Finding a tune for the lyrics you want to sing

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

In the run-up to Easter, our congregation pondered the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross, during the seven weeks climaxing on Good Friday.

sayings from cross

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The pastor planned for suitable songs to embed each saying in our minds. It’s a pity that few contemporary worship songs capture these precious, profound, dying words of our Saviour.

Hymns are more likely to do so. An ideal lyric for the 6th word: “It is finished” (John 19:30) was found in a hymn by Charles Wesley. It fitted the theme like a glove. (You will be blessed as you meditate on these words now):

‘Tis finished! The Messiah dies,
cut off for sins, but not His own.
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
the great redeeming work is done.

‘Tis finished! All the debt is paid,
justice divine is satisfied;
the grand and full atonement made;
God for a guilty world had died.

The veil is rent in Christ alone,
the living way to heav’n is seen.
The middle wall is broken down,
and all mankind may enter in.

The types and figures are fulfilled,
exacted is the legal pain.
The precious promises are sealed,
the spotless lamb of God is slain.

The reign of sin and death is o’er,
and all may live from sin set free.
Satan has lost his mortal power,
‘tis swallowed up in victory.

Saved from the legal curse I am,
my Saviour hangs on yonder tree.
See there the meek, expiring Lamb!
‘Tis finished! He expires for me.

Accepted in the Well-belov’d,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
I see the bar to heav’n removed,
and all Your merits, Lord, are mine.

Death, hell and sin are now subdued,
all grace is now to sinners giv’n,
and look, I plead th’atoning blood,
and in Your right I claim my heav’n.

What a sermon in song! Almost every line can be linked to a supporting scripture. These are lyrics that meet the Colossians 3:16 standard — ‘teaching the word of Christ to one another’.

Be blessed this Easter, as you meditate on the crucial events in our Lord’s life, and in ours. I hope the above lyrics will deepen your understanding of those climactic words from the cross: “It is finished!”.


What about the tune?
But what about the tune? The one set in the hymn-book was awkward, archaic and unsingable by a congregation. Here is how you can marry those words to an easy tune.

1. Count the syllables in each line. This is the “metre”. This one is sometimes called Long Metre (LM).

2. Get hold of a music hymn-book, and find the “metrical index” (usually near the back of the book). Find or LM. Under each metre there will be a list of Tune-Names. Understand that each Tune Name is usually independent of the words of the hymn. One tune fits many lyrics, and one lyric can fit many tunes. It’s called “Mix and Match”. (David used Mix and Match for some of his psalms — see the headings to psalms 45 & 69; psalms 58 & 75; psalms 60 & 80.)

3. Look through these tunes, try them out. Your purpose is to compile a short-list of tunes you like, or are familiar to the congregation.

4. Look for the accented beat, and note the unaccented beats. If you’ve got rhythm in your blood, you’ll get the feel of this quite easily. If in doubt, consult someone who is musically gifted. Try it out, eliminate those tunes that don’t ‘fit’ the rhythm.

5. To fine-tune your selection, feel the mood of the words, and find a tune that fits that mood.

6. Take your pick.

This is how this process worked for me, in finding a suitable tune for the above hymn:

Under 2. above: I used The New Redemption Hymnal. The set tune for hymn 232 was ‘Warrington’ which was not familiar.

3. From the 60 tunes listed, I short-listed six: Maryton, Morning Hymn, Old Hundreth, O Waley-waley, Rockingham, Winchester New.

4. All six fitted the rhythm.

5. Maryton and Old Hundredth sounded too solemn and somewhat archaic. Morning Hymn is well-known, contemporary, but reflected the brightness of the familiar words “Morning has broken”. This did not suit the crucifixion mood. I recognised O Waley-waley as the melody in that folk-song “The river is deep, the river is wide.” Its mood was quiet and flowing. Rockingham is also well-known for “When I survey the wondrous cross”. Winchester New was somewhat complicated.

6. My pick was between O Waley-waley and Rockingham. I chose the former because it had a more contemporary feel to it.

I hope you will be able to apply the technique of mixing and matching tunes with lyrics to any hymn you want to sing. It will open hundreds of new possibilities for your repertoire!

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