About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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When you consider that the greatest hymns ever written—the plainchant hymns—are pushing the age of eight hundred and that the noble chorale hymn tunes of Bach date from the early eighteenth century, then what is the significance of the word “old” applied to “Mother at Thy Feet Is Kneeling”? Most of the old St. Basil hymns date from the Victorian era, particularly the 1870s and 1880s.
— Paul Hume (1956)
The Definition Of The Word "Hymn"
published 28 December 2010 by Jeff Ostrowski

Sometimes the same word possesses numerous meanings:

“Yesterday, my dog emitted a loud bark.”   •   “Oh, I see that the tree trunk still has bark on it.”

“The girl has beautiful arms.”   •   “My friend has numerous arms: machine guns, shotguns, rifles, etc.”

The word “hymn” can mean importantly different things. For instance:

And when they had sung an hymn, they went forth to the mount of Olives. (Mark 14: 26)

I promise you they did not sing All Creatures Of Our God And King. Those type of melodies would not be invented for another fifteen centuries. Our Lord and the Apostles probably sang a Psalm.

Likewise, when St. Irenaeus mentions the fact that Catholics sang “hymns” at Mass, I promise you they were not singing Holy God We Praise Thy Name. The tonality and harmonies for tunes like those would not be invented for another 1,500 years at least.

“HYMN” normally refers to one of the following:

1) Gregorian chant: Te Joseph Celebrent, O Lux Beata, O Gloriosa Virginum, Jesu Dulcis Memoria, Jam Christus, Ut Queant Laxis, Ad Regias Agni Dapes, Sacris Solemniis, Veni Creator Spiritus, Salvete Christi Vulnera, etc.

2) Common-practice era, Major-minor tonality: All Creatures of our God and King, Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Holy God We Praise Thy Name, Immaculate Mary, Jesus My Lord My God My All, Come Holy Ghost, Hail The Day That Sees Him Rise, etc.

Some people also use the word “hymn” (incorrectly, I would argue) to refer to:

3) Songs: Be Not Afraid, Eagle’s Wings, One Bread One Body, Here I Am Lord, Yahweh I Know You Are Near, etc.

4) Praise and worship songs: Our God Is An Awesome God, Here I Am To Worship, etc.

Obviously, this is a gigantic subject that we could speak about for hours and hours.

In general, here are a few bullet points:

1. An important difference between a “hymn” and a “song” is that hymns sound fine without accompaniment, while songs need accompaniment. This is due to the way in which the melodies are constructed.

2. It’s usually best to refer to “Gregorian hymns” when speaking of Gregorian chant hymns, because they have very little to do with the common denotation (sometimes called “Anglican-style” hymns).

3. If you can find it in the New English Hymnal, it’s probably a hymn. If it’s in the Liber Usualis INDEX under “hymns,” it’s probably a Gregorian hymn.

4. Things are further muddled because hymn MELODIES are often recycled over and over, as are hymn TEXTS, which are sometimes TRANSLATIONS of Latin Gregorian Hymns from many centuries earlier . . . .

Finally, as a closing note, for non-musicians (and even for some musicians) these concepts are very difficult to grasp. They deal with the “essence” of what music is. For those who have studied music for years and years, it is easy to hear three notes and already know a piece could not have been written before the year 1900. Then, too, it is very common for people to look at when the text was written (let’s say, in the 7th century) and then assume that the melody also came from the 7th century. Usually, the melody was written many centuries later . . . .

Finally, does all this matter? Of course! I usually point out how confusing it would be if we referred to all modern music (country, rock, disco, folk, etc.) as “modern” music.

I used to also employ the example of soda pop. I’d say, “It is important to distinguish between Coca Cola, Root Beer, Orange Soda, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper.”

But then I moved to Texas . . . and some Texans refer to ALL varieties of soda as a “Coke” !!!