The Adverbs of Zion

“Majestically? Does that have a musical definition I don’t know about?”

When my non-musical Catholic husband whispered this question during sacrament meeting a few weeks ago, he opened my eyes to one of our hymnbook’s quirks. Alongside their time signatures, every one of our 341 hymns includes an adverb.* These aren’t the traditional Italian adverbs with classical meanings, like “allegro” or “andante.” Instead they seem to be rough English descriptions meant to cue stylings separate from speed.

As an organist I find these descriptors helpful. Even if a hymn has the same time signature, I’m more likely to pull out the trumpet stop for “majestically” and the dulciana stop for “prayerfully.” When I tried to explain this musical approach, my husband started flipping through the hymnbook and making fun of all the other adverbs. “Earnestly?” “Expressively?” “Resolutely?” Would the minor word difference actually change my musical choices? He theorized a bored 1980s hymnbook editor had just pulled out a thesaurus, knowing the exact adverb meanings wouldn’t matter since amateur LDS organists notoriously play everything too soft and too slow.

Curious, I came home and decided to map out the hymnbook’s adverbs.

There are 39 unique words used to describe our 341 hymns. I created a word cloud to break down their popularity.

The most popular words — fervently, joyfully, reverently — seem eminently reasonable for worship music. But the one-off outliers are amusing: “enthusiastically”, “broadly”, “meekly.” For consistency sake, no one thought to substitute one of the popular adverbs for these one-offs? For example, couldn’t the lone instance of “with contemplation” have been swapped out for “thoughtfully?”

Consistency does not appear to have been an editorial goal. The hymnal’s mappings of adverbs to tempos are chaotic throughout. For just the set of adverbs used more than five times, here’s their range of beats per minute.**

Those range bands are huge! “Reverently” and “Joyfully” each have a spread of more than 100 beats per minute of options! The maximum suggested tempo for “calmly” (“Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd“) is faster than the maximum under “energetically” (“I Have Work Enough to Do.”) Although that’s admittedly an unfair comparison since the quarter notes in “Dear to the Heart” are acting more like eighth notes. I blame the composer.

So fine, to normalize these ranges further I went ahead and calculated the average adverb tempo across the sum total of different hymns each word is affixed to. I’ve added a trend line and re-sorted my graph by average tempo below.

This reordered set makes more sense, with “peacefully” and “thoughtfully” on the slow end and “vigorously” and “energetically” on the fast one. But is also sharpens how synonymous the words are; everything between “peacefully” and “earnestly” is indistinguishable. As an organist I can’t really think how any of those words would change my musical approach. And even the ostensibly “energetic” music, on average, trends towards moderato not allegretto.

For fun, here are some more statistics about the quirks of our hymnbook’s tempos and adverbs. Maybe these can be of use the next time a General Authority makes hyper-specific hymn requests for your stake conference.

Most Holy Tempo: tied between = 84 and = 96 (each appears more than 65 times)

Slowest Hymn: O My Father

Fastest Hymn: On This Day of Joy and Gladness

Popular hymns with the largest acceptable speed variances:

Energetic hymns to wake up the sleeping high priests: (i.e. you have my permission to complain when they are sung slowly, and/or double the tempo the next time your congregation sings them)

Plodding hymns to bore your energetic toddlers: (i.e. I’m sorry, but unless you lobby the music committee to change the time signatures you can’t complain about these being sung too slow)

I’ll end my listicles with an entreaty for ward musicians to please do whatever you can to energize our worship services.*** My husband has often complained that all our hymns sound the same. Having now run the tempo averages, perhaps he has a point?

In the end, maybe our adverbs can serve a purpose? They seem to be more helpful signals than the time signatures, which somehow manage to be both chaotic in variance and trend much too slow. But 27 of our hymns are to be sung “joyfully!” Another 28 have “energetically” or “vigorously” instructions. So let’s ignore their parallel markings and sing them upbeat!

– – – – – –

* I checked my Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist hymnals once I got home. None of them had styling adverbs.

** For ease of analysis I normalized the time signatures to quarter note beats per minute. This results in some musical outliers ya’ll are free to quibble with in the dataset.

*** I have no idea how many ward music chairs mixed with data nerds there are among the BCC readership. But assuming it’s non-zero, you can download my adverb and tempo spreadsheet here.


  1. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    Perhaps the Church Music Committee took a page out of Australian composer Percy Grainger’s notebooks. He has some delightful markings such as “stamping with heavy boots” and “not too lazily here”. He’s a hoot!

