Songs Without Notes: A Meandering History of Hymnals and Vocal Music, with Rant — Part 3

Isaac Watts


From Isaac Watts’ book of hymns

In the early 18th Century, Isaac Watts began writing hymns by either arranging Psalms to have meter and rhyme or, in a revolution of doctrine and practice, composing entirely original hymns.

Although the Lutherans had been composing hymns for 200 years, Watts was the father of English hymnody, composing over 750 hymns, including many that remain popular today, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World.”

It’s amazing to realize that English speakers have only been singing original hymns for about 300 years. And yet Watts was a Nonconformist, meaning he refused to follow the Book of Common Prayer and so was banned from the Anglican Church. After all, there’s no authority in the Bible for reading printed prayers!

Watts was roundly criticized, and yet his hymns quickly caught on and helped fuel the First Great Awakening in England and in America, along with the brilliant Methodist hymns later composed by Charles Wesley. Great Christian music has often been tied to waves of evangelism.

Nonetheless, Watts’ compositions were highly controversial, even leading to church splits.

The popularity of Isaac Watts’ hymns caused a tempest in his day. In his day, English congregations predominately sang Psalms, so singing verses that were of “human composure” (such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) caused great controversy. One man complained, “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired Psalms and taken in Watts’ flights of fancy.” The issue split churches, including one in Bedford, England that was once pastored by John Bunyan.

In America, in May, 1789, Rev. Adam Rankin told the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in Philadelphia: “I have ridden horseback all the way from my home in Kentucky to ask this body to refuse the great and pernicious error of adopting the use of Isaac Watts’ hymns in public worship in preference to the Psalms of David.

So why did Watts’ music catch on? Well, I would imagine that the old style of singing was just so bad that few cared to defend it. The theology of the RPW did not change, but people were willing to look the other way to have song services that they found uplifting. One Isaac Watts composition changed more minds than a thousand sermons.


You may have noticed in the image above that there are no musical notes in Watts’ hymn book. Although in Germany the churches sang four-part harmony, in England the Calvinist mindset insisted on emphasizing the lyrics to the near exclusion of the music.

In fact, hymns were published with notations of their meter rather than the notes. The Wikipedia has a good explanation —

Hymn and poetic meter

In the English language poetic meters and hymn meters 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).

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 meters (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.


All meters can be represented numerically. In addition, some of those most frequently encountered are named:

  • C.M., or CM—Common Meter,; 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 LM—Long Meter,; a quatrain in iambic tetrameter, which rhymes in the second and fourth lines and often in the first and third.
  • S.M., or SM—Short Meter,; 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.

Often a longer verse will, in effect, be two short verses joined together or doubled. So:

  • D.C.M. (also C.M.D., or CMD)—Doubled CM,
  •—equivalent to two verses of Trochaic or ionic.

A large number of hymns, including many well known ones, use other meters: examples are “Abide With Me” ( and “Come Down, O Love Divine” (6.6.11.D).

Metrical index

Hymns written in a particular meter may be sung to any tune in that same meter, as long as the poetic foot (such as iambic, trochaic) also conforms.

Most hymnals include a metrical index of the book’s tunes.

Watts composed lyrics but not tunes. Rather, there were a number of melodies available for each commonly used metrical structure, and the song leader could pick whichever tune suited him.

We still see remnants of this practice in some modern hymnals. Some still have an index based on the melody — because they may be several hymns sung to the same tune. Or the editors may present the same hymn with differing melodies. And often there’s a note that a tune is, for example, “Old One Hundredth” (used in “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” among several others), meaning the lyrics were written to fit what may have been a much older melody. See also this article.

However, inclusion of musical notes in hymnals goes back at least to 1564, even among the Presbyterians. This was, of course, controversial, and so some Calvinist denominations published their hymns without notes. Evidently, it was expected that the song leader would know the melodies by name and, over time, the congregation would as well.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Songs Without Notes: A Meandering History of Hymnals and Vocal Music, with Rant — Part 3

  1. “Hymns written in a particular meter may be sung to any tune in that same meter.”

    I have seen this when attending gatherings where there is a piano player who can only play a few tunes. My experiences with such were in Africa. The Christians attending sing the words of many songs to just a couple of tunes. If you watch the opening scenes to “The African Queen,” set in Africa, Katherine Hepburn does this by playing one tune to several songs.

  2. Dan says:

    Wonderful observation!

  3. Mark says:

    Adon Olam (Hebrew: אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם; “Eternal Lord” or “Sovereign of the Universe”) is a strictly metrical hymn in the Jewish liturgy written in lines of eight syllables; more precisely, each line is composed of two segments of one yated and 2 tenu’ot, which indeed makes 8 syllables.

    Hebrew has the metrical hymn too.

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    You’re quite right that Hebrew can be used to write metrical hymns. Adon Olam can be sung to many different melodies. Here are two examples —

    The Lord of the Universe who reigned
    before anything was created.
    When all was made by his will
    He was acknowledged as King.

    And when all shall end
    He still all alone shall reign.
    He was, He is,
    and He shall be in glory.

    And He is one, and there’s no other,
    to compare or join Him.
    Without beginning, without end
    and to Him belongs dominion and power.

    And He is my G-d, my living G-d.
    to Him I flee in time of grief,
    and He is my miracle and my refuge,
    who answers the day I shall call.

    To Him I commit my spirit,
    in the time of sleep and awakening,
    even if my spirit leaves,
    G-d is with me, I shall not fear.

    Thanks for sharing.

    The biblical Psalms are not metrical in either Hebrew (or so I’m told) or English, and the Calvinists would only allow the biblical Psalms to be sung. Adon Olam is a 15th Century composition, and therefore clearly not authorized by command, example, or necessary inference. After all, if something within an authorized class is approved (such as worshiping on Sunday or bread and grape juice in communion), then all other possibilities are excluded. Hence, since the Psalms are approved Christian songs, nothing else is.

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