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Does the Bible Teach Us How to Pray?

Songs to Sing: How to Make Your Hymnal Work For You

Posted July 1, 2020

Did you know that your hymnal is actually an incredible tool? Many of us use our hymnals to sing from, or maybe to look up the title of a specific song or number, but there’s so much more that this handy little book can do for you. My personal favorite is the Trinity Hymnal, published by Great Commission Publications. The indexes and reference material it contains are superb, and I honestly think their collection of hymns as a whole is far superior to any other hymnal I’ve ever used. And I’m a church pianist, so I’ve used plenty! If you flip to the back of the Trinity Hymnal, you’ll find congregational responsive readings from the Psalms, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Shorter Catechism. These are all marvelous readings to work through with your kids or as a family during evening devotions around the dinner table. There are also several different indexes which contain information about tunes, meters, hymn topics, Scripture references, composers, arrangers, and authors. “But I don’t know what half of those things mean!” you might say. Well, yes, most people don’t know what to do with all this information, but we’re going to try to remedy this right now and give you a quick tutorial of how you can make your hymnal work for you.

Let’s start with “Amazing Grace” as an easy first example. Look at the information that’s provided for you at the bottom of the page. We’re given the author of the text (John Newton), the year it was composed (1779), the tune name (“Amazing Grace”), the meter (C.M. or Common Meter), the composer of the tune, or in this case, the arranger of the tune (Edwin O. Excell), and the date it was arranged (1900). Now, if we turn to the back of our hymnal to the index of meters, we can see a long list of tunes, over 40 in fact, under the C.M. heading—you can sing any hymn to any tune with the same meter. So, for example, we could sing the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” to the tune, “St. Anne,” which is the same tune to which we’re accustomed to singing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” This is helpful in case you come across a hymn or a psalm for which the tune is completely unfamiliar, either to you or to your congregation. You really love the text, but you’re looking for an alternate tune that’s easier to sing: just look at the meter. Say you’re preaching or studying through Psalm 91, and you want to sing the paraphrase of Psalm 91, “Call Jehovah Your Salvation,” which is set to the tune, “Christ Church for Sydnor” and is in meter The tune is so unfamiliar that I couldn’t even find a recording of it anywhere on the internet. But no worries, “Hyfrydol” is listed under the same meter heading, and this is the very familiar tune to which we sing, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Keep the text, switch the tune: easy.

Hmmm, I wonder how many hymns are actually set to “Hyfrydol” in my hymnal? Look under the tune index, and you’ll see two: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners.” This is handy if you’re trying to figure out what a tune sounds like, or you’re looking for the actual music score for your accompanist or to be able to sing the four parts acapella. Let’s say you’re flipping through a psalter with no music, just tune names, and you have no idea what any of these sound like. The suggested tune at the bottom of the psalm is “Lyons.” Well, if you look up “Lyons” in your tune index, you’ll see that it is the tune to which we sing, “O Worship the King.” Or, let’s say, you really want to send a recording of “How Sweet and Awesome is the Place” to your congregation or church pianist, or just listen to it with your family, but you want to search for that hymn set to the tune “Dundee” instead of “St. Columba”—well, now you know what to include in your search bar. I find the tune and meter indexes to be incredibly useful, especially when it comes to navigating congregational singing or family worship.

Another great tool is the index of Scripture references. This gives you all the hymns which are based off of specific passages or direct paraphrases of Scripture. If your family just read through the Bible’s famous chapter on love, then you can look up I Corinthians 13 in the Scripture references index and find the hymn, “Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire.” If you’re a pastor who’s trying to slowly introduce Psalm singing to your congregation, but you’re trying to do it with hymns that are already familiar to them, and/or your church isn’t ready to purchase a psalter yet, look up the Psalms in this index. At least in the Trinity Hymnal, there is a “hymn” for nearly all 150 Psalms. You can also use this public index which gives you a little more information about these settings such as their source and difficulty level. Your congregation probably already knows, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” set to the famous tune, “Old Hundredth.” But what they’re actually singing isn’t a hymn, per se, it’s a paraphrase of Psalm 100. Chances are, your congregation is already singing some Psalms without even knowing it. In addition, the topics index is helpful if you’re not wanting to cover a particular Bible passage, but say, hymns about the crucifixion or the incarnation.

Other indexes, such as the author and composer indexes, can be fascinating treasure troves of information. The dates during which the author lived are listed next to his name along with all the other hymns he wrote in your hymnal. So, if you were curious about singing ancient hymns and tunes, you could scan through the author or composer indexes and find people like Ambrose of Milan (340–397) or Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–ca.220) and try singing their hymns. You might learn that some of your favorite hymns are thousands of years old, and you never knew it! Or, let’s say you loved the lyrics to a particular hymn and wondered if your hymnal contained any other hymns by the same author: just look his name up and find out! You want to sing through some of John Newton’s hymns? Well, in my hymnal, you’d have 13 hymns from which to choose.

Your hymnal was designed to make singing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs as easy as possible. The songs in your hymnal are usually pretty accessible, but on the off-chance they’re not, hopefully now you have the reference material and know-how to be able to work around difficult settings, regardless of whether you have any musical background. Dear reader, it has been an absolute joy to walk through these ten songs and more with you. It is my prayer that you have been encouraged to sing together with your families in addition to singing with your congregations. I love to remember this marvelous truth: regardless of where we live in this world, we will one day be singing together in the next! May the Lord bless you and keep you.

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
(Ps. 95:1–2)


  • This index was created by Bruce Benedict and is shared with permission:

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Sarah Morris

Sarah Morris has been happily married to her husband, Sean, for 12 years and is a mother to four crazy, hilarious, and adorable children. She graduated from Grove City College with a degree in music. She and her family live in Oak Ridge, TN where her husband is a pastor in the PCA. In between homeschooling duties, toddlers, and babies, Sarah enjoys writing, cooking, podcasting, napping, and making fun of her ridiculously pathetic dog.