SETTING SCRIPTURE TO MUSIC

Many beginning writers try to start by writing scripture songs. That way, they think they won’t have to worry too much about the lyrics. But in our opinion, these are some of the hardest songs to write well.

First, let’s list some common mistakes in this type of writing and then see if we can give some constructive help:

1. Trying to include all the exact words of a scripture verse in the lyric and getting too many words crammed into too few beats, with acCENTS on the wrong sylLAble.

2. Starting a chorus with the word “for” or “therefore.” Both these words refer back to something previous, and if your song starts there and doesn’t refer back to anything, you raise questions that don’t get answered.

3. Mixing King James English with modern English. Once you’ve addressed the Lord as “You,” don’t switch the form of address to “Thee” to make a rhyme.

On the positive side, keep several Bible translations handy so you can find various wordings of verses. Some are more lyrical than others and may fit your meter better. If none of them works, make your own paraphrase. Yes, it’s perfectly all right to do this. After all, you’re not claiming your version is scripture—only lyrics based on scripture.

But be careful. Don’t attempt a paraphrase on the strength of one translation. Unless you know Biblical Hebrew or Greek, stay very close to the consensus of several translations. The Amplified Bible can give you added insight into shades of meaning, and a thesaurus may help, too.

If any interpretation of doctrine is involved, it’s a good idea to have your lyrics checked by someone who knows theology. A subtle wrong shade of meaning may imply doctrinal error that could make your song unfit for use by the church.

If you really want to set a scripture verse to music verbatim (perhaps as an aid to Bible memorization), here’s a starting place: in some translations, the translators have rendered the Psalms and a few other poetic passages into at least a type of free verse. They don’t rhyme, but by stretching words and syllables over several notes you might establish some meter with them, especially if you repeat some phrases.

This is what Handel did in Messiah. By setting many scriptures to music without changing any words, he proved it could be done. But in order to do it he sometimes stretched one word over several measures or repeated phrases many times.

In “For Unto Us” he had each vocal part take turns stretching the word “born” over 57 notes—melisma stretched to the nth degree! (This is not your average congregational chorus.)

The shorter the passage, the easier it is to set to music. Notice in Messiah that Handel used very short scripture passages for the choruses and arias. Long, unmetrical narrative passages that were needed to tie the whole thing together he wrote as recitatives, with no attempt to make them rhyme or repeat.

Consider the sounds of the words in your scripture passage.
Don’t expect to find much rhyme, but look for poetic qualities—alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc. A verse such as “He walks on the wings of the wind”    (Psalm 104:3) would almost set itself to music.

Look for obvious rhythm patterns in the passage.
Sometimes the first phrase of the passage will establish a rhythm pattern that you can develop by stretching and repeating.

Jon Mohr’s touching scripture chorus, “He Who Began a Good Work in You”, emphasizes the alliteration (starting syllables with the same sound) between He and who and places the words who and you in rhyming spots.

One time-honored way of making a scripture passage lyrical is to use the anthem form. A song may say, “The cows are in the corn,” while an anthem says, “The cows, the cows, the cows, are in the corn, the corn, the corn.” Here’s an example:

IF MY PEOPLE WILL PRAY
Words and Music by Jimmy Owens

If My people who are called by My name
Shall humble themselves, shall humble themselves and pray;
If My people who are called by My name
Shall seek My face and turn from their wicked ways;
Then will I hear from heaven, Then will I hear from heaven,
Then will I hear and will forgive, and will forgive their sin.
If My people who are called by My name
Shall humble themselves, shall humble themselves and pray;
I will forgive their sin, I will forgive their sin,
I will forgive their sin. . .
And heal their land.

The whole scripture passage is there, its meaning is intact, but the words have been converted from prose to lyrics.

Hot Tip: Look up www.Biblegateway.com. It will lead you into tons of Bible translations.

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4 Comments

Al Hartness

DearJimmy&Carol;:
I have written music for the Moravian Prayer, you know: Come Lord Jesus, our guest to be, and bless these gifts bestowed by Thee. And bless our loved ones everywhere, and keep them in Your loving care. I have written several more verses from Scripture, one of the Psalms. I connect the verses with a minor bridge phrasing.
I pray you can help me with this, to bring it to His glory, not mine.
Al, 79 years old.

12 April 2018
Ralph Merrifield

Well done Jimmy & Carol !  Great songwriting tips smile

25 July 2016
Daniel Grove

Dear Jimmy and Carol:
thank you for choosing the lyrics to “If My People”...the evangelistic team I traveled with back in the eighties sang that song on many a night in extremely remote mountain areas of the Philippines. I’m sure this has crossed your minds before, but I’ve often wondered, sometimes even in the midst of ministering these songs in those primitive areas (yes they did understand English) what you, or the Gaithers or others would think to hear your beautiful work bringing life to such unexpected places. Thank you for bringing back such a wonderful, powerful memory.

Regards,
Dan Grove

22 July 2016
Enrique Sanchez

Thanks for these fine tips Jimmy. I am always learning new things from your blog. God bless!

22 July 2016
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