Is it a chorus or a hymn?

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In my post “The Great OLD Debate,” I wrote about choruses and hymns. When I hear those words thrown around, this is how my mind works. I think its pretty accurate. I’d love to hear what you think.

In the 21st century, church music is usually categorized as a hymn or a chorus.

Webster defines a hymn as:

1: a: a song of praise to God b: a metrical composition adapted for singing in a religious service.

2: a song of praise or joy

3: something resembling a hymn

Part 2 of Webster’s definition of chorus is applicable:

2 a: a part of a song or hymn recurring at intervals

Although Webster’s definition of a hymn is broad and can be used to define all song forms, the term hymn has come to define a song with metrical verses all set to the same music. A hymn can have many verses, but typically there is no text repeated. The form is still very popular, as evidenced by the enduring popularity of many old hymns, e.g. “Holy, Holy, Holy;” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Ode to Joy,” “Amazing Grace,” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” These hymns are still being arranged and published in modern songbooks. (See Word Music’s “Hymns for Praise and Worship,” published in 2002) Many new songs also fall into the strict definition of a hymn, e.g. “In Christ Alone,” “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” and “Before the Throne of God Above.”

Choruses are songs with metrical text that is not repeated. There is one line of text with one line of music. But since repetition is one of the building blocks of musical form, part or all of a chorus is often repeated. We’ve been singing choruses for years. Some of the earliest popular examples are “His Name is Wonderful,” “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” “God Is So Good.” and “How Majestic Is Your Name.” More recently are “Shout to the Lord,” “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” “We Bow Down,” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”

Sounds pretty simple. However, there are many songs called “hymns” that also include an attached chorus. The term “gospel song” describes songs with multiple verses and a chorus attached that is sung after each verse. For example, “Nothing But the Blood,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Because He Lives,” “How Great Thou Are,” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The practice of attaching a chorus to a set of verses, popular even in the 1800’s, is probably a major contributor to the advent of the modern chorus. Although we don’t use the term “gospel song” to refer to contemporary songs, many extremely popular new songs fit this category, e.g. “How Great Is Our God,” “Blessed Be Your Name,” “Here I Am to Worship,” “Holy Is the Lord,” “Great is the Lord Almighty,” and “Forever.” Half of the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) top twenty songs in the U.S. are in this form. (If you are a CCLI License holder can see the list here.)

Note here that the terms hymn and chorus really don’t have anything to do with music style or age. Only folks who don’t know any better equate hymns with old style songs and choruses with modern. It’s just not the case.

Hope this helps.

4 thoughts on “Is it a chorus or a hymn?

  1. Nadyne Lynn

    Is this how you are defineing songs of praise to God:
    Hymn–a song with multiple verses and no chorus
    Gospel song–song with both multiple verses and a chorus that is repeated after each verse
    Chorus–a song that is repeated and has no verses attached

    • Brad

      Yes. Its an attempt at clarity. I believe so many folks use the words “chorus” and “hymn” as synonyms for “new” and “old.” I use the terms in reference to form. There a many new “hymns” and there are many songs today that can’t really be described by any of these terms. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Well I was just searching on Google for some videos and songs of my favorite singers and just came across your blog, generally I just visit blogs and retrieve my required information but this time the useful information that you posted in this post compelled me to reply here and appreciate your good work. I just bookmarked your blog :).

  3. Laurel Giesbrecht

    A couple of ladies and I were just thinking about this subject and I was elected to look it up. Thanks for your clarification, and God bless!

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