    I’ve been the ward pianist several times when we’ve been without a decent organist in the ward. Frankly, I take the metronome markings of the hymns with a giant pile of salt. I’m a professional musician (who only plays piano for fun) and I know how important the right tempo is to making the music really come alive. “Oh My Father” and “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” have to be the two most slaughtered hymns in the hymnal. Both have such amazing lyrics, but most of the time they are played at the absolute slowest end of “adagio” which is the slowest tempo marking there is. Congregations have usually nodded off by the time verse 3 has begun. The old 1950’s hymnal has an alternative tune on the page facing the dreary tune we now sing. It’s so much more lively and worshipful than the other one. BTW Brigham Young really campaigned hard to make it the official tune. I don’t normally agree with BY on much, but I wholeheartedly agree with him on that tune! I also wish that we used the UK’s marvelous tune for “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” which Ralph Vaughan-Williams first discovered on one of his many journeys to discover the folk music of England. The tune we Americans use is another snorer. My YSA ward choir sang the English tune in one of our Christmas programs, and the ward went crazy with enthusiasm. We continued singing that melody as a congregation until I moved away. Think about how popular “If You Could Hie to Kolob” has become since the tune (the folk song “Dives and Lazarus” and “I saw the Face of Jesus”) replaced the wretched tune in the 1950’s hymn book. I only heard it sung once before the 1985 change of tune.

    I also wonder if BKP had anything to do with the tempos in the 1985 hymnal. He thought that he was such a great expert on music (although he wasn’t a musician) and set Mormon music making back several decades with his insistence that special musical numbers needed to be restricted to only our own hymns which were to be played at “reverent-read slow and sleepy” speeds and which instruments were and weren’t appropriate for church meetings. Any instrument can be played in a reverent manner-even the marimba which a ward member played “O, Divine Redeemer” on. It was fantastic! This is the man who trash talked Bach, of all composers, because he hadn’t been a member of the church! Hello, Bach died 80 years before the church was established!!! I’m also sure that he didn’t know that Bach wrote “To the Glory of God” in Latin at the top of every piece sacred AND secular. ‘Nuff said.

  2. Richard Elliott, the principal organist for the Tabernacle Choir, gives traveling workshops around the church. Two pieces of advice he gives every time to organists are that we should play louder than we think, and faster than we think.

    **The other is that we should practice more than we think. For me, this is the hardest of the three.

  3. “* I checked my Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist hymnals once I got home. None of them had styling adverbs.”

    They don’t have metronome markings either.

    I made a comment about their superfluity on this post earlier this year:

  4. Just came here to say this post is freaking awesome!

  5. Not enough majestic hymns for sure!

    Love it. One of those slow hymns I swear they must have got dotted crotchet beats confused with quaver beats (I’m British…); 101 guide me to thee. I never play it near that slowly. I mostly ignore the tempo markings. It used to be worse though, the previous hymnbook contained dynamic markings as well! Though how that was supposed to work with different verses is hard to fathom. Just perhaps the music control freaks are slowly having their fingers pried loose. It’ll be interesting to see what the next hymnbook looks like…

  6. As a fellow data nerd, I especially love this post! What a fun analysis! I think you’re spot on with the point that the ranges for a given adverb are really kind of amazingly wide.

    Bill linked one of my similar posts above. One point I don’t know that I’ve made there but that I definitely observed is that these adverbs are far more standardized in the 1985 hymnal than in the previous one. The older hymnal had 102 different adverbs, including classics like “sturdily,” “beautifully,” and “not too loud.”

  7. “A Mighty Fortress” is the only hymn I think works when sung slowly. It doesn’t have to be sung slowly, but I think it’s fine at a very slow tempo. It helps that it has only one verse.

    The worst at a slow tempo are “Who’s on the Lord’s Side?” and “Love at Home.” If you don’t start Love at Home at a good clip, those half-notes at the end can drag on for years.

  8. As a musician and someone who does lots of statistical analysis at work, this post is amazing.

    The post begins by suggesting the adverbs might have value beyond tempo (eg by implying what organ stops to use), but then focuses only on the relationship between adverbs and tempo markings. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the initial point, though. Personally, I do find the adverbs helpful in thinking about how to play the song, independent of tempo.

  9. Always love a good music analysis. Part of me has high hopes for the upcoming hymnal, but I’m trying to remember how incredibly slowly change happens in the Church.

    (Apologies for almost not reading this one; my brain thought pronouns rather than adjectives, and I didn’t have the energy for -that- discussion.)

