The Marriage of Text and Tune

Today is going to be a little different.  After a brief “how to worship God with our writing” exercise (song lyrics), I will be mainly exploring a way to take that writing a step further (setting it to pre-existing music).

In the last three posts, I introduced three different ideas to explore for possible song lyrics.  Today, I challenge you to implement one of these and write a song, but first it would be a good idea to brush up on meter.

For those of you who have never written lyrics before (and especially for those of you who don’t know anything about music theory), I would suggest sticking to an iambic (common meter), iambic (long meter), or iambic (short meter).

Once you are satisfied with your lyrics, choose a tune from a hymnal you have lying around for the tune.  You don’t have a hymnal?  Go ask your pastor or music minister, chances are you will walk away with 3 or 4 different hymnals from the boxes and boxes of them your church has in storage.

In the back of the hymnal are several indexes listed the hymns by author, title, tune title, and tune meter (plus or minus one or two other criteria depending on the hymnal).  When you finish your lyrics, start looking through the tune meter index to find all of the tunes listed with the meter you chose.  Try singing your song to a few familiar and a few unfamiliar tunes (if you can’t read music, type in the hymn name into to listen to a midi version).

It is very important to find a tune that matches the lyrics well.  You have a specific feel in mind when writing the lyrics, so you should find a tune that best gets that feel across.  One example I like use a lot is Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.  This link takes you to see the lyrics and hear my favorite tune for it: EBENEZER.  In 1991, however, the Baptist hymnal decided to change the tune from EBENEZER to HARRIS.  In 2008, the Baptist hymnal kept the HARRIS tune.

In my opinion, switching from EBENEZER to HARRIS was a huge travesty.  First of all, the lyrics to the song are filled with water imagery, and the rhythm of the tune EBENEZER feels like waves crashing on the shore.  The HARRIS tune, however, feels like a pub song.  It seems to me that the editors of the 1991 Baptist hymnal wanted to shy away from tunes in minor keys, so this song was given a tune that made it feel more upbeat and “happy”.  What it loses, though, with this is change is a proper marriage of tune and text.

When you are selecting your tune, do not think about which tune makes you feel happiest.  Think about which tune carries the same message that your lyrics carry.  Only then will a song truly work to speak the message it was meant to speak.

31  Days

Scripture Paraphrase

by Bryan Emerson

Scripture paraphrase is a longstanding church tradition, especially considering the Psalms.  The Jewish church sang the Psalter regularly in their worship practices, so it was only natural for the Christian church to desire to carry on the tradition.

During the Reformation, John Calvin had a nearly completed Psalter translated and paraphrased into meter.  It was immensely important to Calvin to sing only Scripture during worship, but he considered a good paraphrase to be quite edifying.

There are a few things to take into account when paraphrasing Scripture, though:

  1. A paraphrase is not authoritative.  Only the original manuscripts are without error, and while we trust that God has kept His word safe through the translation processes, all paraphrases are skewed toward the beliefs of the paraphraser, no matter how sound those beliefs may be
  1. A good paraphrase will always focus on the main idea of the passage.  Each Biblical passage has a primary message, and many will often have secondary and tertiary messages as well.  These secondary and tertiary messages may sometimes be used to help back up theological ideas, but they should never be used to base a theological argument.  In the same way, a paraphrase should never be built on the secondary or tertiary messages of a passage.
  1. Paraphrases may be strict or loose, so long as they do not stretch into heresy.  When trying to put Scripture into meter, you may go line by line and try to keep as much of the original text as you can; but you may also take the main ideas and details from the passage and make it more personal or poetic as you wish, as long as the main ideas are kept intact and still reflect good theology.

These are not the only things to take into account when paraphrasing, but these three will take you a long way.  Here are some of my favorite examples of Scripture paraphrases, in songwriting:

Jon Foreman – Equally SkilledMicah 7

Matt Redman – 10000 ReasonsPsalm 103

Martin Luther – A Mighty FortressPsalm 46

31  DaysFive Minute Free-Write: Have you ever paraphrased scripture in song-writing? What are the difficulties you found, when attempting to paraphrase?

But I CAN’T Write!

You can’t write like I can’t sing, like I can’t dance, like I can’t cook pancakes. There’s a difference between being not very good at something, unpracticed in something, not used to something, and being incapable of it.

And if you are able to read this post, friend, you are likely able to write.

By writing, I don’t mean that you MUST write poetry, short fiction, novels. By writing, this just might be writing in a journal, a blog. Even if the idea of writing creatively—making things up!—scares you, you can start with what you truly know—your testimony, your life story, the life stories and testimonies of those around you—and that can not only edify you but those around you.

I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to complain, and feel discontent when I write out my testimony and remember how very amazingly good God has been to me, a sinner, and how he has continued to be amazingly good to me.

And when I read or write out other’s testimonies, I rejoice in that they are my brothers and sisters in Christ—that we’ve all been adopted into God’s family, and that we’ll have eternity to learn each other’s redemption stories.

But I don’t want to completely let you off the hook—if you look at the bible, is it made entirely of testimonies? No! God is creative and uses a variety of genres—oh and guess what he uses a lot of? Poetry! Is there any better argument for the relevance of poetry? David, the man after God’s own heart, was a poet, a lyricist.

So those of you who say you can’t, who are scared, who think this isn’t for you—I want you to give it a try. Francis Schaeffer, whom I will be quoting frequently this month, puts it this way:

“Being in the image of the Creator, we

Writing is one of the more accessible of the arts—it takes little to no money, space, or specialized skills beyond your own mind and imagination. A risk-free venture—so why not?

This month we’ll offer suggestions that are beginning-writer friendly—this series is not just for writers who have been around the block a time or two. You may be surprised at how writing can help you internalize scripture and God’s truth in a way that you have not before.

31  Days


Five Minute Free-Write: What are your fears and hang-ups about writing?