Using Tunes from Public Domain Traditional and Classical Music as Writing Prompts

Yankee Doodle

Yankee Doodle by Willard. Did you sing the song Yankee Doodle in school? It is itself new words to an older song. Can you think of new, modern lyrics?
Yankee Doodle by Willard. Did you sing the song Yankee Doodle in school? It is itself new words to an older song. Can you think of new, modern lyrics? | Source

Copyright and Intellectual Property

You may not and ought not make a few small changes to the lyrics of a song and call it your own. Write your new lyrics from scratch with all or close to all original words. "I'm dreaming of a green Christmas just like the ones I used to know" is not sufficiently original to honestly call it my own work, but I can call, "I love you like a big burger with lots of ketchup, don't you know," to be sung to the same tune, my own.

Give the composer of the tune due credit. Do not publish or distribute the music along with your completely original lyrics and don't perform the song without permission if the song is under copyright. No worries if you choose music that is in the public domain, either because it is folk music with no known songwriter or because the copyright has expired.

Those are my non-expert, commonsense understandings.

Stars and Stripes Forever

Includes "Be Kind To Your Web-footed Friends"

The Stars and Stripes Forever by Sousa

When I was in the Boy Scouts in the 1950s, the words to a song we sang a lot, to a theme in the march "The Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa, were, as I recall:

"Be kind to your web-footed friends,
For a duck may be somebody's mother.
She lives in a place called a swamp,
Where the winters are cold and damp.
Now you may think this is the end;
Well it is."

(We pronounced damp to rhyme with swamp. There are lots of versions of that anonymous silly song. Search the Web, or ask a local Boy Scout, to hear more.)

Just as someone once did with a theme from "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the writing prompt that I am suggesting is to choose a theme you like from classical or traditional music and write words to it. Write doggerel verse, romantic verse, patriotic verse, soulful verse, lyrics for children, advertising jingles, or whatever else you like. Write for your own enjoyment and to exercise your imagination. So much the better if the result is something you'd like to share and that others like.

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Silly Doggerel Verse to William Tell Overture by Rossini

I made this up more or less to a tune in "William Tell Overture" by Gioachino Rossini -- the opening and closing music of "The Lone Ranger" radio and TV shows.

"I went to see my gal last night,
And sad to say we had a fight.
'You never take me anywhere!'
Oh you know, that made me sore.

"I took her to a Monster Rally;
I took her to see Stripper Sally.
Who wants to watch men dance in tights?
No ballet! We saw the fights!

"I sweet talked her into serving drinks,
And we made up – at least I think.
Did we get it on then in her bunk?
I don't know – I was quite drunk."

Patriotic Verse to Brahms's Lullaby

I made up these lyrics more or less to the tune of "Brahms's Lullaby" [Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht ("Good evening, good night"), Op. 49, No. 4 by Johannes Brahms]:

"America, USA,
What shall be our way
To preserve unity
And the freedom to be?
Freedom from, freedom to,
'Neath the red, white, and blue.
Our ideals steadfast,
May the Union long last."

Clair de Lune by Debussy

A Romantic Verse to Clair de Lune by Debussy

And I wrote this one while listening to the opening of "Clair de Lune", the third movement of "Suite Bergamasque" by Claude Debussy. "Clair de lune" is French for "moonlight"

"Oh darling,
I love you.
I love your kisses;
Yes, I do.
I want you with me always, dear,
In my arms, 'cause
No one else is quite like you,
My heart throb, Love."

Ready to Try Impromptu Lyrics Freewriting Practice?

Now it is your turn to give it a try. Amaze yourself. Let a tune be the opening between your mind and your muse. Search the Internet on:

great OR greatest OR famous OR popular classical music

and other relevant search terms. When you find a work you like, see if it is on YouTube.

Or use a melody you know by heart -- perhaps an old-time hymn or a traditional folk song from your childhood.

As you listen to a melody you particularly like and you start writing words to it, what begins to emerge? A parody? A protest song? A song for children? A religious devotion song? A got the blues song? A love song? A jingle?

And just because music is your prompt doesn't mean you have to end up with a song. As you revise drafts, you might shape it as a poem, or even as some other form, such as a movie scene.

