In discussing the hymns, time is more subjective than pitch, since it depends on how fast (or slow) the organist is playing. (Notice I didn’t say how fast the conductor is conducting. Nearly always, the conductor has little choice ((or inclination)) but to follow the organist’s tempo. This is fine as long as the organist is me). Tempo is a very personal taste. There is a famous story that Ravel and Toscanini nearly came to blows backstage during a rehearsal of Bolero, due to the conductor’s refusal to take the composer’s preferred tempo. I haven’t had that extreme a disagreement, but nearly…
Many saints seem to complain of organists who play too slowly. This is due in part to confidence or skill of the pianists conscripted to organ playing, but also in part to the “congregational inertia effect”. As a teenager starting out playing for church meetings, I noticed that as the congregation sings the first line of a hymn, it tends to drag. You want to match them, but if you do the tempo will get slower and slower. I discovered that what the organist must do is ignore them for the first line and play the proper tempo, (the same tempo, by the way, that should be set in the intro). There is a brief hiccough, usually after their first breath, as they realize they are behind, but they will immediately catch up and drag no more.
While slow tempos are the usual bugbear of Mormon congregations, I should mention that a few times I have encountered organists who insisted on playing an uncommonly brisk tempo. This can make it hard to articulate the words and to breathe properly, not to mention it can be just unmusical (again, the subjective element). I remember on one occasion actually deciding to close my hymnbook and give up, so obnoxious was the break-neck tempo. I felt frustrated and un-worshipful: not the reaction the organist intended I’m sure. At all times, the unerring, guiding principle for church musicians must be to help the people worship and feel the Spirit, not to educate or impress them.
Now to my study. Over the course of several years I occupied some church down-time on my smart phone, quietly timing each of the hymns at my preferred tempo. I recorded the time for one verse, my tempo, the number of verses and the total time (not including the introduction). Hymns that have extra verses were entered twice, once with the total time of the commonly sung verses, and again including the extra ones. The result is the table in Appendix 2 here (this is a Word table that you can play with, sorting it in different ways). And that table allowed me to create this graph:
Total time for hymns (in seconds)
One thing this lovely sinusoidal curve shows is that at least three-quarters of the hymns fall into the 1½ to 3 minute range with the median being 135 seconds (2¼ minutes). If you were ever curious what the shortest and longest hymns are, the following table will answer those questions.
So, the shortest hymn in the book is Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow and the longest (without extra verses) is The Spirit of God followed closely by Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd and O My Father (there’s also Wintry Day but no one sings it anyway, and for good reason).
The one part of the sacrament meeting that is time critical is the sacrament hymn which accompanies the breaking of the bread. I’ve found in most wards it takes 2 to 2 ½ minutes for the priests to complete this task. Some of the hymns are just barely long enough (187, 178, 194). If you take them a bit on the slow side it will help fill the time. But 184, Upon the Cross of Calvary, is noticeably short for the purpose, which lead my friend Orson Scott Card to compose a fourth verse for it. In any case, the organist will almost surely need to play a verse quietly after the congregation is done singing this hymn and There Is A Green Hill too (God Loved Us and O Lord of Hosts have extra verses which are often used for this reason). Reverently and Meekly Now, however, at just under 5 minutes is in the top 10 longest hymns in the book.
In conclusion, there are no real surprises here, except perhaps that hymns are generally shorter than we think. Many would suppose it takes 4-5 minutes to sing a hymn when actually most are slightly over 2 minutes. If you sing just the first and last verse of an average four verse hymn, you’re only saving a minute or so. And if you’re thinking of foregoing a hymn all together to give speakers more time, most sacrament talks would be improved by shortening them by two minutes. It might be useful for priesthood leaders and music directors to have the “Shortest/Longest” table handy in case they’re really short of time, or need to fill the maximum time. Or if they’re just hymn trivia nerds like me.