A good question: What makes a good hymn?
One question, four answers
‘It opens us up’
A good hymn opens us up. It might open us up to the possibilities of God or the realities of the world. It might open us up to the challenges of Scripture or to the truth of our human situation. Whether a hymn is good or not depends very much on what we need a hymn to be for us at any given time.
A good hymn might be one that quietens us to anticipate the challenge of Scripture or to reflect on the truth of God’s grace. It might settle us at the beginning of worship as we move from our busyness into the time we set aside for worship. It might be a gentle hymn or a simple chant with words that lodge easily in us and resurface at another time. It might weave its way through our time of worship, gathering new meaning as it is sung at different points.
A good hymn might be a lively rousing one that brings us together or sends us out, reminding us of God’s eternal loving care or wondrous creation. Such a hymn is sometimes so well known that it almost sings itself, its familiarity reminding of the stability of God. It can pick up words or images from the Scripture we have heard. It might have a tune well-known to many, or it might be brand new but well-led by those who can help others to join in.
A good hymn might be new, stretching us and introducing us to new ways. It might challenge us with images of God that we don’t think of as ‘hymn language’. It might carry biblical images to a new place. It might invite us to take the words home for further reflection. The hymnwriter Caryl Micklem said that if words can challenge, so too can the tune. …
Anne Sardeson is Training Officer for the United Reformed Church Thames North Synod
‘Clear, comprehensible and convincing’
There have been many old hymns, fine for their time, which I would not want to sing today. That is certainly not true of all old hymns – I can sing, among others, those by Isaac Watts quite happily. On the other hand, there are many more recent hymns/songs which are called ‘modern’ – from recent decades, with modern music – but in fact the language they use is, I think, very old fashioned, and I have difficulty singing them. A good hymn for us to sing now, then, should not be in Authorised Version language, but ought to bear very close relation to the language we speak from day to day; and it should be clear, comprehensible and convincing.
A good hymn, in modern language, should also be good poetry. The word order should be as natural as possible, as it would be in normal conversation, not twisting words around for the sake of rhyme:
This hymn you see is very nice
and in word order quite precise.
A good hymn should be theologically sound. We might have different views as to what is theologically sound, but at least, the writer of a good hymn should be aware of her/his own theological understanding, and try to make sure that she/he is true to it.
I also feel that a hymn is at its best when all the singers have the whole text in their hand, so that it can be seen how each verse leads in to the next, and the connection between the verses can be ascertained as the singing continues. In other words, somewhat controversially, I confess, I think a hymn is not sung to its fullest potential, when it is projected verse by verse onto a screen. …
Alan Gaunt is a hymnwriter
‘It points to heaven’
I’m approaching this question with a bit of trepidation. Not because I believe that you must be an expert theologian, liturgist or poet to comment on it, but because I’m aware that individual hymns and traditions are precious to people. It occasionally appears that people feel more passionately about the hymns they hate than those they love, and forget that their target is probably one held dear by at least one person listening. Maybe the one that you sing through gritted teeth was a cherished part of a funeral or ordination, or a favourite of someone long dead. So, I’m going to focus on the good, rather than slyly hinting at the bad.
Firstly, for all the effort we put into analysing the words, I think a good tune is crucial. There is something incredibly powerful about a beautiful melody, something so moving about knowing that it was conjured up by a fellow human. How on earth did they do it? Where did it come from? I think a good tune sounds almost other-worldly. It transports us, reminding us of our origins as children of a God who has bestowed us with extraordinary gifts, made us capable of adding to his world’s beauty.
When it comes to words, I’ve been reflecting on something Kate Bowler said in an interview last year. Kate was diagnosed, aged 35, with stage IV bowel cancer. It was hard, she reflected, to be certain of God’s goodness simply by searching for evidence of it in her own life. But, ‘if we look at God’s character, we make fewer mistakes.’ …
Madeleine Davies is Assistant News Editor of Church Times
‘It brings Scripture to life’
One of my favourite books is Worship Matters: Leading others to encounter the greatness of God by Bob Kauflin, and it highlights four elements of the way songs express our attitude to God: delight, commitment, yearning and trust. Those four things are pillars to the way I look at worship songs.
How am I encouraging my congregation to delight in God? Then, how am I, firstly, affirming God’s eternal, faithful commitment to us, and, secondly, how am I challenging all of us to walk in that truth? Then, how am I encouraging the people to yearn, to thirst for the things of God – his word, his Gospel – and to see that reflected in the way we interact with one another? And then, how am I fostering trust – first of all vertically, trust between myself and God, and between the people and God; and then trust between each other because of that vertical trust?
I find those four things a really good lens, or grid, for looking at songs. For us at the Brook – our church in Miami, Florida – it’s also scriptural: how can these scriptures come to life through melodies? I could sing the tune of a restaurant commercial and everyone would know which restaurant I’m talking about, I don’t even have to name it. If we do the same thing for Scripture, letting it sink into our brains through music, then the Word comes to life for us. In those moments, when I’m thinking: ‘Man, I feel dry!’, ‘Desert Song’ comes to mind. And that song tells me that I need to draw near. This truth comes to mind, and it’s from James, it’s from Psalm 63, but it comes to me through a song. …
Diamone Ukegbu is a singer songwriter, and co-founder and music director at the Brook, Miami. Her music can be streamed at soundcloud.com/diamonemusic
These are extracts from an article that was published in the February 2019 edition of Reform