My Writing Group Writes a Song

When I showed an early draft of this article to a critique writing group that meets in Kalamazoo, I got some good suggestions. Then we tried the technique. I suggested "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss II. Kath, a member who likes writing parody songs, suggested the theme and had most of the ideas, and this was our result:

Beautiful Blue Danube by Strauss

Water Pipe Waltz

I must confess
(I must confess)
The basement’s a mess
(It is a mess)
The water pipe broke
(Oh yes it broke)
And everything’s soaked
(yes, thoroughly soaked)

We must move stuff out
(Must move stuff out)
My wife’s in a pout
(She's in a pout)

But when we are done
We'll have fun
And waltz till the night is done.

Solidarity Forever

The Red Flag

This Little Light of Mine (freedom song)

Protest Songs of the Labor and Civil Rights Movements

Historically, writing new words to familiar songs happens frequently within social movements. When people are passionate about their opposition to oppression and are striving to better their conditions, often they want to sing about their struggle. Here are a few out of many examples:

After the American Abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) was hung, Thomas Brigham Bishop (1835-1905) and/or person or persons unknown wrote the song "John Brown's Body" [the one that, in the version I learned in school, begins, "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave"] to the tune of "Glory, Hallelujah", which may have been by William Steffe (1830-1890) or may have been a traditional Methodist camp-meeting hymn that he collected and edited. Union soldiers made up different verses to "John Brown's Body" as they marched and camped. Then in November 1861 Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the tune of "John Brown's Body". It expressed the fervor of the movement to save the Union, which represented the ideal, as President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) would express it two years later in his "Gettysburg Address", of a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men [doubtless today he would say persons] are created equal." In 1915 Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961) wrote the words to "Solidarity Forever" for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to the tune of "Glory, Hallelujah" / "John Brown's Body" / "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The inspirational, rousing song became, and remains, an anthem of the labor movement.

The lyrics of another labor movement song, "The Red Flag", the anthem of the British Labour Party, were written in 1889 by Irishman Jim Connell (1852-1929). It is usually sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum" ("Oh Christmas Tree").

The song "This Little Light of Mine" was written by Harry Dixon Loes (1892-1965) about 1920 as a gospel children's song. It got so popular in churches that in 1939 John Lomax (1867-1948) collected it as a folk song. (In 1961 John's son Alan Lomax (1915-2002) made new field recordings, issued in a four record set titled "Sounds of the South," and including "This Little Light of Mine.") Its catchy, upbeat tune and easily adaptable verses have made it popular in religious and secular versions. In the 1950s Zilphia Horton (1910-1956) of Highlander Folk School wrote an adaptation of the lyrics for the civil rights movement and taught them to folk singers like Pete Seeger (1919- ). Soon Horton's version was being sung at mass meetings and in protest marches wherever the "Freedom Movement" was active, with additional topical verses improvised by a song leader (or whoever felt inspired) on the spot.

The freedom song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round" was written to the tune of the African American spiritutual of the same name. I have not found any source crediting an individual with writing the civil rights movement freedom song lyrics. The verses were improvised to fit current local situations.

About what good cause(s) are you passionate? Consider helping it by expressing its aspirations in song lyrics written to a familiar and emotionally apt tune.

Poll

Which applies most to you?

  • I played around with using a familiar melody as a writing prompt and had productive fun.
  • One of these days I might try this using tyunes as writing prompts idea.
  • I have so many writing ideas that I never or rarely need a prompt.
  • When music inspires me to write, I write to fit the emotion, not the tune.
  • None of the abovle.
See results without voting

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Comments 31 comments

Kathleen 4 years ago

Great idea. Thank you for sharing.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thanks, Kathleen.


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 4 years ago from Central Florida

Isn't it plagerism to write words to someone else's published music? I think your idea is fun, but what are the legal ramifications?


Trinity M profile image

Trinity M 4 years ago

What a fun idea. I think it is such a wonderful way to combine music appreciation, fun and creative thinking / writing. Thanks for this lovely hub.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

bravewarrior, no, I doubt that. That wouldn't make sense. The composer of a musical works owns the rights (such as of publication and of public performance) to that music (unless he or she sells one or more right). S/he has no ownership or say-so regarding what people do with that music -- write words to it; choreograph a dance to it, or whatever. There are innumerable cases in history of a musical piece inspiring a song or a poem. Of course if the music is performed or published along with the words, then that must be with the composer's permission. The reverse is also true. Many poems and even prose fiction works have been put to music. The composer did not need the permission of the writer to compose the music and to publish and perform it. (See for exampe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knoxville:_Summer_of_...

And when a lyricist or songwriter writes words to a piece of music, s/he owns that arrangement of words, and no one else may legally sell those words or substantially the same words as their own. But anyone else is completely free to write completely different words to that same song.

