DIY Hymnology: Research Tips for Studying Hymns

Researching hymns can feel like going on a wild goose chase that leads to a dead end or, if you’re lucky, a tiny tidbit of information. But there are some things you can do to make that research less frustrating and more fruitful.

When I was editing Lutheran Service Book, I learned the best strategy was to go back to the primary sources for hymns. That’s what I encourage you to do as well. Here are some tips for finding useful sources without spending a fortune—or any money at all.

Researching Tunes

Say you have a tune but nothing else. No title, no publication date, no composer or hymnwriter. Try using the Kooplet music search and entering in the notes. Kooplet will then give you a list of possible pieces the tune is from. You may find not only the source hymn itself but also the piece the tune may have been taken from!

If you already know the name of the hymn, a natural place to start is by studying the hymn in a hymnal. You can also look at the hymnal’s accompaniment edition or handbook. From there, start working backward logically. What hymnal came before this one? Which Lutheran tradition is the current hymnal in? You may be able to find the hymn in a hymnal Lutherans were using before they came to the United States.

Another place to look for clues is in the prefaces and forewords to hymnals. In those places, you may find information about previous hymnals the current one is based on and where the editors did their research. A great resource on prefaces is Carl F. Schalk’s Source Documents in American Lutheran Hymnody, which contains transcribed prefaces and forewords from all the American Lutheran hymnals up to the mid-1990s.

Researching Hymn Texts

If you’re looking for information about a hymn that has been translated, try looking in a dictionary. Some incredible hymn dictionaries are John Julian’s A Dictionary of Hymnology and its successor, The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Nowadays, many resources like this have been digitized, and they can be found online and for free. You can use Google Books, or you can go to your local library. Many libraries have subscriptions to sources like these, and if they don’t, you can ask them to start subscriptions.

When you’re using a digital source and searching for hymn texts, put a phrase of text into quotation marks when you search. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, try adding hyphens into the words (“Joy-ful, joy-ful, we a-dore Thee”), because most hymnals have the first few stanzas within the music. But because Google will sometimes think that text within the music is a graphic, you might get better results if you search for the text in the last few stanzas, which may be written out on its own.

Researching Biographical Information

The first tip I can give you is this: don’t Google people. You won’t find very helpful results, or they will be on the hundredth page, so it will be mostly a waste of time.

For American Lutheran hymnwriters, try looking up the person in an edition of The Lutheran Annual from around the time they wrote or translated the hymn. Then, keep looking at newer and newer editions until the person’s name disappears. At that point, it probably means he or she died, so look at the obituaries. If you can find when and where the person died, look for more information in the area’s local newspapers, or email the church the person used to be at.

If you’re looking for information about someone from England, some good reference sources may be the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the London Times archive, and The British Newspaper Archive. If you’re researching the writer of a German hymn, try looking the person up in Neue Deutsche Biographie or Wer ist wer im Gesangbuch? These sources would be ideal to search through your library’s subscription services.

Looking for a place to start with your hymn research?

Check out The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, which discusses the history and origin of more than six hundred hymns and includes biographical information.

View Hymnal Handbook

Picture of Peter Reske
Written by

Peter Reske

Peter C. Reske, senior editor of music/worship at Concordia Publishing House, holds degrees in English literature and historical musicology from Marquette University and The Pennsylvania State University. He was the editor of Lutheran Service Book and its attendant resources.

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