinking Around with Meters

  1. Yes, I’m still with you and appreciate the short lesson.  I do try and pay attention to the tune name and author of the verse.  Only occasionally to I check the meter.  So, thanks again for the explanation.
    Blessings fm sunny, but chilly GA

  2. We never did House of the Rising Sun, but we did do Amazing Grace to the tune of Gilligan’s Island – often in the van on the way home from camp to annoy our youth pastor. It works. 🙂

  3. Seems to me Garrison Keillor (you know who I mean) sang lots of songs to the Tell Me Why the Stars Do Shine tune, like ABCEDFG and Mary had a little lamb.  It was funny to listen to him do that.
    My favorite hymn is 451 in the United Methodist Hymnal, Be Thou My Vision, the sort of thing that might sound good on bagpipes…?Oh, see here it says it is Irish.  Maybe not bagpipes then.  I happen to have a hymnal on hand because last time we sang that song in church, my daughter yanked on the plastic/ribbon book mark thing and managed to tear the spine of the book.  I still am not sure how to fix it, but I want to before I return it to the church.
    According to the chart in the back, you can’t sing another hymn to this tune.  Thanks for the lesson. 

  4. Bingo, Dana!Yes, wildflower, I’ve heard Garrison sing many words to one tune.  It is funny to hear words out of their familiar musical context.  I love Be Thou My Vision and have played it for many weddings, graduations, and other services.  It is lovely.You made me curious and I needed to check in my hymnal.  Be Thou My Vision is and also works with several other tunes (in this hymnal) including Eventide which some of us know as “Abide With Me“. Of course, no one would want to sing Be Thou My Vision to any other tune, if he/she is in his/her right mind!Carrie, I always heard about the Gilligan’s Island tune and Amazing Grace connection.  The funny thing is that I grew up without a TV and never knew the tune to Gilligan’s Island!!  Finally, I had one of my students sing it for me.

  5. OH i love Be Thou My Vision–especially the acappella version on a cd i have by Ginny Owens. So sweet and hauntingly sung.
    Loved the lesson! Not being a music reader, this was all new to me and pretty wild! Took me back to my college music class where i the only student who hadn’t played several instruments since birth–everything was a huge “OH!!” for me.

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