How to Discover Familiar Tunes for Unfamiliar Lyrics
Leafing through my church hymnal, I came upon a song (No. 467) that I passed over a dozen times because I do not know the tune; but this time the title arrested me. "Life Is Great! So Sing About It" was both the title and the first line of the song. I wanted to affirm this truth expressed by the author, Brian Wren. I read the lyrics and loved them all, but the second verse (especially the last two lines) expressed my thoughts exactly:
Life is great!—whatever happens,
Snow or sun-shine, joy or pain,
Hard-ship, grief or dis-il-lu-sion,
Suf-fering that I can’t ex-plain—
Life is great if some-one loves me,
Holds my hand and calls my name.
Names of Poet (Left) and Composer (Right)
Brian Wren's Contemporary Language
The contemporary language of the text pushed me to check out the author. Rev. Dr. Brian Wren was born in the United Kingdom in 1936; ordained to the gospel ministry in 1965; and earned his Doctor of Philosophy Degree in 1968 from the University of Oxford in England. He held lectureships in several universities in the United States. His freelance ministry (1983-2000) focused on worship enrichment and congregational song. From 2000, he served as Conant Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA from which he retired in 2007.
In an interview (1990) for Reformed Worship, he explained: “My interest in hymnody is predated by a fascination with language. . . But what started me writing hymns? . . . a conviction that we need to speak the truth about ourselves and the world we live in and that we need to speak of God and to God in ‘our’ language. From my interest in the language of prayer, it was a natural step to look at the hymnal and ask, ‘Do we need some new hymns?’"
Brian Wren’s new songs may appeal to churchgoers who have repeatedly sung the same old songs and are yearning to learn something new. Without knowing the tune written for any particular lyrics, we can find one of two ways to sing them. The trick is to match the meter of the new lyrics with the meter of a song we already know. Lyrics with similar meters can be sung to the same tune. This works for songs within any genre as well as songs from different genres.
If we count or clap the syllables to Life Is Great using the first verse (or any verse), we will discover the song meter.
Discovering the Song Meter - Verse One
1) Life is great! So sing a-bout it,
Line1 has 8 counts.
2) As we can and as we should-
Line 2 has 7 counts.
3) Shops and bus-es, towns and peo-ple,
Line 3 has 8 counts.
4) Vil-lage, farm-land, field and wood,
Line 4 has 7 counts.
5) Life is great and life is giv-en
Line 5 has 8 counts.
6) Life is love-ly, free and good.
Line 6 has 7 counts.
The meter is 188.8.131.52.8.7.
Looking at the words while clapping or drumming the meter, someone with a good rhythmical ear may discover that it sounds familiar. For me, it sounded like the Christmas song, Angels from the Realms of Glory, a popular tune. I tried singing the lyrics to that tune and it worked.
This is more reliable. If the song book includes the music, there is a Metrical Index of Tunes next to the Index of Song Titles, probably at the back of the book. The tunes are listed in numerical order, so that the 184.108.40.206 meters will come before the 220.127.116.11.8.7 meters.
Peter Cutts who wrote the tune for Life Is Great named it Litherop. When we search the metrical index, we will first locate 18.104.22.168.8.7, then we will find our song Litherop, next to the hymn number 467.
Sample Metrical Index of Songs
It is included in a group of songs with the identical meter. When we find a familiar tune in the bunch, we can sing all the songs in that group (since they all have the same meter) to the same tune. The more familiar tunes we find in the bunch, the more options we have.
The tune Regent Square is the tune for Angels from the Realms of Glory which I first tried, and it is song No.119 in the hymnbook. Another popular tune is Lauda Anima for the song Praise My Soul the King of Heaven which is No. 4 in the hymnbook. All ten songs in this 22.214.171.124.8.7 group can be sung to any and all of these tunes.
Get out your song books and give this fun activity a try. Listen to the rhythm or consult the metrical index and sing all the lyrics you like.
© 2018 Dora Weithers