In new Christian hymnal, poetry guides the page

Friday, November 2, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
In the new hymnbook "Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs," the poetic lines guide the layout, instead of the music filling the margins. This layout is called phrased notation.

© 2012, reprinted with permission.

COLUMBIA — Ask Craig Roberts to tell you about Christian hymns, and he’ll tell you a lot.

You’ll learn that hymns are not music – they are poetry.

You’ll learn that hymns are designed to teach – content is key.

You’ll also learn that a small change in hymnbook page layout can make a big difference – a difference worth making a new hymnbook for.

Roberts teaches plant science at MU and has done his share of scientific journal editing.

But he also has another passion: music. He’s helped put on a hymn writing workshop since the late 1990s, and he has a degree in Biblical studies.

So when a friend asked him to help edit a new hymnbook, he said yes. That was about six years ago. Now, the hymnbook, "Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs," is about to undergo its second printing – the first was this summer.

It’s a project he and about 25 other people across the country have spent the past few years working on, in addition to their full-time jobs, all in the name of poetry.

Unlike in other hymnbooks, in this one, poetry dominates the page.

This break from contemporary hymnbook layout conventions is an attempt to emphasize content and respect poetic form. 

At first glance, the change in layout might not seem like much. Like other hymnals, "Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs" is a book of words put to music for singing in church. It just has more white space – more empty space beside and below the music.

But that white space is the key. It’s the result of presenting hymns in a layout called phrased notation.

"The lyrics govern the layout, rather than the music," said editor Steve Wolfgang, a minister in the Chicago area.

Historically, the words and music of hymns used to be in separate books; people would hold something that looked like a poetry book in one hand, and a tune book in the other.

Eventually, the words and music were printed together. Now, in most hymnals, music and words span from margin to margin.

Some of the line breaks happen at the end of a line of poetry, but many don’t. Instead, lines split in the middle of poetic thoughts, or even in the middle of words.

"What happened in our hymnals was we lost our (poetic) meter," Roberts said.

This hymnal brings poetic meter back into focus. Instead of the lines of poetry being stretched or chopped to fit with the music and fill the margins, the line breaks always happen at the end of a line of poetry.

That means a hymn that has long lines will extend fully across the page. A hymn that has short lines will only fill part of the page.

John Wiegand, who helped with historical research for the new hymnal and edited an earlier popular hymnal, said though other hymnals use phrased notation in some cases, none that he knows of make it a rigid rule like "Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs" does.

The point of this layout is to emphasize the content of each hymn. As a few editors pointed out, one function of hymns is to teach, and this layout allows singers to easily think through the words.

Clear thought also helps with the worship process.

"We believe worship should appeal to the brain first, not to just the emotions,"said editor David Maravilla, a minister in Republic. "We believe that emotions should come from thoughts."

The content also helps give hymns their staying power.

"The best of the classical Protestant hymns gained popularity because of their ability to combine genuine theological content with genuine emotional affect," said Mark Noll, who teaches history at Notre Dame University and has edited books on the history of hymns in American Protestantism. He said there are bad hymns, but those ones don’t last.  

Although some churches have shifted to praise-band style worship, Churches of Christ, which this hymnal is designed for, are among those that still sing hymns. They also sing a cappella, which makes phrased notation particularly advantageous for them – the poetic line breaks cue singers on when to breathe.

The first printing of "Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs" was in June. The second printing is expected to be complete in late December or early January.

Kellie Kotraba writes for Questions? Contact supervising editor Laura Johnston.

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