Sacrament Hymns, Ranked (by length)

I have a priest-aged son, and seeing him administer the sacrament has made me pay more attention to the process than I had since I was a priest myself. One issue that I noticed last week was that the sacrament hymn seemed really short, and my son and the other priest hadn’t finished breaking the bread by the time it was over. Of course this isn’t all that unusual. The organist just played through the hymn again while they finished. It was only a matter of a few seconds, but it brought to mind that when I was a priest, I always worried about this happening, because I could feel the pressure of everyone in the congregation waiting for me to just hurry up and finish.

This got me to wondering, though, about how long the sacrament hymns actually are. I looked up the 30 hymns listed under the topic “sacrament” in the back of the hymnbook. (They are all grouped together between hymn numbers 169 and 197, except for #146, “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain.”) I calculated the length of each hymn given its time signature, number of measures and verses, and suggested tempo (I used the midpoint of the lengths implied by taking the fastest and slowest of the suggested tempos.) I included only the verses actually printed in the music because, at least in my experience, it’s typically only those verses that are sung. I didn’t make any adjustment for fermatas.

Here’s the result. It looks like most sacrament hymns are between 1:30 and 3:00 long. A few are shorter. A few are quite a bit longer.

Which ones are shorter and longer than the average? Well, I’m glad you asked. The graph below shows the length of each of the 30 sacrament hymns. They are ordered by length (as in the graph above, the midpoint length between the fastest and slowest suggested tempos, considering only the verses printed in the music).

In this graph, I’ve shown not just the midpoints, but the range of the lengths implied by the suggested tempos. I’ve also shown, with the gray boxes, the lengths of the hymns that have additional verses printed below the music when those verses are sung.

It’s interesting to see that the hymn that my ward sang last Sunday that prompted me to think about the topic actually clocks in as the very fastest: “Upon the Cross of Calvary” has just eight quick measures, and a midpoint length of just 1:20. At the other end of the list, “Reverently and Meekly Now” is designed for the very slowest of bread-breaking priests, at almost five minutes in length.

I hope that this graph can be a useful resource for ward music chairpeople (assuming that’s who is choosing the hymns) so they can know whether they’re choosing sacrament hymns that will give the priests lots of time or ones that will keep them on their toes.

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Interesting Ziff.
    ” I included only the verses actually printed in the music because, at least in my experience, it’s typically only those verses that are sung.”
    I’m assuming your ward missed the memo that said all the verses of a sacrament hymn should be sung. I’m wondering how this would alter your results.
    The only exception is hymn 180 where verses 5 and 6 are specifically for baptismal services (when verse 4 is then omitted) as per the note under the hymn in the hymnbook. In any case in my ward we do sing all the verses, including all the verses for 180 because no-one reads the note at the bottom of the page.

  2. If I had known about this idea, I wonder if my approach to scheduling hymns would have changed. I usually tried to schedule each sacrament hymn about as frequently as the others, taking factors such as holidays and talk themes into consideration but giving a high priority to hymns that had not been sung recently. If a hymn had two different tunes, I would give it an extra half-share in the schedule so that each tune could be sung at least once a year.

  3. I kinda like the times that we have to quietly listen to music for a few minutes before the sacrament prayers begin – but I also think sacrament meeting often goes downhill rapidly after the sacrament, so I’m in no rush ?

  4. Hedgehog, it’s been several wards in different places that routinely sang only the verses printed in the music, so I guess I assumed it was the norm. Maybe I’ve just had bad (or good?) luck! Adding the extra verses wouldn’t change the results much; you can see in the second graph that only five of the 30 have them, so most would be unchanged.

    Dave, great point. YMMV a lot, given the organist/pianist/conductor combinations in different wards/branches.

    kamschron, your approach sounds totally reasonable. Sorry–I wasn’t trying to say it was wrong. I was just thinking about just how short or long the sacrament hymns could be. It would be less fun if we never sang the short hymns. Maybe the priests should recruit an extra person so they can be faster on such weeks. (Which reminds me that when I was a teen and doing this, we typically had three priests at the sacrament table, but in most wards I’ve lived in, there are typically two.)

    Olea, great thought! I mean, that wouldn’t have comforted me as a teen, but it’s a good thought that people probably aren’t actually impatiently waiting when it happens.

    Wally, you’re right, but aren’t you thrilled that I’ve put my time to such good use? 😉

  5. This is only tangentially about sacrament hymns. All of our regular organists were out of town last Sunday and the woman subbing for them got to the end of the sac hymn and stopped playing, but the priests weren’t finished breaking the bread yet. So instead of having more music without singing to bridge the gap, which is what usually happens in that situation, we had about 30 seconds of silence before the prayers. I really liked it, I thought it set a more reverent tone for the ordinance.


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