  10. This is an amazing post — thank you!

  11. “It helps that it has only one verse.” Not sure why only one verse was included for A Mighty Fortress. Most hymnbooks have four, including the French version of the LDS hymnbook. The German version has three verses, and also has a more elaborate harmonization of the tune that would necessitate a somewhat slower tempo to accommodate all those eighth-note passing tones. Of course the original version of the tune was not the isorhythms already predominant in Bach’s time, but a more sprightly rhythmic setting:

  12. Excellent post, and it brings up a little-known controversy. “On This Day of Joy and Gladness” may well be the fastest hymn according to its tempo marking — but its tempo marking might be wrong. It says 46-56 dotted half notes per minute, which maths out to 138-168 quarter notes. The Choir sang it at 140 in April 2022 general conference; other GC performances range from 90 to 155 (which is way too fast to my ears). The official Church recording available digitally is about 100 beats per minute — 33 dotted half notes, not 46-56, or 1/3 slower than the suggested tempo. This ambiguity is unsustainable.

  13. What an interesting and funny analysis you’ve done here Carolyn! For what it’s worth “broadly” or “‘more broadly” can be seen mid stanza in a lot of music for giving direction to play or sing more legato and less staccato. Maybe that’s what the writer of the adverb had in mind? Maybe not, but in general, I have always thought the adverbs applied to how the song should be sung, or the mood that the singers should be going for. That could effect the tempo, volume, how much vibrato, etc. Which, either way it seems like a stretch for an editor to be giving that direction and not the composer.
    I wrote a piece for choir and thought about adding an adverb, probably from seeing them in our hymns
    for so many years. In the end I didn’t. I think most any written music, hymns or otherwise, take on their own life after being performed long enough.
    In the case of our hymns, I’m sure that the tempo they are actually sung at reverts to a mean determined mostly by the tempo the organist is willing or /able to play them at.
    I think a really helpful thing to determine appropriate tempo in the case of hymns like “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” is have someone sing them first a cappella, No one wants to drag the tempo when it’s just them.
    I too am anxious to see the new hymn book. And I’m curious what the composers might think about how they are actually sung compared to what they had in mind, if that’s possible to know.

  14. to me, the end all, ultimate plodding hymn is “I Believe in Christ.” It’s a march towards my demise. Especially on fast sunday. I dread singing it. It’s two hymns posing as one.

  15. also, I wonder if our hymns being sung slower is a function of a (i’m guessing) declining availability of trained organists?

  16. @David — I forget the source but I heard once that “I Believe in Christ” is actually written as 8 verses, but Bruce R. McConkie was adamant that none of them appear as optional bottom-verse-text, so he made the hymnal editors repeat the melody line twice so that it would fit into 4 verses and force everyone to sing it all.

  17. As a data geek and music coordinator, love it!

    My favorite expression marking is from Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms: “Blissfully unaware of threat.” It’s for the women singing “The Lord Is My Shepherd” while the men try (unsuccessfully) to interrupt with “Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage Together?”

    Agreed on many organists playing too softly (though sometimes it’s due to member feedback). The organist’s goal should be to make people feel confident they can sing out without anyone hearing them individually. To quote Psalms 33:3: “play skilfully with a loud noise.”

  18. @Carolyn: I have, on more than one occasion, heard John Longhurst (who wrote the music for “I Believe in Christ”) relate that BRM wanted all 8 verses in, so he (John) resorted to writing the song in such a way that an 8 verse song only looked like 4. So you can officially source that story as “stranger on the internet promises that the composer confirms this”. :)

  19. Great observations, Carolyn. Replying to one of the comments, though, I do NOT want to encourage the singing of “If You Could Hie to Kolob” in any manner or by any means. I don’t know what sort of tea-substitute W. W. Phelps was imbibing when he wrote these words, but I cringe to imagine what investigators or new members might make of these meat-before-milk lyrics. Even long-time members are likely to wonder WHAT IN THE WORLD a phrase like “there is no end to race” is doing in a hymn!

  20. I like signing the melody with better song setting lyrics — like there’s a Christmas hymn about Bethlehem that’s lovely.

  21. Fantastic post, Carolyn. Thank you.

  22. @rich – where we (me and my brother) landed is that it’s the “human race” there is no end to. If that helps.

    @caryolyn – I love that anecdote re: McConkie and his hymn. It makes complete sense regarding his… personality quirks. But I still resent singing it. I also don’t like that he added a fourth verse to Come listen to a prophet’s voice. It isn’t exactly consistent in tone with the rest of the hym, in my humble opinion.

    Is there any other example of an apostle adding amendments to hymns via additional verses?

%d bloggers like this: