A common question in music ministry is whether we can change the line to a worship song. Sometimes it’s a line that you have no idea what it means (e.g. “Here I raise my Ebenezer”). Or it could be that theologically vague lyric that you want to rescue because it’s set to a really catchy melody.
Here’s some answers and principles to consider if you’ve ever asked this question, or are about to take a scalpel to a song your church is currently singing.
If the text is in the public domain…
Yes – with discernment.
Currently all works published in the US prior to 1923 are officially in the public domain, which means the works belong to everyone equally and can be used, adapted, modified etc.
For example, this means that the original Amazing Grace is in public domain, but How Great Thou Art (republished 1954 under copyright) is not.
Other exceptions to the pre-1923 rule are texts that have been edited substantially to be a new edition, and translations of those texts made after 1923.
You can look up Project Gutenberg to help navigate the minefield of clauses and sub-clauses under US copyright rules.
Hymn writer Isaac Watts expressed in the Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs,
“What is provided for public worship should give to sincere consciences as little vexation and disturbance as possible. . . . Where any unpleasing word is found, he that leads the worship may substitute a better; for (Blessed be God) we are not confined to the words of any Man in our public solemnities.”
As a result, there’s lots of examples of hymn lines that have been improved over time. Hymn lecturer Scott Aniol lists 13 reasons that people have historically changed hymn lines:
- Masculine reference to God (“Him,” “Father,” etc.).
- Masculine reference to people (“he,” “mankind,” etc.).
- Changing singular pronouns to plural (“I Sing the Mighty Power of God” etc.).
- Removing demeaning terms (such as “worm” in “Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed”).
- Doctrinal heterodoxy.
- Doctrinal idiosyncrasy.
- Unclear biblical allusions (such as “Ebenezer” in “Come, Thou Fount”).
- Difficult theological terms (“reconciliation,” “imputed,” “justified,” etc.).
- Archaic pronouns (“thee,” “thou,” etc.).
- Archaic terms (“welkin”, in “Hark the Herald Angels” (see below), etc.).
- Words with changed meaning (“bowels,” “awful,” “peculiar,” etc.).
- Awkward euphony (“Our God, our Help,” etc.).
- Syllabic stress (“Jesus, the name” in “O for A Thousand Tongues,” etc.).
I personally think you shouldn’t change lyrics for all the above reasons (for instance, I’d leave God as how He describes Himself thank you very much, and also a difficult theological term could be explained instead of removed). But as an example of sensitive revision, if your church teaches particular redemption (or limited atonement), the line from Charles Wesley’s “Arise My Soul Arise” that reads:
His blood atoned for all the race
Could be changed to
His blood atoned for every race
If you do start tinkering with lyrics to a public domain text, keep in mind…
- If your church members are accustomed with certain words or phrases, it’s helpful to explain why you made the change (or face a grilling from someone who’s memorised the lyric one way all their life!)
- Unlike modernising Bible texts, older songs typically follow a specific meter and rhyme. If you break it, your revised hymn may be harder to remember, sing, or enjoy.
Brian Wren has some helpful advice in his book Praying Twice:
- “Don’t alter rhymes unless you have replacement rhymes of like quality, and that smoothly fit the stress pattern.”
- “Respect stress patterns as well as the syllable count.”
- “Speak and hear each proposed revision aloud. What looks OK on the printed page may sound ugly when spoken or sung.”
And Bobby Gilles points out the example of a couplet that uses “Thine” and “mine?” to end the line. You can’t update that without breaking the rhyme or changing the meaning of the couplet.
If the text is copyrighted…
No, with a few exceptions.
The short answer is any copyrighted lyrics can’t be changed, except:
- when changing a song from 3rd person to 2nd person (His to Your)
- when changing singular pronouns to plural (I to we)
- when you have permission from the copyright owner to change it
While there are some frustrating things about copyright rules, God by his grace has put them in place and we’re called to submit to the earthly authorities provided (Romans 13). Some of us have a genuine desire to change lyrics for the better, I’m sure. But what one person believes is improving the lyric could be totally opposite to what another believes. And it’s not as if you have an automatic right to enter a songwriting relationship with the person, no matter how genuine your intentions.
