Description of poetic metre and how to use it to sing Psalms Sternhold and hopkins, brady and tate, isaac watts, bay psalm book, psalm singing sing the psalms, praise and worship christian church music

What is Metre?
Why Should I Care?
And If I Should Decide to Care, How Do I Use It?

[Why Should I Care?] [How Do I Use It?]

Let's take the second question first (briefly): One reason to care is that by using the principles of metre and the resources of this web site you will be able to sing the entire book of Psalms, as well as many other parts of God's word. This paper will explain the basics.

Metre: (British spelling of meter) "The specific rhythmic pattern of a stanza, as determined by the kind and number of lines: rhythm in music; especially, the division into measures, or bars, having a uniform number of beats." Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, World Publishing Co. 1957

So much for the dictionary. What does "metre" mean in practice?

As used in church hymns, metre is simply the pattern of syllable counts in the lines of a verse. For example, here is a verse from a well known hymn, with the syllables marked:

The1 Lord's2 my3 shep4-herd5, I'll6 not7 want8

He1 makes2 me3 down4 to5 lie6

In1 pas2-tures3 green:4 he5 lead6-eth7 me8

The1 qui2-et3 wa4-ters5 by6

Notice the numbers next to each syllable, and then notice the pattern of the number of syllables in each line. (Hint: look at the number by the last syllable on each line.) The pattern is 8,6,8,6 That is the "metre" of the verse—8,6,8,6. The 8,6,8,6 pattern is also called "common metre." Common metre is often abbreviated CM. Two other patterns that are frequently seen are called short metre (SM) and long metre (LM).

Short metre has two less syllables on the first line. The pattern is therefore 6,6,8,6. Here is an example:

Blest1 be2 the3 tie4 that5 binds6

Our1 hearts2 in3 Christ4-ian5 love6

The1 fel2-low3-ship4 of5 kind6-red7 minds8

Is1 like2 to3 that4 a5-bove6.

Long metre is 8,8,8,8. Here is an example of long metre, this time without the numbers. See if you can count it out as 8,8,8,8

All peo-ple that on earth do dwell,

Sing to the Lord with cheer-ful voice!

Serve Him with joy, His prais-es tell;

Come ye before Him and re-joice!

Common metre, short metre and long metre are almost always referred to by their letter abbreviations (CM, SM, LM). Other metres, of which there are many, are simply referred to by their pattern. Some examples are: 8,7,8,7 and 10,10,10,10. Some songs do not follow a regular metrical pattern and are designated "irregular" metre.

Metres in the music

Words are generally grouped according to a single "repetition" of the metre of the verse. The verses can be used "as is" with appropriate music. For example, the version of Psalm 23 above is most often sung to a tune named "Crimond," which consists of a single repetition of common metre (CM) music.

Tunes such as Crimond (and the short metre (SM)  tune we use with "Blest be The Tie That Binds") are fine for shorter songs, but they can quickly become monotonous when used for longer songs. Something is needed to break the monotony, or to delay its onset.

One technique for breaking monotony is the use of a refrain, or the repetition of the last one or two lines of a verse. These two techniques are also very effective for emphasizing a key thought of a verse or the whole song. Although rare, there are places in the Psalms themselves that use this technique. (Psalm 136, for example.)

When the goal is to adhere as closely as possible to the original Psalm or to sing as much as possible of a longer Psalm then a refrain or repetition would interfere with the goal by introducing unnecessary words. Something else is needed to allow us to sing more of the Psalm without the monotony of repeating a short, simple tune too many times. The obvious solution is to use a tune that is "longer" than just a single repetition of a metre. The simplest approach is to use a tune that extends to two repetitions of a standard metre, which is often referred to as a "Doubled metre tune."

Doubled Metre Tunes

Sometimes a song will use two repetitions of a metrical pattern. When this is done the pattern is said to have been "doubled." Doubled patterns are indicated by adding a "D" (or "d") to the metre designation. Doubled common metre, for example, would be abbreviated CMD. (Occasionally you will see it as DCM, but CMD is favored.) Another example would be 8,7,8,7.

If words are written for a standard metre, they will almost always work well with a doubled version of the same metre. Try Isaac Watts "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" for an example of a song that uses Common Metre Doubled.

As you explore the various settings of the Psalms you will find here, make it a point to try double metered tunes. These tunes will greatly enhance the number of verses of the Psalm you can sing before you get tired of the tune. In our music selection pages you will find the doubled metre tunes immediately following the "single" metre selections for each metre. 

Now that you know what metre is, let's move on to our other two questions. If you're already sold on the idea you can skip straight to a practical example in: How Do I Use It? Otherwise, read "Why Should I Care?" for a little more background on the uses of this concept.

[Why Should I Care?] [How Do I Use It?]

topofpage.gif (933 bytes) 

What's New
Hymnals of the Churches of God
Metrical Psalters and Psalm Singing Resources
Library - history of Psalm singing and Christian music
Classic hymns, praise and worship songs, members songs and more
Quick Search


Page Copyright 2001, Music for the Church of God
e-mail us at:
Page last modified on: 07/29/2004