Exploring Music's Complexities

Hymns, Hymnist, and Hymnals

What is a  Hymn?

Webster defines hymn to be a song of praise to God or a song of praise adapted for singing in a religious service.  The word comes from the Greek hymnos which means “a song of praise”.  The person writing the song is known as a hymnist. Hymnals or hymn books store collections of hymns.

Hymns date back to ancient times and have become a part of Christianity as well as  other world religions especially on the Indian subcontinent and from Egyptian and Greek cultures. However, a lack of musical notation in early writings makes it difficult to determine the actual musical forms used.

Music Notation

Research suggests the earliest form of musical notation can be found in a cuneiform tablet that was created at Nippur, in Babylonia (today’s Iraq), in about 1400 BC.

Ancient musical notation was in use from at least the 6th century BC until approximately the 4th century AD; only one complete composition (Seikilos epitaph) and a number of fragments using this notation survive.

Church Modes

During the Middle Ages a rich hymnody developed in the form of Gregorian chant or plainsong. This type was sung in unison, in one of eight church modes, and most often by monastic choirs. While they were written originally in Latin, many have been translated; a familiar example is the 4th century Of the Father’s Heart Begotten sung to the 11th century plainsong Divinum Mysterium.

Byzantine music once included music for court ceremonies, but has only survived as vocal church music within various Orthodox traditions of monodic (monophonic) chant written down in Byzantine round notation (see Macarie’s anastasimatarion with the Greek text translated into Romanian and transliterated into Cyrillic script).

Guido d’Arezzo ,an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from about 991 until after 1033m, is created as  the founder of what is considered the standard music staff. He taught the use of solmization syllables based on a hymn to Saint John the Baptist, which begins Ut Queant Laxis and was written by the L.


In ancient and medieval times, string instruments such as the harplyre and lute were used with psalms and hymns. The earliest known Christian hymn book is a collection of songs known as the Odes of Solomon. Compiled in the late first century, this collection of forty-one psalms celebrates song as the best way to achieve salvation and communion with God. As Ode 16 has it: My love is the Lord.

The Oxyrhynchus hymn is the oldest known Christian Greek hymn containing both lyrics and a melody. It was found on Papyrus 1786 of the Oxyrhynchus papyri (thousands of ancient manuscripts discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt) in 1918.




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