Hear some recent case studies to help you see this question from a few angles:
“In Christ Alone”
Recently it was reported that the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song, operating under the authority of the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A. (PCUSA) rejected the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” from their new song collection, Glory to God. Why? Because Keith Getty and Stuart Townend refused to approve the change of “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified“.
I recently heard in a lecture series that this songwriting duo have passed up the opportunity for their hymn to appear in many other hymnals for this reason (though the song still remains #1 on the UK CCLI charts).
Paul Baloche and Lenny Leblanc wrote a fantastic song, which traces the story of Jesus humbling himself to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-11). But plenty of people (myself included) have tried to ask permission to change the last phrase in their chorus, which ends, “He took the fall and thought of me above all” – while Jesus did think of his redeemed, to say he thought of me above all seems to be an overemphasis that the Bible doesn’t teach. The standard reply you’ll get when you ask is that the publishers won’t give permission for the lyrics to be changed.
When asked about why he wrote that line by Bob Kauflin:
“Paul [Baloche] had no idea people would take the last line to mean that Jesus thought of us more than his Father’s glory.”
“How He Loves”
John Mark McMillan wrote this song about God’s love in 2002, following the death of his best friend in a car accident, out of a need “to have some sort of conversation with God” and pour out his heart to Him.
The song was covered by David Crowder Band on “Church Music” and released as their lead single in 2009, where the lyric “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss” was changed to “an unforeseen kiss“, ostensibly to serve his people and not isolate them.
In this case, John McMillan gave permission for the change, but explained what he meant with his original on his blog, saying:
“I applaud David for changing the line to serve his people, and at the same time I boo the machinery that would cause him to have to do so.”
So what if I can’t change it?
I’m sure you can think of other songs that you’ve itched to change the words to, such as Hillsong’s “Worthy is the Lamb” (“darling of heaven crucified”). So what can you do if you have to settle with a line you don’t like? Here’s a few options:
- Explain the line to the congregation. For example, it’s possible you may think that “Sing like never before” from Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons is a bit vague. You could explain why a heart that truly knows the blessing of being a child of God can sing today of God’s grace and mercy that wasn’t possible yesterday.
- Place the song alongside others that help clarify meaning. If the line “Nothing compares to the promise I have in you” is too vague for you, perhaps tag the song along with “How Firm A Foundation” or another song that details some of God’s promises to his children.
- Choose a different song. This is probably the easiest option! There’s only hundreds of thousands out there to choose from after all. I like the humble way that Australian songwriter Mike Morrow (“We Belong to the Day”, “Nothing But the Blood”) put it to me in an email about one of his songs:
“When it passes its usefulness we can rejoice to turn to other, greater songwriters!”
Anyways, enough from me. What do you do when you’re faced with song lyrics you don’t like?
- Sovereign Grace Music – their frequently asked questions about song lyrics and copyright
Thanks for the post, William. Good reminder that we can change some songs, but not most.
If I don’t like a word or line of a song (or find it ambiguous), I won’t introduce it. There are so many songs out there to choose from, so keep looking and be careful not to let your attachment to the music poorly influence your decision
agreed Bren, there’s plenty of songs to choose from!
Very clarifying post, thanks. I’m ashamed to admit that in the past I’ve acted with such hubris that I’ve spent 30seconds ‘rewriting’ a song or hymn that was crafted and prayed over by a far more talented author than myself.
One question, what are your thoughts on adding additional verses? There are a few songs that we love as a church but that are extremely short! On a number of occasions I’ve wanted to add an extra verse rather than repeating a previous one. Where do we stand on that one?
That’s a good question Sammy – worship songwriters out there might be able to clarify, but I think you’d still want to ask the authors for permission to add a verse.
Say if the PC(USA) thought that rather than change the one line in In Christ Alone, they’d try add another verse 5 they wrote themselves that match their theological convictions. I doubt that Keith Getty or Stuart Townend wouldn’t want a say in that.
If you’ve written something that’s neat, I’d encourage you to ask the authors for permission. The worst that happens would be that you get a no, and your song stays short so theres time to sing another one. On the flip side you may get permission and if it’s a helpful verse who knows, it might be worth publishing!
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