Book of Praise


During the Reformation in the 16th century music in the church took a new direction. John Calvin's Genevan Psalter has been sung by the church ever since.

Common Metre

1. What is Metre?

Metre (British spelling of meter)
"The specific rhythmic pattern of a stanza, as determined by the kind and number of lines: rhythm in music; especially, the division into measures, or bars, having a uniform number of beats."

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, World Publishing Co. 1957
As used in church hymns, metre is the pattern of syllable counts in the lines of a verse.  For example in the following well known hymns, with the syllables marked:

The1     Lord's2    my3    shep4-   herd5,   I'll6   not7   want8
He1     makes2    me3     down4     to5     lie6
In1         pas2-      tures3  green:4  he5    lead6 -eth7    me8
The1     qui2-         et3        wa4-   ters5   by6

Notice the pattern of the number of syllables in each line. The pattern is 8,6,8,6. This is the "metre" of the verse—8,6,8,6. The 8,6,8,6 pattern is also called "Common Metre."

Common metre is often abbreviated as "CM". Two other patterns that are frequently seen are called short metre (SM) and long metre (LM). 

Short metre has two less syllables on the first line. The pattern is therefore 6,6,8,6:
Blest1  be2       the3 tie4      that5  binds6
Our1    hearts2  in3   Christ4  -ian5 love6
The1    fel2         -low3  -ship4  of5    kind6-  red7  minds8
Is1       like2     to3    that4    a5-   bove6.

Long metre is 8,8,8,8. Here is an example of long metre, (without the numbers) on the melody of "The Old One Hundred):
All1         peo2      ple3   that4   on5  earth6  do7    dwell8,
Sing      to            the   Lord  with  cheer-   ful      voice!
Serve     Him        with  joy,   His    prai-     ses    tell;
Come     ye          be -  fore   Him   and       re-    joice!

Common metre, short metre and long metre are almost always referred to by their letter abbreviations (CM, SM, LM). Other metres, of which there are many, are simply referred to by their pattern. Some examples are: 8,7,8,7 and 10,10,10,10. 
Some songs do not follow a regular metrical pattern and are designated "irregular" metre. 

2. Use of Metres in the Music 

Words are generally grouped according to a single "repetition" of the metre of the verse. The verses can be used "as is" with appropriate music. For example, the version of Psalm 23 above is most often sung to a tune named "Crimond," which consists of a single repetition of common metre (CM) music.

Tunes such as Crimond (and the short metre (SM) tune we use with "Blest be The Tie That Binds") are fine for shorter songs, but they can quickly become monotonous when used for longer songs. Something should be used to break the monotony, or to delay its onset. One option for breaking monotony is the use of a refrain, or the repetition of the last one or two lines of a verse. When the goal is to adhere as closely as possible to the original Psalm or to sing as much as possible of a longer Psalm then a refrain or repetition would interfere with the goal by introducing unnecessary words

Something else is needed to allow to sing more of the Psalm without the monotony of repeating a short, simple tune too many times. The obvious solution is to use a tune that is "longer" than just a single repetition of a metre. The most simple approach is, to use a tune that extends to two repetitions of a standard metre, which is often referred to as a "Doubled Metre" tune.

Sometimes a song will use two repetitions of a metrical pattern (the pattern is said to have been "doubled") Doubled patterns are indicated by adding a "D" to the metre designation. Doubled common metre, for example, would be abbreviated CMD (occasionally DCM). 
Another example would be 8,7,8,7.If words are written for a standard metre, they will almost always work well with a doubled version of the same metre. 

3. Why Metre?

Basically understanding the principle of metre allows anyone to sing songs and hymns and combine texts and music. In general this is quite simple, once there is a good understanding of the basic concepts of metre.

Many poets over the last centuries have created songs based on Psalms and other scriptures, which follow these basic metres. 
For example, the Scottish Psalter contains all 150 Psalms; most of them set in Common Metre ( Isaac Watts wrote a Psalter that contains several versions of each Psalm, one version in each of these metres. Many of these different Psalters are currently available.
Not only have many of the words of Holy Scripture been set into these standard metres, there is also a lot of public domain music available in these metres. It is therefore possible to sing these songs by simply combining a setting of the words with music written in the same metre.

This appears to be essentially what Dwight Armstrong did with many of his songs. Dwight apparently had access to one or more Protestant hymnals that contained "Reformation settings" of the Psalms and other Biblical passages. Instead of using existing music, he wrote his own music and adapted the words from the Protestant source to greater or lesser extent. People have identified several of the Psalms that he appears to have drawn from this kind of source.

This is also the way many churches went about creating their church hymns (especially the Presbyterian church). They would both use existing words and create their own music, or they would use music that they liked and choose words that matched its metre. In other cases they used existing words and music, but with slight changes to bring the words in closer agreement with their particular doctrinal outlook.

4. Conclusions

- The use of metre was introduced and used originally to simplify singing in the church. Singing had too less priority in many churches (first in England and Scotland) what caused a downfall of the singing in the church. Most hymns in the English language are using a certain metre.

- Metre forces text structures in poems/songs to a limited number of syllables.

- Metre allows to sing multiple song texts on the same melody (part) easily. It is not possible to maintain a unique character between the text and melody when a song can be sung on many different melodies. 

- When people use metre there is a risk of monotonous melodies due to the limitations of the possible variations in melody. This can have the consequence that only a few stanzas are sung, when only a whole song is a proper representation of the message. When one tries to solve the problem of monotonous melodies, it can be difficult for instance to stay close to the original bible text or to avoide usage of unnecessary words.

- Using metre allows people to be familiar with only a limited number of melodies and sing many different texts on it. Metre simplifies the musical intensity and depth of songs. This development can be not-challenging to singers, and this can also estrange singers from songs that are not made up of a certain metre.