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A hymn is a type of religious song, usually written for praise and prayer. Traditional Christian hymns became widely popular from the sixteenth century onwards, but in recent decades their popularity has been falling in the west, with more modern songs becoming more commonly sung, often referred to as "choruses"

Hymns are often written with special or seasonal themes and these are used on certain days such as Christmas (see Christmas carols) and Easter. Others are used more widely to bring a sense of reverent worship or exuberant praise to God. Some hymns, particular used in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and "High Church" Anglicanism, may praise or address individual saints, particularly the Virgin Mary.


The word hymn derives from Greek hymnos (ὕμνος) which means "a song of praise".

A writer of hymns is known as a hymnist or hymnodist, and the practice of singing hymns is called hymnody. A collection of hymns is called a hymnal.

Strictly speaking a hymn consists of words only, and the music to which a hymn may be sung is a hymn tune. For example, the hymn "Amazing Grace" is sung to the hymn tune "New Britain". Many hymns are sung to several different hymn tunes.

History of hymns

Early Christian hymns were inspired by the Psalms. Since there is a lack of musical notation in early writings, the actual musical forms in the early church can only be surmised.

During the Middle Ages a rich hymnody developed in the form of Gregorian chant or plainsong. This type was sung in unison, most often by monastic choirs. While they were written originally in Latin, many have been translated. A familiar hymn of this type is the 11th century plainsong Divinum Mysterium.

The Protestant Reformation produced a burst of hymn writing and congregational singing. Martin Luther is notable not only as a reformer, but as the author of many hymns including "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) which is sung today, even in Roman Catholicism. Luther and his followers often used their hymns, or chorales, to teach tenets of the faith to worshipers.

The earlier English writers tended to paraphrase biblical text, particularly Psalms. Isaac Watts followed this tradition, but also credited as having written the first English hymn which was not a direct paraphrase of Scripture. Later writers took even more freedom, some included allegory and metaphor in their texts. Multiple-part harmony also became the norm, rather than unison singing. Charles Wesley's hymns spread Methodist theology, not only within Methodism, but in most Protestant churches. He developed a new focus - expressing one's personal feelings in the relationship with God. Wesley's contribution, along with the Second Great Awakening in America led to a new musical style called gospel. African-Americans developed a rich hymnody from spirituals during times of slavery to the modern, lively black gospel style.

Christians today are using hymn words in the rock music style. This sometimes leads to some controversy between older and younger congregation members. Some modern churches include within hymnody, the traditional hymn as well as praise choruses in a more modern style of music. This distinction is not perfectly clear; and purists remove the second two types from the classification as hymns.

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Hymns Index


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