Ask Ambrose: What Do Those Numbers Mean?

Two students look at a copy of The Hymnal 1982.

Q: What do the numbers at the bottom of hymns mean? What about the words in italics?

A: The numbers (87.87.D, for example) denote the meter of the hymn. In this example, it means that the first phrase has eight syllables, the second phrase has seven syllables, the third phrase has eight syllables, the fourth phrase has seven syllables. The “D” means that this pattern is doubled. How is this helpful? If you find a text you really like and maybe the tune is one which your congregation doesn’t know, you can look at the meter of the text, go to the Metrical Index in The Hymnal 1982 (page 1039) and see what other tunes go with that meter. One word of caution: sing through the text using the new tune to make sure all the accents match! At the end of each hymn you will find information about the text and the tune. Using Hymn 321 (“My God, thy table now is spread”) as an example it tells you the following: Words: Sts. 1-3, [stanzas 1-3] Philip Doddridge [the poet] (1702-1751) [the dates of his birth and his death], alt. [the poem has been altered from the original]; st. 4 [stanza 4] Isaac Watts [the poet for stanza 4]; (1674-1748) [the dates of his birth and death]; alt. [the stanza has been altered from the original]; Music: Rockingham [the name of the hymn tune] melody from Second Supplement to Psalmody in Miniature [from whence the tune was taken]; ca. 1780 [ca. or c. is an abbreviation for circa, meaning around or about; so that ca. 1780 means that the tune was written around or about 1780]; adapt. Edward Miller (1731-1807) [means that the tune was adapted by Edward Miller whose birth and death dates are given here]; harm. Samuel Webbe (1740-1816) [the tune was harmonized by Samuel Webbe whose birth and death dates are given].