What We Believe

What Makes a Great Hymn?

Timothy and Lou Ann Shafer

New Horizons: March 2009

What Makes a Great Hymn?

Also in this issue

Since Christ Is Lord of Heaven and Earth

The Psalter and the Church's Personality

Irresistible Grace

What makes a hymn "good"? Is it good because we like it, because it is familiar, because it brings back pleasant memories of loved ones or special events or times? These feelings and associations are certainly very real to all of us, but they are subjective. Are there objective standards that we can use to evaluate hymns?

Music is an emotional language that conveys meaning. It is this emotional language to which most of us relate when we listen to music or participate in it. But the building blocks (elements) used to construct the music are objective and can be evaluated in a clear and thorough way for craftsmanship and effective communication. When music is paired with a text (as in a hymn), it can also be evaluated in terms of how well it matches the affect (emotion) of the text and conveys its meaning.

The Bible warrants this evaluation. We are to seek after that which is excellent (Phil. 1:9-11 and 4:8).

Let's look at the excellent hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy." We can discern its specific musical characteristics and derive principles by which to evaluate other hymns (of any style).

Text and Music

The first aspect of the hymn to consider is the text. The text of "Holy, Holy, Holy" was written by Reginald Heber, an Anglican minister and later bishop of Calcutta, in 1826 (the year of his death). It is based on the images of heavenly worship received by the apostle John in Revelation 4:8-11. Heber was enthralled with the holiness of God and used the symbolism of threes in his poem to extol God's Trinitarian nature. The Center for Church Music comments on this hymn (see songsandhymns.org/hymns/detail/holy-holy-holy):

God is "holy, merciful and mighty," he's "perfect in power, in love and purity," he's worshiped by saints, cherubim, and seraphim, and he's praised "in earth and sky and sea." Through these consistent units of three, this hymn describes and worships God in three persons.

This excellent text is Christ centered, doctrinally rich, edifying for new and mature believers alike, and well crafted in its poetry.

The music was composed for this poem in 1861 by John B. Dykes, a musician and theologian. The tune was named NICAEA because the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) examined and affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity as a true and essential doctrine of the Christian faith.


Dykes had a daunting task in front of him to set this wonderful text to music that would be worthy to carry its profound biblical doctrine. His musical training enabled him to bring musical ideas to the text that timelessly support its propositional truths.

What are these musical ideas? A brief summary of music theory will be helpful before beginning. As polyphony and harmony developed in the West, music took on what is described as a tertian harmonic foundation. This means that our harmony is based on notes that are a distance of a third apart. (This interval can be experienced at the piano by playing any white key, skipping the next white key, and playing the following white key.) This interval became the foundation for the construction of all harmony; chords are constructed by "stacking" intervals of thirds together. Our basic harmonic unit is called the triad because it contains three notes, built from ascending thirds. Triads can be built on each note of a scale, resulting in the chords that are used to accompany a melody.

Dykes began his melody by separating the notes of the triad that is built on the foundational first note of the scale. He used them for the strong and distinctive presentation of holiness that is repeated six times in the poem. The symbolism is clear: one chord consisting of three notes stands for one God in three persons. As with all analogies that attempt to represent or explain the mystery of our trinitarian God, this analogy ultimately breaks down. But the three-in-one musical presentation is so boldly and clearly presented that there can be no mistaking what Dykes intended.

Melodic intervals and their direction are part of the composer's musical toolbox for communicating ideas. A rising interval carries certain natural expressions because of the strength and energy required to produce higher pitches when singing. Also informing the natural expressive qualities of ascending intervals are the upward-based physiological responses that people tend to manifest when experiencing feelings along the emotional spectrum of joy, triumph, strength, power, enthusiasm, exuberance, etc. Conversely, when experiencing sadness, grief, despair, fatigue, defeat, etc., people tend to exhibit physiological responses in which the body moves in an essentially downward direction.

The intervals in Dykes's opening melodic phrase present bold leaps between pitches, ascending by relatively large distances from the first note to a climactic point on the word "Lord" (in measure three) that is six notes higher than the starting note. These ascents emphasize the importance of each statement of the word "holy," and build up to the highest note for the One who is holy. The climactic high point of the sound conveys the highness and holiness of the Lord, unifying the content of the text with the spirit of the music.

Dykes constructed his tune with the voice in mind. The tune's melody can be easily sung by a congregation of average musical ability.


Rhythmically, the tune NICAEA is very straightforward. The meter is common time (4/4), which is perfect for the majestic declamation of the text. Simply constructed for ease in congregational singing, the rhythms are largely quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes. Processional in nature, the opening rhythm (four quarter notes, two half notes) also reinforces the increasing emphasis of the thrice-mentioned "holy" by stretching out the syllables in the third repetition. This rhythmic element reinforces the attention given to the third iteration of the word "holy" by the ascending pitches.


Further emphasizing the greatness and breadth of this moment in the opening of the hymn is the harmony—particularly the counterpoint created by the bass line against the melody. From its starting point, the bass takes off in the opposite direction from the melody, moving generally downward by both leap and step to a point five notes lower than it began. The polarity created by this contrary motion between the two extreme voices (soprano and bass) is the musical equivalent of spreading the arms far apart in a grand gesture. It creates a tremendous sense of the greatness of our God at the precise moment that the worshiper is singing his name, "Lord." All the voices move together rhythmically, but in opposite directions, to create a sense of both oneness and comprehensiveness that expresses both the omnipotence and omnipresence of our Lord.


