Did you know you don’t need to play a musical instrument to write songs? It’s true. My friend, Linda Bonney Olin, has written songs and set the lyrics to music, but she has never had music training. I thought that was amazing. I’ve played the piano for years and yet I have never put new words to old music like Linda. Please welcome Linda Bonney Olin and let her teach you how.
A poet friend commented today that she wished she could write music like the hymns and faith songs I wrote for my book Songs for the Lord. You might be surprised to know that I don’t read music or play any instruments. Nope, my season as a songwriter was a gift from the Holy Spirit, plain and simple. You can read more about that experience in two of my blog posts, Writing Songs for the Lord and To the Ends of the Earth.
Although I’ve moved on to other kinds of writing projects, I still occasionally write a song. The songs I’m writing now, though, are hymn texts (AKA lyrics) designed to be sung to familiar hymn tunes. A few I’ve used so far are CWM RHONDDA (familiar from “God of Grace and God of Glory”), AZMON (“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”), and TRUSTANDOBEY (“Trust and Obey,” surprisingly enough).
If you look at a hymnal, you’ll see how commonly the composer and the lyricist of a song are two different people, often people who never met each other or who even lived in different time periods. I figure I’m carrying on a wonderful tradition. Giving fresh words to my favorite old hymns is a way to honor their composers and give them renewed exposure.
Why don’t YOU try your hand at writing new lyrics for existing tunes? No need to worry about writing and transcribing music—someone already did that part for you! Using familiar tunes makes it easy for your congregation (or whoever) to sing your new songs, too. Just be sure to use tunes that are in the public domain. Don’t violate some hardworking composer’s copyrights!
TEN TIPS for Putting New Words to Old Music
To get you rolling, here are ten tips for putting new words to old music. These are geared to hymns and faith songs, but the same principles apply to any kind of music.
- Listen for the Holy Spirit ( or whatever muse inspires you) popping little rhyming phrases and themes into your head. As you read your Bible or listen to a sermon, imagery may jump out at you. Grab those ideas and see how they might be developed into verses. Themes and images that divide themselves into three, four, or even five parallel aspects lend themselves nicely to song stanzas. For example, my hymn text “Seasons of Life” has four stanzas, each one corresponding to (you guessed it!) one of the seasons. A refrain can serve to summarize, bridge, or unify the stanzas.
- Choose a tune that suits the general attitude of your text and the musical style you’re going for. A soulful solo? Hand-clapping bluegrass gospel? Lyrical waltz?
- Refresh your familiarity with public domain tunes, to help your brain suggest a good choice for a given text. I use hymnsite.com (which matches up with my United Methodist Hymnal) and hymnary.org to hear the tunes. There are other helpful sites too.
- If your poetry tends toward esoteric imagery, multi-layered metaphors, and literary tours-de-force, I suggest you bring it back down to earth when you write hymns. Hymn lyrics have to be easily understood to be absorbed while being sung. You know what I mean. How often do you sing a whole congregational hymn and when it’s done, you have no idea what the words said? Gotcha! Don’t let that happen to singers of YOUR songs! Be original, but not incomprehensible. Choose one simple image and build on it.
- Songs are meant to be sung, right? So give singers a break, with easy-to-pronounce transitions between words. Don’t shove a mouthful of consonants into a speedy succession of eighth notes or tongue-twisting combinations in adjacent syllables. Beware of embarrassing words created from run-together sounds. Hearing “snot” in “It’s not” is a classic example. Sing it out loud and adjust as necessary.
- Carefully match your words to the notes, using the right number of syllables. A printout of the tune’s sheet music, which often can be downloaded as a PDF file, can be a useful tool to help you match syllable for syllable. It’s okay to split a syllable across multiple notes or split a single note into its equivalent of shorter notes to spread it across multiple syllables. However, when you write new words to a familiar song, try to keep the same pattern of split notes and/or syllables that was in the original song, to help singers make the switch comfortably.
- Match accented (stressed/emphasized) syllables to stressed notes. For example, sing “Jingle bells! Jingle bells” out loud to hear the primary accent on the “Jing” notes. It would sound weird to replace those words with “The Lord reigns! The Lord reigns!” even though the number of syllables is the same, because accenting “The” instead of “Lord” sounds weird. A better choice is “Jesus reigns! Jesus reigns!” because “Je” correctly matches the stress on “Jing.”
Caution: Please don’t jumble the normal order of words in a phrase or sentence to make accents fit. That always sounds awkward or confuses the meaning of the sentence. Remember, your message (which actually is God’s message) is top priority in a faith song.
- Don’t shortchange the message by forcing words into stilted rhymes, either. Look for original rhymes, using words that contribute to the whole, not just throwaway phrases tacked on to complete a rhyme.
- Look for opportunities to musically convey the emotion of verbal phrases. For example, the phrase “Praise the Lord” fits a rising sequence of notes, with the highest note gloriously emphasizing “Lord.” (The refrain of the old hymn “To God Be the Glory” does exactly that.) On the other hand, “Satan is dragging me down” calls for a downward sequence or an ominous minorish-sounding musical phrase. Passages that speed up or notes that are held out convey different dramatic effects too.
- Last but not least: Even though public domain tunes aren’t copyrighted, give credit where credit is due. When you publish or perform your new masterpiece, cite the name of the tune’s composer.
Now, do you hear music bubbling up from your memory? It wants someone to give it new words! Why not you?
To contact me and check out interviews, discussions, and resources for writing, music, ministry, and more, please hop over to my Faith Songs website, www.LindaBonneyOlin.com and my Facebook page.