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What Is Musical Meter?

This question arises when we seen an old carol whose music has been lost. What was once a song is now a poem. To re-create the song, we need to pair the words with an appropriate tune, and one of the first steps is to determine the musical meter of the lyrics.

Musical meter (as distinguished from poetic meter) refers to the numbers of syllables per line of the verse of the hymn.  In many modern hymnals, this information is provided for you, but in some cases you will have to count them yourself. This is especially true for older hymns and carols.

Here's the first verse for O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. To determine the meter of this song, count the number of syllables in each line (I've added hyphens to make it easier to count):

O come, O come, Em-man-u-el
And ran-som cap-tive Is-ra-el
That mourns in lone-ly ex-ile here
Un-til the son of God ap-pear.

If you count the number of syllables in each line, you will find that each line contains 8 syllables.  The meter of this hymn, therefore, is 88 88 (or 88 88 88, if you include the refrain).

Some meters occur so frequently that they have names:

If you do not know what tune is associated with a particular hymn or carol, you can use any tune which has the same meter.  Of course, it would be best to match the musical rhythms with the literary rhythms, and to find a tune which has the correct mood -- distinguishing a lullaby from a jig, for example. Many hymnals have lists of tunes sorted by meter, and the Cyberhymnal web site has an extensive listing of Tunes by Meter. The work of Martin Shaw in The English Carol Book (both First Series and Second Series) would be an excellent example of how (1) to match traditional tunes to lyrics, and (2) to compose new, appropriate tunes for carols whose original tunes have been lost.

In some cases, you will see a "D" appended to a meter.  This means that the meter is "doubled" (that is, it repeats itself).  An example of this in action is the carol It Came Upon The Midnight Clear.  It has eight lines; the first four lines are in Common Meter, as are the second four lines (86 86 and 86 86).  Thus, it's meter is CMD (Common Meter, Doubled: 86 86 D).

Finally, you might see a meter of a particular hymn as "CMD With Refrain." This means that the verses are in Common Meter, Doubled, plus a refrain.  To determine the meter of the refrain, you'll need to count syllables.

Some hymns or carols do not have a regular meter, either because there is no consistent number of syllables per line, or because the number of syllables per line is not consistent in the verses.  Examples include O Come, All Ye Faithful, Silent Night and In The Bleak Midwinter. Such songs will have the notation "Irregular."

In the 17th century, it was common for congregations to know only 6 to 12 tunes. Musicologists of the time believed that this was a sufficient number for any congregation to handle competently. All songs with Common Meter were sung to the same one or two tunes.  The same was true for Short Meter and Long Meter.

In addition, many collections of hymns and carols did not print an individual song.  In William Sandy's Christmas Carols Old and New (1833), 80 carols were printed, but only 18 tunes.  Ian Bradley's The Penguin Book of Carols (1999) contains lyrics and histories, but no scores. In such cases, it is sometimes impossible for us to know what tunes were associated with a particular carol.  In such cases, it is acceptable to use any Common Meter tune to accompany lyrics written in CM. Again, you will want one which fits the meter, has the right mood, matches rhythms, and which you know or can learn.

A final note: "meter" can also be used to describe the time signature. For example, saying that a song has 4/4 meter means that it is played in 4/4 time or time signature. This use of the word "meter" does not apply to this discussion.

Sources:

As the term "meter" is used in poetry, please see the following:

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