Behind the Scenes

In addition to where and when a hymn is sung I want to look at other variables about the music itself. These variables will be useful in determining if they have any say in how often a hymn is sung, but they are also interesting in and of themselves.

Converting music into numbers

I wanted to find a way to analyze the melody and harmony lines mathematically. So I essentially converted every note of every hymn into numbers that correspond to their pitch and their duration (quarter note, eighth note, etc.) and entered this into a spreadsheet. With each hymn broken down into numbers, I can do some statistical magic and find some interesting summaries for all four parts:


I can quickly find out the highest note, the lowest note, and the range of each part of every hymn. Some hymns, like the Star-Spangeled Banner (340) have an octave and a half range. Other hymns, like Be Still My Soul (124), have a relatively narrow range. 

"Average" Note

Why is it that some hymns just seem really high? My ward recently sang On This Day of Joy and Gladness (64) and it just felt high the entire time. What's the average note for that hymn and how does it compare to a lower hymn, such as Come, Follow Me (116)? Using the numbers representing the pitch and the duration of each note, I can find what the "average" note is. (Spoilers: The average note for On This Day of Joy and Gladness is just below a Bb while for Come, Follow Me it's a little higher than a G.) What about our altos, tenors, and basses in the congregation? Which songs would seem really high and really low to them? I've got those numbers too.

Varied vs drone-like

Any alto, when asked what hymns are the most boring, will immediately answer with Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing (163), Come, Come Ye Saints (30) and maybe A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief (30). On the other hand, most basses enjoy singing All Creatures of Our God and King (62) because it's all over the place. Is there a way to quantify this? Turns out, finding the standard deviation of a part might help with that. This number will be low if it's particularly drone-like and will be higher if it's quite a varied line. I can also quickly count the number of unique notes a part has.

What about the lyrics?

The music of the hymns certainly isn't everything. The lyrics will definitely play a part in how often a hymn is sung. Unfortunately, I have no way of quantifying lyrics, so I'm leaving that completely out of this project.

What I hope to see is that many music variables will show no correlation with how often a hymn is sung. My hypothesis is that the lyrics will play a greater importance rather than the music itself. If that's the case, that's great. It means we're really paying attention to the meaning and the spirit behind the hymns, rather than just the superficial music.

Other stuff because why not?

By the end of this project, I'll have all the hymns quantified in a way that makes them easy to analyze. For fun, I might begin to look at chords and chord progressions and see the tendencies of individual parts. Which part tends to sing the seventh of the chord the most? How many have major 7 or 9 chords are there? What are the one-of-a-kind chords? How much of the time is the alto line just a third below the melody? Apart from octave jumps in the bass line, what other large interval jumps are relatively common? This kind of stuff won't probably have any significance in hymn selection, but it might make for an interesting chapter of a book one day.

So what?

Why in the world am I going into so much detail with the hymns. Again, I'm curious. And I figure I'm probably not the only one. There's probably a special niche of LDS musicians that would find some of this interesting. I'm hoping to reach out to them.

Also, we've had our current hymnal for almost 30 years now. I have no idea if there are plans at all for a new one, but hopefully the results of this project will be a valuable resource for the Church Music Committee. 

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