We all know that when we take a well-known text and sing it with a different melody, the words can seem fresh and, perhaps, almost new again. In fact, we find many contemporary Christian artists incorporating this technique, and their efforts have successfully introduced hymns to a new generation of younger believers.
When I was growing up, I remember our youth group would sometimes sing “Amazing Grace” using the tune of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. While it is true that that particular pairing was not very satisfying from either an artistic or a ministerial viewpoint, I do believe that there is merit to this idea of “flip-flopping” words and melodies. So, to that end, may I introduce you to the metrical index at the end of your hymnbook!
Perhaps you are unfamiliar with this particular index, but it can be real treasure trove of creative worship ideas for you and your congregation. Metric indexes list every hymn in the book and, after the title, include a set of numbers, such as 10.10.10.8. This particular set of numbers (10.10.10.8.) indicates that this hymn contains four lines of text, and the first, second, and third lines contain ten sounded syllables. The last line contains eight sounded syllables. This set of metric numbers, incidentally, corresponds with the well-known hymn “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.”
Sometimes, after the numbers, the following letters may be included: SM (short meter), CM (common meter), LM (long meter), or D (doubled).
Once we understand how the metric index works, we can begin switching around texts and tunes. For example, let’s say I wanted to find a new melody for the text of “How Firm a Foundation.” So, if I turn to this hymn in my hymnbook, at the bottom of the page I will find the following footnote: FOUNDATION 188.8.131.52. This tells me the actual name of the melody, and its metrical index cataloging number. If I then look up this number in the metrical index, I will find a listing of the following hymns:
I LOVE THEE
This means that the text of “How Firm a Foundation” is theoretically interchangeable with all of the tunes listed above. I say “theoretically” because several things must be considered when swapping hymns. Sometimes the mood of a text will dictate the need for a certain type of melody. And, at other times, a new text and melody pairing might create a case of bad scansion. For instance, placing the text of “How Firm a Foundation” with the KING’S WESTON hymn tune would be a terrible match! Try to sing it and you will see what I mean. However, this text would fit nicely with either the GORDON or I LOVE THEE hymn tunes. So, there is obviously a fair amount of experimentation that accompanies this technique.
Have fun with this and be creative! It can certainly spice up your congregational singing, and it can even be a nice way to create an easy, fresh anthem on your slim choir attendance Sundays.
I hope you are having a wonderful fall, and I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!