From the late sixteenth century in England and Scotland, when most people were not musically literate and learned melodies by rote, it was a common practice to sing a new text to a hymn tune the singers already knew which had a suitable meter and character.
In some instances a particular text and tune have an almost mutually exclusive partnership with each other, such as Reginald Heber's text, "Holy, Holy, Holy!" sung to John Bacchus Dykes's tune NICAEA. In other instances a text may be used with a variety of tunes, such as "O for a thousand tongues to sing" sung to any of LYNGHAM (Mission Praise), OXFORD NEW (New English Hymnal), ARDEN (also New English Hymnal), LYDIA (Hymns and Psalms), RICHMOND (Hymns and Psalms) or UNIVERSITY (Hymns and Psalms). In yet other instances a tune may partner several texts, such as DIX for "As with gladness, men of old" and "For the beauty of the earth".
By contrast, in Germany and Scandinavia, tune names were not typically used even when a hymn tune was used for more than one text. The custom in such cases was to use part of the first line of the first text with which the tune was associated to refer to the tune. When chorales were introduced in England during the eighteenth century, these tunes were sometimes given English-style tune names.
Names of hymn tunes are sometimes spelled in capital letters, small caps, or italics. Most hymnals provide indexes of hymn tunes by name and meter.
As part of his efforts at reform, Martin Luther prepared a version of the Mass in German, so that the congregation might be able to sing the texts. Luther also adapted texts and wrote tunes, including the tune for his German translation of Psalm 46, "EIN FESTE BURG". Nicholas Temperley writes in his Hymn Tune Index, that Luther "wished his congregations to take part in the singing, but in general they failed to do so" and writes "It was the Calvinist, or 'Reformed', branches of Protestantism that succeeded in establishing congregation hymn singing in worship.
From the Reformed tradition in Geneva, congregational singing was promoted in England and Scotland, where Sternhold and Hopkins, and Day published psalters which included tunes for singing the Psalms.
During the decade 1791-1800, more than 8,000 hymn tunes were printed in Great Britain and between 7,000 and 8,000 were printed in the United States; during the decade 1801-1810, about 11,000 hymn tunes were printed in Great Britain, while more than 15,000 were printed in the United States. The total number of hymn tunes published with English-language texts in publications from 1535 up to and including 1820 is recorded as 159,123.
Many early hymnals consisted of texts only. The early Methodist movement provides an example. The co-founders, John Wesley and his brother Charles Wesley, published several text-only collections, culminating in A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People Called Methodists, in 1780. John Wesley published tune books separately, culminating in Sacred Harmony, in 1780. In 1786, with the fifth edition of the text-only Collection, Wesley indicated at the head of each hymn the tune to which he intended it to be sung. Among the tunes in Sacred Harmony that are still in use are DERBY, HELMSLEY, and SAVANNAH. As more people became musically literate, it became more common to print the melody, or both melody and harmony in hymnals. It is not standard practice in most traditions to print hymn tunes with texts when publishing a hymnal.
Among twentieth-century developments were the publishing of The English Hymnal in 1906, under the music editorship of Ralph Vaughan Williams, increased inclusion of ethnic hymn tunes, increased use of guitar accompaniments, and increased inclusion of descants in hymnals.