The Anatomy of Congregational Songs
For many people a hymn is nothing more than some truth made pretty. But such an understanding would be like viewing a person as a soul with some pretty skin. Yet just as a human has a whole anatomy working together to make him what he is, so a hymn has many components that help it accomplish its purpose. Austin Lovelace wrote a classic book in 1965 called Anatomy of Hymnody in which he summarized the importance of understanding this:
A hymn is not an amorphous bit of spiritual protoplasm designed for the enjoyment of the man in the pew and for the creation of a pious feeling or a “religious mood.” Like the human body, a hymn has a skeleton (which can be called the metrical design) and characteristics determined by the choice of poetic “foot.” It is a complete body, made up of several parts (stanzas), each with its definite function. Its visage or physiognomy is determined by the poetic devices the poet chooses. Underlying all the physical features, however, is the soul of the hymn—man’s response to God. ((Austin Lovelace, Anatomy of Hymnody (Chicago: G.I.A., 1965), pp. 6—7.))
In order to understand what kinds of hymns express appropriate affection for God, we need to understand something of how hymns work. And in order to understand how they work, we need to examine their anatomy.
Content vs. Form
An important distinction we need to make is content vs. form. Content is simply the message of the text. So, for example, the content of a hymn like “Holy, Holy, Holy” would be the holiness of God, the Trinity, praise, God’s mercy, etc. But unless you just list God’s attributes in that way, form is always involved. Form is the way in which something is shaped or presented. A form takes the basic content and shapes it in a certain way. The easiest way to understand this is to consider various vessels. When you pour a liquid into a vessel, the liquid takes the shape of the vessel. The content itself does not change, but its shape changes.
With any art, form always shapes the content in such a way that it communicates something about that content. Form doesn’t communicate in the same way as the content itself; form communicates to the imagination and the affections. Form changes the “feel” or perception of the content.
For example, consider type-faces, otherwise known as fonts. You can take a particular word or phrase and communicate different things by what font you use. For instance, let’s use the word “cool.” “Cool” can mean a couple of different things. It can mean the opposite of hot or it can mean calm or it can mean hip. I can use form to communicate which definition I intend:
Now let’s take it a step further and consider the word, “God.” Part of our knowledge of God is what we imagine him to be like. Form communicates our imagination:
Each of these font faces—these forms—shape our imagination of what God is like.
I use the example of type-face only because it is visual, and it is pretty obvious to recognize. But let’s move now to content and form within Christian songs.
There are several different ways that content can be shaped within a song. The first is simply with what words are chosen to communicate the message. Words are important. How we put them together into phrases is important. Words are important because different words have different connotations—different “feelings” attached to them.
For example, in describing my grandfather to you, I might say that he is ancient. Or I may say that he is elderly. Or frail. Or rickety. Or seasoned. Each of these words has basically the meaning of old, but each word conjures up different kinds of images in your mind about my grandfather.
The same is true with the texts of songs. What words are chosen and how they are put together and what images are used shapes the content. For example, the Bible is full of metaphors about God that shape how we imagine him. He is a King, a Rock, a Fortress, and a Shepherd. But some images are inaccurate pictures of God. What if we changed Psalm 23 so that instead of saying, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we said, “The Lord is my cattle-driver”?
Or consider this example: suppose I want to communicate the truth that God is all-powerful, that he promises to protect us, and that we should trust in him. Here are four different ways to communicate that content through poetry. Notice how the form shapes the content:
- A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.1
- How strong and sweet my Father’s care,
That round about me, like the air,
Is with me always, everywhere!
He cares for me!2
- God is bigger than the boogie man.
He’s bigger than Godzilla,
or the monsters on TV.
Oh, God is bigger than the boogie man.
And He’s watching out for you and me.3
- Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friendYou are my desire
No one else will do
‘Cause nothing else could take your place
To feel the warmth of your embrace
Help me find the way, bring me back to youYou’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know you are near.4
In each of these songs, the basic content is the same: God is great, and we can trust in him. On the propositional content level, each of these songs is saying something that is true. But when we get to the level of form—what words are chosen and how they are put together—each of these songs is shaping the content very differently.
The next level of form is poetic meter. A poetic meter is basically how many syllables are in each line of the poem, and where the natural stresses are. Consider this example:
A – MAZ – ing GRACE! How SWEET the SOUND
That SAVED a WRETCH like ME!
