How to Compose a Hymn Tune

A well-crafted hymn tune is essential for expressing the meaning of a text. Composing hymn tunes, then, is an important task that ultimately makes a hymn text singable and “pray-able.” To write an effective tune, the composer must meet poetic and musical criteria.

The first step in the process of composing a hymn tune begins with the hymn text. Only after a hymn text has been studied and the structure and meaning of the text is fully understood can the composer begin to write a hymn tune that reflects an inevitable and necessary union between text and tune. When the purpose and focus of the text is fully understood, only then can the composer begin to make decisions that reflect a similar purpose and focus on the hymn tune.

The second step in the process is the actual composing of the hymn tune. It involves a continuous process of rejecting, rewriting, and accepting musical ideas. Each composer establishes a routine and finds a comfortable place for doing the composing. This entire process is governed by certain rules of composition, not to be held as absolute, but to be used as guidelines. These guidelines provide a predictable framework, and they separate the composer of the hymn tune from other composers. The four major guidelines typically are …

  1. The melody must be simple enough for a congregation of untrained singers to sing after just one hearing of the tune. A predominantly stepwise melody with a judicious use of leaps and unisons is the norm. 
  2. The harmony must support the melody, not overwhelm it. If the tune is intended to be sung in unison, then the keyboard harmony may be slightly more elaborate. If the tune is intended to be sung with other voices singing harmony, the harmonic lines should possess some melodic interest of their own.
  3. The rhythm of the melody should closely match the rhythm of the hymn text. A reading of the hymn text using the rhythm of the hymn tune should result in an effortless rhythm that propels the text forward.
  4. The climax of the text should coincide with the climax of the melody. After the climax of the text has been determined (ideally in the same place in each stanza), the composer must try to create a climax in the same place in the tune.

The third step in the process is the critical stage of self-evaluation. After the hymn has been written, it is valuable to set it aside for several days. Often, you’ll find that just a note or two requires change.

After its completion having your choir sing the tune will give you a good indication if it has any future life. Listen to what they say about the tune, and just as important, listen to their singing of the tune. 

Composing a successful hymn tune is not an easy task. It requires a creative mind, a thorough knowledge of the craft of composition, a sensitivity to the hymn text, a knowledge of the capabilities of the singing congregation, a great deal of discipline, and a good measure of patience. If you can coordinate all these attributes into the creative effort of composing a hymn tune, you will be numbered among the thousands of composers who gave to the church and to the Lord a “new song” to sing.

Roy Hopp

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