Metre (hymn)

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A hymn metre (Am. meter) indicates the number of syllables for the lines in each stanza of a hymn. This provides a means of marrying the hymn's text with an appropriate hymn tune for singing.

Hymn and poetic metreEdit

In the English language poetic metres and hymn metres have different starting points but there is nevertheless much overlap. Take the opening lines of the hymn Amazing Grace:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.

Analyzing this, a poet would see a couplet with four iambic metrical feet in the first line and three in the second. A musician would more likely count eight syllables in the first line and six in the second.

Completing that verse:

Amazing 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.

the hymnist describes it as (or 86.86). The words of Amazing Grace can therefore be set to any tune that has the metre, for example The House of the Rising Sun.[1]

Conventionally most hymns in this 86.86 pattern are iambic (weak-strong syllable pairs). By contrast most hymns in an 87.87 pattern are trochaic, with strong-weak syllable pairs:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heav'n to earth come down,...

In practice many hymns conform to one of a relatively small number of metres (syllable patterns), and within the most commonly used ones there is a general convention as to whether its stress pattern is iambic or trochaic (or perhaps dactylic). It is rare to find any significant metrical substitution in a well-written hymn; indeed, such variation usually indicates a poorly constructed text.

Terminology and abbreviationsEdit

Most hymnals include a metrical index of the book's tunes. A hymn may be sung to any tune in the same meter, as long as the poetic foot (such as iambic, trochaic) also conforms.

All metres can be represented numerically, for example "Abide With Me" which is Some of the most frequently encountered however are instead referred to by names:

  • C.M., or CMCommon metre,; a quatrain (four-line stanza) with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and sometimes in the first and third.
  • L.M., or LMLong metre,; a quatrain in iambic tetrameter, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and often in the first and third.
  • S.M., or SMShort metre,; iambic lines in the first, second, and fourth are in trimeter, and the third in tetrameter, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and sometimes in the first and third. "Blest Be the Tie that Binds" is an example of a hymn in short metre.

Two verses may be joined together or doubled, especially if the tune requires it:

  • D.C.M. (also C.M.D., or CMD)—Doubled CM,
  •—equivalent to two verses of, either trochaic or Iambic.

A few hymns have an inconsistent metrical pattern across their verses. Such a metre is described as '"irregular"; one well-known example is O Come, All Ye Faithful.[2]

Local and historic variationEdit

While the terminology above enjoys widespread agreement across the English-speaking world, there is some regional variation. Even within a region there may be historical variation and development. For example some terminology used in USA publications but not in the UK includes:

  • P.M. or PMPeculiar meter; for rare or one-of-a-kind meters in a hymnal.[note 1][note 2]
  • H.M., or HMHallelujah meter may sometimes be used in reference to 66.66.88,[3]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The metrical index of the 1941 LCMS The Lutheran Hymnal has several single-item metrical categories, and lacks a PM category. Their 1982 Lutheran Worship, however, introduces a new PM category, although still retaining several explicit single-item metrical categories. Their 2006 Lutheran Service Book maintains a similar PM and methodology.
  2. ^ An example is the CAPTAIN KIDD ("What Wondrous Love Is This"). The Presbyterian Hymnal lists it in the numerical part of the index.


  1. ^ "The Blind Boys of Alabama - "Amazing Grace"". 23 November 2009. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  2. ^ "O Come, All Ye Faithful". Faith Alive Christian Resources. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  3. ^ "HM Hallelujah Meter (66.66.88)". The Cyber Hymnal. 19 October 2018. Retrieved 29 November 2018.; Lutheran Book of Worship and The Hymnal 1982 use 66 66 88 instead.

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