What Is Meter?

What Is Meter?

Meter is simply the number of syllables in a line of text, with a consistent stress pattern. So, for example, the familiar text of “Amazing Grace” is written in common meter (86.86), which means 8 syllables, followed by 6 syllables, then 8 syllables, then 6 syllables. Count them:

A/maz/ing/grace/how/sweet/the/sound = 8
that/saved/a/wretch/like/me = 6
I/once/was/lost/but/now/am/found = 8
was/blind/but/now/I/see = 6

This meter pattern is used so often that it was given the name “common meter” or C.M. If the pattern is used twice for a longer stanza, the pattern is called “common meter double” and is designated as C.M.D.

Another metrical pattern is “short meter” or S.M. This meter is used twice for the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” and so the metrical designation is S.M.D. The syllable pattern for short meter is 66.86—count the syllables:

This/is/my/Fa/ther’s/world = 6
and/to/my/list’/ning/ears = 6
all/na/ture/sings/and/’round/me/rings = 8
the/mu/sic/of/the/spheres = 6
This/is/my/Fa/ther’s/world = 6
I/rest/me/in/the/thought = 6
of/rocks/and/trees/of/skies/and/seas = 8
His/hand/the/won/ders/wrought = 6

One further metrical pattern that has a name is “long meter” or L.M. The syllable pattern for long meter is 88.88. This is the meter for the familiar tune of the Doxology:

Praise/God/from/whom/all/bless/ings/flow = 8
Praise/Him/all/crea/tures/here/be/low = 8
Praise/Him/a/bove/ye/heav’n/ly/hosts = 8
Praise/Fa/ther/Son/and/Ho/ly/Ghost = 8

You will notice that the word “heaven” had to be shortened to one syllable in order to fit into the 8-syllable pattern. This also occurred in the previous hymn with the word “listening” which was shortened to two syllables as “list’ning.” This is a common practice with several English words that you will find in metered psalms, such as e’en (even), e’er (ever), heav’n (heaven), bless’d (blessed), ev’ry (every), and pow’r (power). Long meter can also be doubled and designated as L.M.D.

Beyond these three named meter patterns, there are many others that are just designated by the numerical pattern. In the “Index of Meters and Tunes” you will find all of the metrical patterns that are used in this Psalter. For each meter, we have listed a few tunes by name, followed by the familiar hymn titles that are usually sung with that tune. Each tune can be used for any text with that meter, not just the hymn we are used to singing it to. That is why the tunes themselves have names apart from the hymn text we associate with them. Some tunes are majestic and celebrative; others are somber and quiet; some are reflective and others are mournful. The mood of the psalm may be brought to life in different ways by different tunes, so this allows for variety and multiple ways in which a psalm may be sung.

The metrical settings of the psalms are printed as text only without musical notation, with the verse numbers attached just as they are in the Book of Psalms. This format reminds us that these metrical settings follow the actual text of the biblical psalm, while also allowing for various tunes to be used at different times for the same psalm. The tune is the vehicle for the journey of the text, carrying the message of the psalm into the deep places of the heart and soul; but the journey is ultimately in the text, not the music.

In this Psalter, you will find the meter for each psalm noted at the beginning of the psalm, along with several tune suggestions that fit the meter. These are just suggestions, and other tune options for that same meter may be found in the index.  If you are unfamiliar with the tune, you may listen to recordings that are available to “click and hear.” Or, if you read music, you can also find the melody line notated with chords. Next to the tune names you will see the first line of a hymn which is commonly associated with that tune – this may also aid you in recognizing the tune until you become familiar with the tune names themselves.