Prosody: When Music And Lyrics Hold Hands

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

The term “prosody” has several meanings in the fields of literature, poetry and music. When we speak of prosody in songwriting, we’re talking about the marriage of lyrics to music. In simplest form, we achieve prosody when we match triumphant lyrics to triumphant music, and when we match sad lyrics to sad music.

So, for instance, if you write a lament your music should be consistent with the message of the lyrics, and the emotion those lyrics are intended to convey. Kristen and I tried to do this with our Chase Away My Unbelief:

Some of the common tunes for classic hymns are lacking in prosody. This is especially true of the American “gospel hymns” of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to hymnologist Paul Westermeyer in With Tongues Of Fire:

“The Dwight Moody-Ira Sankey campaigns in the last quarter of the 19th century produced a body of hymnody that … contained cheery compound triple and dotted rhythms, enticing mild chromaticism, the almost exclusive use of major keys rather than minor ones, and a lack of dissonance or musical argument to create tension. It developed into the even lighter, semi-sacred, and more commercial music of the Billy Sunday era after the turn of the century, such as … “Brighten The Corner Where You Are,” … It often took over Sunday schools altogether and made inroads into mainstream Protestant services as well. Sometimes songs in this style replaced an entire hymnic heritage …”

Other classic hymns pair jubilant lyrics with somber music. Sovereign Grace’s Devon Kauflin wrote new music for the Phillip Bliss hymn “What A Savior” for this reason, as he told me in an interview here at My Song In The Night:

“I was never particularly excited about the traditional melody associated with it. In our context it didn’t seem to fit the declaration: ‘Hallelujah! What a Savior!’ I really wanted to be able to respond to the truth in the verses, and the line combined with the melody just seemed like a total downer to me.”

Prosody also means matching words like “rise,” “sky,” and “high” with notes that “rise high in the sky.” We hear this in Elevation Worship’s “Be Lifted High,” written by Chris Brown, Jane Williams, Jess Cates, Matt Brock and Wade Joye. The melody soars on “higher” when they sing:

“You be lifted high; You be lifted HIGHER”

To make sure you understand the basics of prosody, answer this question: Should the melody go up or down if you sing “the depths of hell”?

If you guessed “Down,” congratulations – you get it.

Is it ever okay to write sad music for happy lyrics, or vice versa? Of course. Rules are made to be broken. Songwriters most often invert the rule of prosody when they want to achieve an ironic effect, or to convey a sense of “Something isn’t quite right.”

For instance, a singer-songwriter may write lyrics about loss and heartbreak, then compose happy music to create an “I’m ignoring my pain” effect or a “Don’t cry for me – I’m actually better off” effect. But this kind of writing doesn’t work as well in congregational worship music.


Matt Brady July 22, 2013 at 8:55 am

Great information and thoughts on prosody. It is not something I specifically have thought about, but there are songs I have heard and wondered about the pairing of music & lyrics, so now I have a word and definition to go along with it. Thanks!

Tim K February 10, 2015 at 2:27 pm

Good thoughts – and something we should all think about if we really want the congregation to connect to the content of what we sing. There are also instances where two different musical approaches can emphasize different aspects of a song. For example, we have a more traditional-sounding approach to Amazing Grace to emphasize humility and gratitude at the undeserved grace of salvation, but also a much more upbeat version that’s more celebratory in nature.

Previous post:

Next post: