PSA: How to Read a Hymnal

I attend Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA (aka John MacArthur’s church).  Recently, my church unveiled a new hymnal.  I’ve met a great number of people who had never opened a hymnal before coming to Grace.  There was one time I was having a conversation with a worship leader and mentioned that I sometimes followed the bass line of the four part harmony.  When he said he’d never noticed more than two voices in a hymnal, we realized he’d never noticed that there was music written BELOW the words as well as above them.  As a result, I figured I’d put together this guide to help understand hymnals.

A hymnal is a book of hymns.  Unlike a powerpoint slide, it shows you musical notation to help you follow the song.  This is the hymnal’s greatest quality, and one of several reasons using powerpoint instead of a hymnal is like playing video games on a console instead of a PC.  There is of course not a moral difference or spiritual difference–churches will make the decision between the two for many good reasons.  But the hymnal has a clear music theoretical advantage, particularly for those learning unfamiliar hymns who are somewhat familiar with sheet music.

Let’s look at a hymnal page.  For the record, I’m pretty sure it’s a legal image as I pulled it from wikimedia.The_Army_and_Navy_Hymnal.djvu


We notice that the title of the song is in BOLD type at the top of the page.  Next to the title, there is a number, in order to keep track of which hymn you are singing.  The pastor directs the congregation to which hymn will be sung by referring to this hymn number, not the page number.  I do not know the origins of the practice, but it definitely benefits those with weaker eyesight, as the hymn number is much larger than the page number.  Most hymnals I’ve used have about 600 hymns and other numbered entries in them, but the new one that came out at Grace has 445 numbered entries.  This is a useful stat to know when you’re flipping through a hymnal looking for a particular numbered entry.

Many hymnals will indicate broadly what topic the hymn falls into, such as the “Prayer and Aspiration” at the top of this hymnal page.  The hymnal is then arranged by these topics.  Every hymn will have an indication, somewhere on the page, of who wrote the words, who wrote the music, and either roughly when the hymn was written or when those authors lived.  In the case of more modern hymns, copyright information is included.  If you need to find a particular hymn can be found, you can check the index in the back by tune, title, first few words, and sometimes arrangers/authors/composers.

Now let us discuss the actual music on the page.  Many people are scared by the number of horizontal lines running across the page.  Notice that on this page there are four systems of horizontal and vertical lines.  At the beginning of each top half there is a treble clef, and at the beginning of each bottom half there is a bass clef.  Generally, the parts women and non-music readers sing are in the treble clef and the parts men sing are in the bass clef.  In the middle of each system are the words.  When you sing the first verse of the hymn, you sing the top row of words in each system, ignoring the second, third, and fourth rows of words in each system.  If there is only one row of words in a given system, then you will sing those words during every verse.

The sharps and flats next to the clefs from the key signature.  This hymn is in the key of G, because reasons that you might remember from basic music theory.  Next to that is the time signature.  This tells you how many beats are in each measure (which are delineated by vertical lines), and what notes receive the beats.  In this case there are six beats in each measure, occurring on each quarter note.  By then reading the notes and keeping track of the beat, you actually know when to sing each note!  It’s really quite a technological advancement over the blind free for all that is powerpoint.

Now were you to play this hymn on a piano, you’d press three or four different keys at a time.  That is because there are four parts or voices to the music.  That means the hymn is written in four part harmony.  The topmost notes in each system from the soprano voice, the next lower forms the alto voice.  These two are usually written in the treble clef.  If you only know the “melody” of a hymn, you know the soprano part.  A soprano voice usually belongs to a woman, girl, or young boy, but many of us who don’t read music end up singing the soprano part because it’s the easiest to follow by ear (because it is the melody).  The alto part is slightly lower pitched, and is usually sung by women.

The higher of the two voices written in the bass clef is the tenor part.  Tenors are usually men.  The lowest voice is the bass part.  If there’s one harmony voice you can pick out by ear, it’s usually the bass part.  It will often correspond to what is played by the double bass or electric bass, if one of these is used on stage.

You may know that the double bar line usually indicates the end of the musical piece.  But after the first double bar line in this hymn, you see and Amen.  This is an optional amen to sing after the last verse.  Many hymnals include these, and some churches even sing them.  But you won’t sing them between every verse, so, yeah.  Be prepared for that contingency.

At this point, neither of us is a hymnal expert, but I think I’ve given you enough information that if you’ve never used a hymnal before, you won’t be totally lost.  Yay!  This post is successful.

PSA: How to Read a Hymnal

2 thoughts on “PSA: How to Read a Hymnal

  1. Fun facts I learned from a music major:
    1. The (6,4,6,4,6,6,4) indicates the meter of the hymn, usually corresponding to the number of syllables in a phrase. (
    2. In some hymnals, a phrase will appear with brackets on top (this was the case with our old GCC hymnal). They are there to give the accompanist an easy phrase to play to introduce the hymn. (see last line:


  2. Reblogged this on Scraps and Scribbles and commented:
    A helpful post for churchgoers like me, who have had the experience of opening a hymnal, feeling a bit lost, and looking around surreptitiously to see how everyone else is doing it. Hopefully, next Sunday everyone can join the chorus of worshipers with confidence!


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