Singing is one of the most natural forms of human expression. As a result, it’s not surprising that when people worship the deity they believe in, they sing. Singing during worship is practiced all religions around the world. A hymn is generally considered to be the domain of the Christian faith, though other faiths have their own versions.
A hymn is a prayer or praise to God that is set to chordal music, divided into stanzas, and intended to be sung a congregation. In this way, the hymn serves as a model for most Western music. The majority of popular songs have verses and choruses with a distinct melody line. Although not every hymn has a chorus, they take this directly from the hymn form.
Psalms were sung in the Temple and synagogues, and the hymn has its roots in Jewish worship. Because most early Christians were raised in the Jewish faith, these Psalms remained popular in churches after Christianity became a recognized religion. St. Benedict adapted these structures in the sixth century as he worked to develop what is now known as Gregorian chant.
At certain times of the day, monks and nuns chanted various prayers and the Psalms, giving rise to the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, which many orders, particularly cloistered ones, still chant every day. The majority of the Mass was chanted. Chant, the way, is the practice of singing a set number of words on the same note, with the tone rising or falling at the end of the line. It is difficult to master and requires a lot of practice. As a result, the average congregation found it difficult to fully embrace chant.
Around the time of the Protestant Reformation, a restlessness with the chant arose, which was then sung entirely in Latin, the Church’s language. Worshipers wanted to sing “in the vernacular,” or in their own language. As the Protestant Church grew in popularity, great composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach wrote beautiful choral works for groups to sing. Church music evolved over time, and many of the songs in the service were eventually sung the congregation.
Dr. Isaac Watts is credited with writing over 700 hymns and is known as the “Father of English Hymnody.” In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, his work elevated the hymn to a place of adoration and reverence in the church. He wrote the words to “Joy to the World,” a popular Christmas carol, as well as hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” These hymns are considered to be among the best in the Christian church, and they can be found in almost every Protestant hymnal.
Other popular hymns, such as “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” are more contemporary and reflect a shifting musical tradition. In the last 75 years or so, the hymn has changed slightly, reflecting more of the sounds of secular music. Some worshippers prefer new hymn forms, while others prefer traditional hymn forms. Both have a lot to offer and teach a worshiper or a sacred music scholar.