I ONCE was LOST, but NOW am FOUND;
Was BLIND, but NOW I SEE.5
Most English songs have some kind of meter like this, and we name the meters based on the syllable stress pattern. So, for example, with “Amazing Grace,” the pattern is weak-STRONG. This is the most common form in English poetry, called iambic. Good poets know, as Lovelace relates, that this meter is “stately and noble and is best used for those texts which are propositional.”6 Iambic meter shapes its content in that way.
Other Christian songs written in the iambic pattern include, “O GOD, our HELP in A – ges PAST,” “A MIGHT – y FOR – tress IS our GOD,” and “In CHRIST a – LONE my HOPE is FOUND.” You can see how in each of these cases the content is sober or noble, and so the poets chose the iambic pattern to shape the content in that way.
The opposite metric pattern and second most common is trochaic. This pattern is STRONG-weak. Examples of these include “HARK the HER – ald AN – gels SING,” and “CHRIST the LORD is RIS’N to – DAY.” Lovelace comments that this pattern “is more direct than iambic and is used where directness of thought and excitement are desirable,” as can be seen in the two declamatory hymns just mentioned. A good poet will consider the content, decide what it should “feel” like, and choose an appropriate meter to shape the content in that direction.
Two other common patterns are rare in classic hymnody. The first is dactylic, which is STRONG-weak-weak. Its opposite, anapaestic, is weak-weak-STRONG. Probably the most famous example of this pattern in English poetry is “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”:
‘Twas the NIGHT before CHRIST – mas and ALL through the HOUSE
Not a CREA – ture was STIR – ring, not E – ven a MOUSE.
This meter is uncommon in classic hymnody because unlike iambic or trochaic patterns, which shape the content toward stateliness or directness, an anapaestic pattern gives “a feeling of lightness” resulting from “the use of the basic triplet movement.”7 This pattern “feels” light and skippy, and so it has not traditionally been used to shape serious biblical content.
Allow me to borrow one final example from Lovelace to illustrate how poetic meter can change the “feel” of a particular content. Consider this content: It is quiet in a house on Christmas Eve. Depending on poetic form, a poet can shape that content to feel either light and frivolous or serious and foreboding. The poem already mentioned, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” is an example of the former. By use of anapaestic feet, the author shapes the content to prepare us to expect something fanciful and charming:
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Yet what if the author had written the same basic content using an iambic pattern (weak-STRONG)?
‘Twas Christmas eve, the house was still,
And not a creature stirred.
Instead of giving a feeling of fun, an iambic pattern shapes the same content to feel more series. Combining a serious meter with such content about a quiet Christmas Eve, we might expect the Grinch to show up at the house rather than Jolly Old St. Nick!
The point is this: form shapes content. It is not enough to ask about a song text: “Is the basic content of this song true?” If that were the only question to ask, then “God is Bigger Than the Boogie Man” would be a good hymn! Rather, we must also ask, how does the form of this song shape the content? Is the result a right way to imagine God or feel about him?
So far we have discussed only the poetry of Christian songs. Let us move on to the song tune itself.
Musical form shapes content in very similar ways to poetic form. But as we shall see, because music communicates by mimicking natural human expression, anyone can discern the basic meaning of music by simply listening closely and asking a few penetrating questions.
Music contains many different structural elements that work together to shape the content like cadences, tonality, tempo, meter, rhythm, dynamics, density, timbre, register, texture, and motives. Thankfully congregational songs are very simple musical forms, and so we really only need to concern ourselves with three of the most basic musical elements—melody, rhythm/meter, and harmony. We will also briefly consider the way a song is performed since that, too, shapes the content. Keep in mind that all of these elements work together to shape content, so evaluating each individually is a bit artificial. Our goal in considering these individual elements is that we might be able to evaluate how they work together to shape the biblical content of the song.
Melody. Let us first consider melody. The melody is the tune you sing. Melody is really just a step above human vocal intonation. When we want to shape the way a word or phrase is perceived by a listener, we use tone of voice to do so. So if you were to ask me how I am doing, I may answer with the word, “Fine.” But my tone of voice can shape that content to connote very different messages.
