The word hymn originates from the Greek word for “a song of praise” and those who write hymns are know as hymnodists. Though there are many hymns from other cultures that have been written, such as those from ancient Egypt and the Jewish tradition, the hymns we will focus on today are those of the Christian tradition. As mentioned previously, hymns were sung by the early Christians in the first century, sometimes accompanied by instruments of that era.

Hymns & The Organ

Hymns were played on the organ in the western church as soon as the organ became a part of the Catholic church tradition. The first organs limited musicians considerably because it took the full strength of a man to press one of the keys. As the organ evolved, so did the ability to play complex songs.

The Split

During the Protestant Reformation, as the church split, many abandoned hymns that were not direct quotes from the passages of the Bible, while others went as far as to chant biblical psalm passages in place of traditional hymns, other sects produced hymns that are still popular today such as A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. The Unitas Fratrum in 1532 published the first hymnal and some of the most popular names to write the oldest and still most popular hymns are Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley.

Influences & Modern Christian Songs

During the time of slavery in the Americas, African-American slaves influenced the development and writing of hymns through the spirituals they sang while working or during their own worship services. Some of these spirituals were then included in hymns, such as the very well-know Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Spirituals precluded gospel music which is still sung in churches throughout the country today. Most Christian songs written today are not considered hymns, but some musicians and worship leaders still love the traditional hymns and sing them as they have always been sung. Others have adopted parts of popular hymns and breathed new life into them for modern worshipers.

So, what is a hymn, technically speaking?

Hymn Structure


Those hymns that are not free verse follow a format that easily sets them apart from other songs. The use of stanzas is one distinct way to identify a hymn. The lyrics of a hymn are broken up into verses or stanzas; most hymns have about 3 or more verses, but sometimes they can have as many as seven verses.

Rhyme Scheme & Metrical Pattern

As with poetry, many traditional hymns follow a recognizable rhyme scheme such as A-B-A-B. Also, just like metered poetry, hymns follow a strict metric pattern, meaning each line has the same number of syllables and metrical feet. Metric feet are groups of syllables or accents: From one strong accented beat to the next is a metric foot. The number of syllables and metric feet in a line is referred to as the hymn’s meter. Hymns generally use two types of meter:
  • Iambic Pentameter –  Hymns with iambic pentameter have 5 metric feet and each foot begins with a unstressed beat
  • Trochaic Tetrameter – Hymns with trochaic tetrameter have 4 metric feet and start on a stressed beat

Poetic Devices

Hymns employ many traditional poetic devices for emphasis or communicate a point in a creative way. Here are some of the most popular devices used in hymns that may be unknown to modern audiences:
  • Hyperbole – Uses exaggeration to make a point
  • Anaphora – The same word is used at the beginning of each line
  • Tautology – The same thought is repeated, but stated in a different way
  • Climax – Ideas are listed consecutively for the purpose of building the intensity of a song
Other devices used which modern readers, poetry writers, and songwriter may recognize include:
  • Alliteration – Words in a phrase that start with the same sound
  • Paradox – The use of contradiction to make a point
  • Personification – Gives objects human characteristics or form
  • Simile – The comparison of two very different objects
As you sing or play through hymns, look for the poetic devices the writers of your favorite hymns used.

Do You Love Playing Hymns on Your Organ?

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