Double-check with a lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights if you are still in doubt, but I think the problem about which you asked does not exist. So go ahead and make up words to your favorite music, for your own amusement or to entertain others.

Or write a poem, song, or prose sketch inspired by a favorite painting.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Today I added an addendum. It's a song made up by my writing group to the tune of The Beautiful Blue Danube.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

bravewarrior, I at first overlooked the Reply button and replied in a separate comment below. Thanks for expressing your concern.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thank you, Trinity M.


Julie DeNeen profile image

Julie DeNeen 4 years ago from Clinton CT

cool idea...thanks for sharing!


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thanks,Julie.


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 4 years ago from Central Florida

Thanx for the clarification. Now that I think about it, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb" have the same tune. Thanx for the in-depth education!


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

And another curious music fact is that the words to "My Darling Clementine" can be sung to the tune of "Mack the Knife". And I suppose vice versa.


Cyndi10 profile image

Cyndi10 4 years ago from Georgia

Lots of fun to read the lyrics. They must have been fun to write. Thanks for sharing a bit of your imagination booster am writing prompt. Great!


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thanks, cyni10.


Debby Bruck profile image

Debby Bruck 4 years ago

Dear B. Leekley ~ You must be having a blast of fun with writing to musical tunes and lyrics. Super prompts. Enjoy your music writing groups! "You may think that this is the end . . ." What an abrupt. #Funny

Nice selection of musical tunes. Loved the meditative quality of "Claire De Lune" in the visual and the melody.

Blessings, Debby


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thanks, Debby.


missolive profile image

missolive 4 years ago from Texas

Music is a wonderful inspiration. The fact that it also sets the tone and mood of a piece is wonderful too. I appreciate you including my writing prompt hub as a reference in your hub. I'll be sure to reciprocate.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thank you very much, missolive.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

I'm not a poet or a lyricist but I definitely see the value in your suggestions. Judging from the number of responses, others agree with me. Great job my friend; very helpful.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thanks, Billybuc.


IntroduceCroatia profile image

IntroduceCroatia 4 years ago from Croatia

Really interesting, I shared this article on facebook.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

I'm glad you liked this hub pages article, IntroduceCroatia, and thanks very much for sharing it.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

What a great hub; so interesting,naturally written and so well informed.

I now look forward to so many more hubs by you.

Take care and have a wonderful day.

Eddy.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thanks, Eddy.


Giselle Maine 3 years ago

I really loved this hub and the thorough way you explained this. The addendum was lots of fun! Thanks for another great hub, B. Leekley.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thank you, Giselle.


tammyswallow profile image

tammyswallow 3 years ago from North Carolina

This is so very creative and original. I will give this try. It is very inspiring.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Thanks, Tammy. Have fun making up lyrics -- perhaps a personalized Valentine's Day song to the tune of an old-time torch song?


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Note to all: I revised this hub by moving links to link capsules at the end instead of having them scattered through the text and by doing a little bit of writing style polishing. Comments posted henceforth refer to this even better than before draft.


brakel2 profile image

brakel2 2 years ago from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Hi Brian - This idea fascinates me. I once had the idea to take a poem and put it to music. Then I read about it and decided against it. Later someone from HP accomplished making music from a poem. This is just the opposite, taking musical ideas for writing. You have original thoughts, and I especially like the idea of living in the moment, one of your hubs. Sharing. Blessings, Audtry


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA Author

Hi, Audtry -- Yes, writing new lyrics to old public domain tunes is a fun exercise. Try it. Or do it with in copyright music if only for your own private amusement. Or try jotting notes for a movie scene as you listen to a movement of classical music. Or write a poem inspired by a painting, as Edwin Markham's poem "The Man with the Hoe" was inspired by the painting "L'homme a la Houe" by Millet. As for putting a poem to music, there are many examples. Like, the first song in our church's hymnal is the poem "Prayer for This House" (sometimes called, after the opening words, "Let Nothing Evil Cross This Door") by Lewis Untermeyer (1885-1977). I forget who set it to music. Even prose fiction has been set to music. Samuel Barber set to music the "Knoxville Summer of 1915" opening of the novel A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by James Agee. Happy writing and composing with such exercises.

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    Brian Leekley (B. Leekley)365 Followers
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    Brian's avocation is creative writing. His stories have appeared in short-lived literary magazines. He is working on essays and fiction.



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