If my voice begins high and moves down quickly, I am expressing genuine pleasure.
If my voice is relatively low and I stretch out the word in a soft tone, I am expressing that I am doing ok despite some kind of disappointment.
If my voice is harsh and quick, I am letting you know that I really am not fine.
Again, in each of these cases the content itself remains the same while tone shapes the underlying meaning. It is also important to recognize that tone of voice can actually contradict the normal meaning of the content, as when I express harshness using the word, “fine.”
Every parent is experienced in discerning the underlying meaning of phrases based on tone of voice. Have you ever said to your child, “Don’t speak to me in that tone of voice”? Was the reason for your displeasure the content of what was said? Often not. Often you are displeased with your child’s tone, because tone shapes the perception of content. So your child can respond, “Yes,” to a question you ask him, but by his tone you perceive underlying disrespect.
At its root, melody is merely an intensification of natural vocal intonation. The earliest forms of music were simple chants—not much more than intoning a text. Musical form has certainly evolved and developed far beyond that today, but at its root, melody is still based on natural human vocal inflection. American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein summarized this point well:
Music is Heightened Speech. After all, what causes such a heightening? Intensified emotion. Hunger. Impatience. Certainly the deepest universals we all share are emotions, or affects; we all have the same capacity for passion, fear, anticipation, aggression. We all display the same physiological manifestations of affect; our eyebrows go up with anticipation; our hearts pound with passion; and fear affects us universally with goose flesh. And in the sense that music may express those affective goings-on, then it must indeed be a universal language.8
This is why any person should be able to basically discern the way a textual content is shaped by a melody. We can hear what is going on because such shaping is natural to us; we do it every time we speak.
Meter/Rhythm. The next structural element of a song is its meter and rhythm. This is very similar to the meter and rhythm of poetry that we discussed earlier. The meter of a song is based on patterns of weak and STRONG beats, just like with poetry. The weak and STRONG beats themselves, combined in a variety of durations within the song, are the rhythm. And just like poetry, meter in a song tune is usually either a feeling of two (weak-STRONG or STRONG-weak) or three (weak-weak-STRONG or STRONG-weak-weak).
Understanding this, you can see parallels between meter in poetry and meter in music. Just like with poetic meter, two-beat patterns usually shape the content to feel more serious, stately, or declamatory, while three-beat patterns often shape the content to have more of a light, waltz-like, or skippy feel.
So how does this work? Well, similar to how melody is based on natural human vocal inflection, meter and rhythm are based on natural human body language. All humans express various emotional states using certain physical expressions. This is why you can look across a room at another person and perceive their emotional condition simply by looking at their facial expression, how they are moving, and how they are carrying themselves. Again, if I respond to your question of how I am doing with, “Fine,” but I have a frown, I’m stooped over, and moving slowly, my physical expressiveness shapes that content in a direction other than what would naturally be communicated with that word.
So meter and rhythm are intensifications of natural human physical movement. And just like with melody, any person should be able to basically discern the way a textual content is shaped by meter and rhythm. We can “feel” what is going on because such shaping is natural to us.
Harmony. The third category of structural phenomena in a song is its harmony. While melody is related to vocal inflection and rhythm is related to physical movement, harmony is related more broadly to the created order in general. Let me explain what I mean.
Simple harmony is the sound that is produced when two or more pitches are played or sung simultaneously. That sound production can express various feelings based on the natural relationships between the pitches. More complex harmony is pitch relationships over longer phrases of music, used to develop a particular “mood.”
We all perceive the “feeling” of harmony instinctively. If I play a C Major chord, the harmony produced by the combination of the notes C, E, and G sound complete and restful to us. Musicians call this consonance.
On the other hand, if I play a C and a D flat simultaneously, the harmony produced by that combination is harsh and tense. Musicians call this dissonance.
In between these two extremes are many, many different pitch combinations and relationships that produce various harmonies. These harmonies can then shape content to “feel” sad, happy, restful, suspenseful, pure, harsh, longing, and much more.
We perceive this harmonic shaping naturally, as I said, because harmony is rooted in the created order—what is called the harmonic series. There is not time to explain all that the harmonic series is or what it implies. If you remember that all sound is vibration, and that pitches are produced by various ratios of sound waves, you have at least a basic understanding of harmonics. When notes are played or sung that fit into natural ratios, the sound is consonant; the further the relationships are from the fundamental tone, the more dissonant the sound. The progression of such pitch combinations then create harmony on a larger level. Thus how we perceive such relationships is based on the created order.
