Songwriting Tip: Use Another Song’s Structure

Occasionally I begin writing a song by copying the structure of another song.

Every song has a lyrical structure.  By structure I mean the number of syllables in each line, the lines that rhyme, etc.

Observe the structure of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”:

Mary had a little lamb (7 syllables)
Whose fleece was white as snow (6 syllables)
Everywhere that Mary went (7 syllables)
The lamb was sure to go (6 syllables)

Syllables in lines 1 and 3 match; 2 and 4 match.  Lines 3 & 4 repeat the structure of lines 1 & 2.  Lines 2 and 4 rhyme.

When I wrote “Glorious” on the Sovereign Grace album, “Come Weary Saints,” I used the structure of the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”  Compare the structure of the two verses below and you will see that you could sing the melody of “How Great Thou Art” to “Glorious.”

Verse 1 – “How Great Thou Art”:

O Lord my God,
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all
The works Thy Hand hath made,
I see the stars,
I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy pow’r throughout
The universe displayed

Verse 1 – “Glorious”:

How great You are
Your greatness none can fathom
Upholding all
By Your almighty Word
The universe
Fulfills Your every purpose
And all You’ve made
Will bring You praise, O God

Obviously, I changed the melody, speed, and the feel to make my song completely different.  If I hadn’t told you, you’d probably never suspect what I did.  (This will be our little secret, ok?).  Like Albert Einstein said: “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Try this and see if it works for you.

photo by eskedal

  • @lidialimardo


    • MarkAltrogge

      Thanks Lidia!

  • Dave Wilson

    When I first got saved, I changed the lyrics to Panama by Van Halen. When the singer said "Panama!" I inserted "Joshua!"

    I wish I was kidding.


    • MarkAltrogge

      Hilarious, Dave.

      I once wrote new lyrics to Jackson Browne "A Little Bit Longer" – where I made my mistake was keeping his melody. It went: "Oh won't you pray, just a little bit longer…" My pastor at the time talked to me a couple days later and said people were having bad flashbacks during worship…

      • lisa

        When our kids were little I changed "Give a Little Whistle" from Pinocchio to "Read a Little Scripture" ("….. and always let your Bible be your guide") because we didn't want them to get the idea that their conscience was a very reliable guide! :-)

        Less successful were some of my "original" songs…. unlike you, I never set out intentionally to "copy" another song, but I usually ended up hearing "my" song at some point on the radio — John and Paul or somebody had already written it — and realizing, "oh, THAT'S where I got that idea from!"

        • MarkAltrogge

          Hey Lisa, I'm constantly accused of copying the Beatles – to which I reply, "If you're going to steal, steal from the best."

          • lisa

            And you're in good company, as Phil Keaggy (talk about the BEST!) does this regularly….
            Really, though, it is so cool that those two songs have the same structure. You're right, I never would've noticed it. But I did sing HGTA to the tune of Glorious, and it did fit. How about that! God has gifted you so well, Mark. :-) (Had to stop after a few seconds, though, because it was like singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun.") :-P

            • MarkAltrogge

              Amazing Grace and HOTRS – I never knew….now that's a little creepy

      • Ron Reffett

        I think I'm going to re-write "Doctor My Eyes" and call it "Doctrine that Flies" for those messages about false doctrine…or maybe, 'Doctor My Ears' for those members that sing just a little off key…..alright, alright…sorry just couldn't resist the Jackson Browne pun.

        • MarkAltrogge

          Hey Ron, "Doctor My Eyes" is one of my favorite songs so I think you should go for it…although I'm not sure I know what "Doctrine That Flies" means…

          • lisa

            How's about "Doctrine that Lies"?

          • Ron Reffett

            Maybe a better title would be Doctrine that Doesn't Fly….nah, just does'nt have the same ring to it…back to the woodshed!

            • MarkAltrogge

              now you've strayed from Jackson Browne……

  • MarkAltrogge

    I wouldn't be surprised if Jesus saved Davy….tho that is a little on the wacky side.

  • Jeri Tanner

    Excellent tip! I love these, please keep them coming.

    • MarkAltrogge

      Thanks Jeri – I'll keep trying…