URBANA, Ill. -- Religious reformer Martin Luther is often credited for hymns he didn't compose.
That's the kind of mistake that upset Nicholas Temperley, a musicologist at the University of Illinois. So he spent 16 years documenting the origins of more than 150,000 British and American hymns up to the early 1800s. Oxford University Press published the four-volume set this spring.
"I'm a scholar," says Temperley. "I like getting things right, getting to the truth of things."
Temperley first became interested in hymns when, as a boy, he had to attend chapel every morning at school in his native England.
Then, while working on his first book "The Music of the English Parish Church" in the late 1970s, he spotted the historical chaos of hymns and hymn tunes.
He decided to add some structure -- with the help of computers, numerous graduate students and funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"The Hymn Tune Index: A Census of English-Language Hymn Tunes in Printed Sources from 1535 to 1820" is just what the title suggests -- a laundry list of where hymn tunes have appeared in print.
To save space, each tune received a numerical code based on the diatonic scale, the eight-tone scale that starts "do, re, mi." And more data: information about its name, words and composer, plus publication date and place.
From the index, it's easy to see how mistakes creep into musical history.
A hymn tune might first show up in print in 1580, credited to composer Smith. Later, the same hymn might surface in another book, with no composer listed. Even later, it could be attributed elsewhere to Jones.
Often, the same tune has different names, or the same name matches unrelated tunes. Many times, different words attach to the same popular hymn.
"It used to be pretty hopeless whenever a new hymn book came out to try to figure out who composed the tune and who was actually first," Temperley says.
The confusion, he says, stemmed partially from how hymns were composed. Some were written by clergy, some by professional musicians, and others by amateurs who taught church members how to sing the tune. Some were even adapted from major works by such great composers as Mozart.
Temperley's index will help scholars, clergy members, historians and maybe even amateur genealogists who want to learn more about a hymn mentioned by an ancestor in a letter or diary, says Mary Louise VanDyke.
VanDyke, who coordinates the Dictionary of American Hymnology project at Oberlin College in Ohio, lauds his effort. "Temperley has really put hymnology research ahead a great deal," she says.
While Temperley's work focuses on the music of hymns, VanDyke's project specializes in their texts.
"It's amazing. You can see the whole history of America unfold when you see how people use tunes and adapt them,' she says, pointing out how hymns promoted movements like antislavery and temperance.
Temperley had hoped to carry the index to the present. But now 65, he doesn't want to tackle that project since it took him so long to research the 300 years of hymn history covered in his book.
"Of course, the database is ready if someone else wants to bring it up to the present day," he says. "I'm absolutely thrilled to get done what I did. It was complete chaos before, and I feel I made sense out of it. That gives me satisfaction."