Now the explanation I have given is very simplistic and basic. There is much more to harmony than notes played simultaneously. Harmony is about relationships, and some of those relationship occur on much larger scales than just a moment-in-time chord.
But the point is that just like with melody and rhythm, any person can fairly easily perceive how harmony shapes content because harmony exists in the same ordered universe that we do.
Performance. Finally, many other structural phenomena in music can be categorized under performance—how a song is sung, arranged, and accompanied:
- Tempo – the speed at which the song is performed. Like rhythm, various tempos correspond to our physical movements.
- Dynamics – the loudness or softness (or changes thereof) of the performance. Similar to melody, dynamics relate to vocal intonation.
- Density – the amount of voices or instruments played at once. Whether a song is sung just with voices, with a piano, or with a full orchestra shapes the content.
- Timbre (rhymes with “Amber”) – the tone color of various voices or instrument. The unique sounds of different instruments contribute to shape content. Some instruments sound pure, others mellow, some powerful, and others harsh.
Finally, the way in which an individual sings a song can shape the content of that song in drastic ways. Just with how a person uses his voice, he can shape a song of love for God to sound reverent, casual, romantic, or flippant.
Consider, as an illustration, the infamous example of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. The words she sang were certainly not controversial, but her tone, body language, and performance style created a scandal. Notice how even Wikipedia describes the event:
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President” was a song sung by actress/singer Marilyn Monroe on Saturday, May 19, 1962, for then-President of the United States, John F. Kennedy . . . Sung in a sultry voice, Monroe sang the traditional “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics, with “Mr. President” inserted as Kennedy’s name. . . . Afterwards, President Kennedy came on stage and joked about the song, saying, “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way,” alluding to Monroe’s delivery, her racy dress, and her general image as a sex symbol.
In this case, the textual content and even the musical form itself were far from offensive. Yet Monroe’s vocal performance, delivery, dress, and image communicated subtextual messages that were missed by nobody. I raise this point only to illustrate that performance style shapes content. The same is true when songs are sung or played in worship. How we sing or play shapes the message of the song.
All of these elements work together to shape the doctrinal content of a Christian song. My point in considering the anatomy of a song is not to suggest that you need to memorize all of this or pick apart each element to determine how form is shaping content. My goal was simply to demonstrate how each element does indeed shape the content in different ways. In real life, you’re likely never going to try to figure out what the poetic meter is or analyze the harmonic progression. But whether you’ve been aware of it or not, form has shaped your affections and imagination with relation to the content. And because all of these elements shape the content based on their relation to human universals like emotional expression, they shape the content universally. This is why when a movie made in America is shown in a foreign country, they translate the speech, but they don’t have to translate the music of the movie—it communicates universally. It is important closer to attention to whether how the form is shaping the content is worthy of the content rather than simply choosing songs based on what we like.
The corporate ministry of song is important to God only because how we express our affections to God is important to him. Some kinds of affections are inordinate—they are inappropriate for expression to God. And because a Christian song, through poetic and music devices, can shape doctrinal content to express various kinds of affections, some song are appropriate for expression to God, and some are not.
Thus as Christians committed to expressing to the Lord affections that are worthy of him, it is our responsibility to parse the meaning of our songs to discern whether they are best for use in Christian worship. And this is particularly important for ministers in Christ’s churches.
For Further Reading
Aniol, Scott. Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World. Simsponville, SC: Religious Affections Ministries, 2010.
Aniol, Scott. Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship. Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 2009.
Bernstein, Leonard. The Unanswered Question: Six Harvard Talks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1976.
Copland, Aaron. What to Listen For in Music. NY: Penguin, 2002.
Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. NY: Penguin, 2007.
Lovelace, Austin C. The Anatomy of Hymnody. Chicago: G.I.A., 1965.
Veggie Tales, 1992.
Kelly Carpenter, 1994.
John Newton, 1779.
Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1976), p. 15.
Technically the “meter” of a hymn refers to the number of syllables in each line. Here, I am using the term “meter” in a purely musical sense.