Yet another element emphasizing the expansiveness of the gesture is found in the texture of the music, specifically in the voicing of the chords. Voicing refers to the distance between individual notes of the chord. For instance, the opening triad is written in what musicians call closed position. That is to say, there are no gaps between members of the chord; the triad consists of D, F#, A, and Dykes does not skip any of these notes as he constructs the opening chord. With each successive half note, the voicing becomes more open, until by the time we arrive at the triad on the climactic melody note at the beginning of measure three, Dykes has progressively increased the distances between chord members, so that the two chords supporting the word "Lord" are in an extremely open position, skipping several notes of the chord between each member of the chord.

This is an additional gesture that contributes to the feeling of grandness at the climax. It is a tangible sensation in the hands of a keyboard player, who begins the hymn with both hands in a closed position, with the fingers close in to the palms, and by measure 3 arrives at the climax, where both hands are expanded to a wide position with large spaces between the fingers.

Musical Text Setting

When setting the text to music, several levels of dynamic inflection must be considered. The most basic level is the syllabic level: polysyllabic words must be set with the natural syllabic inflection that they are given when they are spoken. For example, the word "holy" must be set as it would be spoken, with the musical emphasis on the first syllable rather than the second.

The second level of inflection is at the level of the phrase. Musicians often refer to this as "shaping" or "phrasing." This means determining the most important word (or words) of the group of words in the thought and arranging the music in a manner that points to and emphasizes that word.

The syllabic textual inflection in NICAEA is nearly flawless throughout all four verses. Every polysyllabic word receives a musical treatment that correctly inflects the word as it would be spoken, and all the monosyllabic words are treated in a naturally inflected manner. For example, Dykes places the stressed syllable of the word "holy" (i.e., "ho") each time on a strong beat in the measure. The complex phrasing inflection is also well done. For example, the word "God" is emphasized in the last line of the first verse, through rhythmic, intervallic, and harmonic means.

When the text of a song is set well to the musical elements, the resulting naturalness of the syllabic inflection contributes immensely to a song's singability, and the meaning of the text is amplified to more fully express its affect. The congregant is able to sing with both the affections and the intellect fully engaged as directed in Scripture (1 Cor. 14:15).


This brief analysis of "Holy, Holy, Holy" barely skims the surface of this hymn's deep riches. Even so, the excellence of craftsmanship in its poetry and the music is unmistakable. What guidelines can we glean from our look at this hymn, which will help us evaluate other hymns for use in worship?

1. The text of a hymn must be Christ centered, doctrinally sound, poetically well crafted, and edifying for new and mature believers alike.

2. The music for the hymn must be well crafted in its elemental layers—in its melody, rhythm, harmony, and texture, and in their interaction.

3. The components of the music should complement and amplify the text in their construction and affect. The interaction of the text and the music should reflect their congruency.

4. The hymn (text and music) should be singable by congregations of average musical ability. Musical inflection should support natural spoken inflection, and hymns should be constructed with group singing in mind, rather than solo singing.

These guidelines point to larger biblical principles that should guide our actions in choosing music for worship—namely, congruity, excellence, and holiness.

When biblical truths are set to music, that music bears a great responsibility to support the truths of the text. While texts predominantly address the intellect, music primarily addresses the affections. It is vital that the music teach our affections in a manner that is congruent with the truths of the text, even as the text teaches our intellect. In other words, the music must fit the text. Paul implicitly addresses this when he commands that all things in worship be done in a fitting manner (1 Cor. 14:40). Calvin echoes this sentiment in the preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1565: "[Regarding] the melody, it has seemed best that it be moderated in the manner we have adopted to carry the weight and majesty appropriate to the subject, and even to be proper for singing in the church, according to that which has been said."

As stated earlier, the Lord commends excellence. Throughout the Scriptures, we are exhorted to give the Lord our firstfruits as a sacrifice of praise in gratitude for what has been done for us in Jesus Christ. Down through the centuries and continuing today, the Lord has blessed his church with thousands of doctrinally rich, excellent hymn texts that fulfill the scriptural directives in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. Not to be overlooked, though, are the encouragements that the Lord gives specifically to musicians to seek training and skill in their craft (1 Chron. 15:22; Ps. 33:3). The musical aspects of a hymn should be prepared and evaluated with as much care and diligence as the text.

Finally, we are repeatedly commanded in the Psalms to worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness (Ps. 29:2; 96:9). Instead of imitating or reflecting the musical culture of the world, a good hymn seeks to support the holy truths set forth in the text. Again, Calvin speaks to this issue in the preface to the Genevan Psalter:

And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the church in the presence of God and his angels.

The authors, husband and wife, are members of Westminster OPC in Hollidaysburg, Pa. He is professor of piano at Penn State University; she is a music educator and choir director. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2009.

New Horizons: March 2009

What Makes a Great Hymn?

Also in this issue

Since Christ Is Lord of Heaven and Earth

The Psalter and the Church's Personality

Irresistible Grace

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