Seven things that make a hymn great – and why you should care
During her stay, my grandma would tell us about her childhood and how she and her sister would sing hymns together while they worked back in the Depression era, inspiring my sisters and me to do the same. Although I grew up singing hymns with my family, it was my grandma who instilled in me a love for these songs of the faith.
As a composer, I am always intrigued by what makes a song last. After all, why do we still play the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven regularly, but not others? And why do we sing the hymns “Amazing Grace” or “It is Well” often, but practically no one has heard of the hymn “God holds the key of all unknown”?
Recently, I wrote a research paper that attempted to answer those very questions by analyzing the most enduring hymns of all time. Here are the seven things that were common to all of them:
1. They were written during hard times
In fact, each hymn was written during times of deep convictions, tragedy, or emotion and seek to praise God for what He has done through those circumstances. These hymns weren’t just written on a whim. The author wanted to remind himself of his former life and believers of God’s mighty work.
2. They are doctrinally sound
Every hymn I analyzed contained a proper understanding of theology and man’s position before a holy and righteous God. The hymns can be used to teach doctrine to the Church (as in the case of Holy, Holy, Holy which teaches the doctrine of the Trinity).
3. They are God focused
Rather than being man focused, these hymns highlight who God is and what He has done. It is interesting to note that, in all of the great hymns, the authors did not write their work with the goal of becoming famous or even trying to make a great hymn.
4. They were written for the common man
They were written for people like you and me, rather than nobility or politicians
5. They have a good melody
For a hymn to last, it must have a simple, memorable tune that is easy to learn and sing. It isn’t fun to sing a song you struggle with and it is even harder to pass such a song down.
6. They are accessible
A great hymn can be felt and understood by multiple people from all walks of life. There must be something in the hymn that each believer can relate to (i.e. comfort during times of hardship). A person will more likely sing a hymn if they feel that it applies to them or that they can agree with it.
7. They are singable
For a hymn to be universal, the tune and lyrics must be written in such a way that it is possible for it to be sung by a congregation. Throughout the Psalms, God commands believers to sing and worship together – and what better way than through the corporate singing of His praise?
So why does it matter?
The music you listen to defines you
This shouldn’t be anything new. Music is a tool that can easily manipulate our emotions. Over time, if we aren’t careful about what we let inside our mind, we become like what we put inside us.
We serve a God of truth
Because of the reason I just mentioned, it is so important to make sure what you are putting into your mind is sound in doctrine and wholesome. If we serve a God of truth, why would we sing something that wasn’t true?
We are commanded to praise
God commands His people to praise, and it is a privilege to do so together. He is deserving of the best of our worship – and that includes our hymns.
God can use it in your life
I don’t know if you have ever noticed this, but one of the quickest ways to memorize something is to sing it. By singing and memorizing powerful lyrics and Scripture, God can use it to teach us and grow us.