How to Use the Metrical Index in Your Hymnal

How to Use the Metrical Index in Your Hymnal-49.png

Have you ever flipped through your hymnal and come across all those indexes in the back? 

The one we probably use most often is the Index of First Lines and Common Titles - a quick way to find the page number for a particular hymn you want to sing or play. Another index that sometimes proves helpful is the Index of Hymn Tunes, where you can look up a hymn by its tune name (for instance, NEW BRITAIN for “Amazing Grace” or HYMN TO JOY for “Joyful, Joyful”).

You may also find the Index of Scripture References or Topics to be helpful - a way to choose hymns that tie in with and support the reading of the day.

But then, there’s that Metrical Index - some sort of code with numbers and dots and letters that makes you feel like you’re reading a computer manual. What’s that all about?

Well, today, I’m going to tell you all about it, including what it is, how it works, and ways this little index can help you mix up and reinvigorate your hymn-singing.


What is the metrical index?

The metrical index is a collection of numbers and letters that indicate the meter of the text. The meter is the rhythm and syllabic structure of the poetry (think back to your high school English classes).

The numbers indicate the number of syllables in each line of text (each line is usually separated by a period). For instance, 8.7.8.7 D is the meter for "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” Count the syllables with me:

Love divine, all loves excelling (8 syllables)
Joy of heav'n to earth come down (7 syllables)
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling (8 syllables)
All Thy faithful mercies crown (7 syllables)

The second half of this hymn follows the same structure, so instead of writing 8.7.8.7.8.7.8.7, it's shortened to 8.7.8.7 D, which stands for double.

If I wanted to find another tune that would work with this text, I could use the metrical index to look up all other tunes that use the 8.7.8.7 D meter. Here are just a few of the ones included in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989):

  • BEECHER (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”)
  • HYMN TO JOY (“Joyful, Joyful”)
  • HYFRYDOL (“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”)
  • EBENEZER (“God Hath Spoken By the Prophets")
  • BRADBURY (“Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”)
  • NETTLETON (“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”)
  • CONVERSE (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”)
  • BEACH SPRING (“Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service”)
  • ABBOT’S LEIGH (“Lord, You Give the Great Commission” or “God is Here”)
  • RESTORATION (“Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”)

This means that you could sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” to the tune EBENEZER, though, you may find the tune is not as good of a match as the original. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Most hymns in the 8.7.8.7 meter are trochaic, meaning they begin on the strong beat with a stressed syllable, followed by an unstressed one. In contrast, most hymns in the 8.6.8.6 meter (like "Amazing Grace") are iambic, meaning they begin with on a weak beat with an unstressed syllable, followed by a strong one (source).

Most of the time, you'll see meters written out as numbers, representing the syllables for each line of text; however, sometimes, you may see a few other abbreviations. Here's what they mean:

C.M. = common meter
8.6.8.6

Four lines of text, alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, with rhyming words in lines two and four and sometimes, one and three (source). Ex. "Amazing Grace"

L.M. = long meter
8.8.8.8

Four lines in iambic tetrameter, with rhyming words in lines two and four and sometimes, one and three (source). Ex. "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow"

S.M. = short meter
6.6.8.6

Three lines of iambic trimeter (1, 2, and 4) and one line of iambic tetrameter (3), with rhyming words in lines two and four and sometimes, one and three (source). Ex. "Blest Be the Tie That Binds"

How do you use the metrical index?

The process of pairing a hymn text and tune is pretty simple. First, I recommend starting with the text you want to use in worship.

Find the original setting in your hymnal and look for the meter (usually down at the bottom of the page). Then, flip to the back to the metrical index and look for that same meter. The metrical index will give you a list of hymn tunes (and hymn numbers) that use that same meter. Look up each tune, if you don't already know them, and decide which one might be a good fit for your text.


"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." (source)


Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Does the character of this tune match the character of the text I want to use?
  • Is this tune familiar to the congregation? Can they sing it without music?
  • Does this tune highlight parts of the text in a unique and meaningful way?
  • Does the melody emphasize the correct syllables of the text for every verse?
  • Does this tune evoke a different text or season that might be confusing to the congregation?

Another way to explore text and tune pairings is to visit hymnary.org and search by text or tune for all the ways one or the other has been published in hymnals. This is a fast and easy way to get some ideas for pairings!

A few examples of text and tune pairings

Here are a few examples of familiar hymns that can be sung to different tunes. Have you used any of these with your congregation?

  • Love Divine, All Loves Excelling: BEECHER or BEACH SPRING or HYFRYDOL
  • Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart: MORECAMBE or EVENTIDE (source)
  • Come, Thou Almighty King: ITALIAN HYMN or AMERICA (source)
  • Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: HYFRYDOL or EBENEZER
  • And Can It Be: SAGINA or SWEET HOUR (source)
  • Away in a Manger: CRADLE SONG or MUELLER
  • How Firm a Foundation: FOUNDATION or SYMPHONY (source)
  • O God, Our Help in Ages Past: ST. ANNE or MORNING SONG (source)
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem: ST. LOUIS or FOREST GREEN
  • While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks: CHRISTMAS or RESIGNATION (source)
  • Nearer My God, to Thee: BETHANY or MORE LOVE TO THEE (source)
  • Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah: CWM RHONDDA or BRYN CALFARIA (source) or DISMISSAL

When to use a different tune

There are a few occasions when you might want to consider pairing a different tune with a given hymn text:

  • The original tune is unfamiliar and somewhat challenging to sing
  • The original tune is popular and overused
  • The newly-matched tune highlights the given text in a new way
  • You want to sing two different hymns one week that have the same tune
  • You have a new text you want to use that doesn't have a tune

You can certainly use these new text/tune pairings for congregational singing, on occasion, but you might also consider using them for vocal solos throughout the year, particularly if you have an arrangement of the tune you can use as an accompaniment. Another idea is to use them as choral service music: an introit, a call to prayer or prayer response, a benediction response. These can be sung in 4-part harmony, a cappella.

A few final considerations

Ready to start putting your hymnal’s metrical index to work? Here are few final considerations to keep in mind as you plan:

Print the hymn lyrics in the bulletin.

It will be easier for people to sing a different tune if they have only the words in front of them. Make a small note in the bulletin that the hymn will be sung to a different tune and include the hymn number, for people who want to look it up in advance.

Avoid tunes that are inextricably tied to their texts or evoke a certain season.

You know the ones I’m talking about. When you hear the text or tune of “Joy to the World” (ANTIOCH), you think Christmas. It’s hard to sing those words or use that tune at any other time of the year. It’s how I feel about using REGENT SQUARE for anything other than “Angels From the Realms of Glory” - it just doesn’t work, for me. The same is true for “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” (ST. GEORGE’S WINDSOR) and “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (EASTER HYMN). It would be challenging to sing a hymn like this with a different text, because the text and tune are woven together.

Be selective.

Robert Cottrill noted, “It is surprising how many folks love a hymn because of the tune. Change the tune, and to them, it’s not the same hymn” (source). Keep this in mind as you plan and don’t overdo it. Be selective about how and when to pair different tunes and texts and save this for special occasions or when the hymn really calls for it.

Do you mix and match hymn texts and tunes from time to time? What are your favorite pairings to use in worship?