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Building on Melody: Lyrics

Aim: How do composers combine music and words?
Summary: Students explore the different ways that composers work with words, and how melodies and words come together.
Standards: National 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11; NYC 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Vocabulary: lyrics

Melodies provide a way to illuminate words, helping to communicate messages and feelings and bringing people together around shared interests. Composers combine words and melodies in a variety of ways. Sometimes they set existing poetry or lyrics to music, and sometimes they write their own words. Sometimes the words inspire the music, and sometimes the music inspires the words. Expressive qualities of tempo, dynamics, and articulation—as well as rhythmic patterns and melodic contour—then add meaning and emotion to the words.

Melody and Poetry in “Ode to Joy”

When Beethoven wrote “Ode to Joy” for his Ninth Symphony, he incorporated Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “An die Freude.” It was a revolutionary call for equality, freedom, and brotherhood.

  • Read the English lyrics for “Ode to Joy,” which are a loose translation of Schiller’s poem.
    • What messages do these lyrics communicate?
    • What is the mood?
    • What qualities should the music have to represent the song’s mood or message? Should it be fast or slow? Loud or soft? Might there be pauses or rests in the music? Should certain words be accented?
  • Listen to the audio track “Ode to Joy” (vocal part).
    • Which words are emphasized in the melody? How?
    • Describe the mood, melodic contour, tempo, and dynamics that you hear.
    • How do the qualities Beethoven uses compare to the qualities you chose to represent the lyrics?

Creative Extension

In 2020, to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the project All Together: A Global Ode to Joy invited orchestras around the world to reimagine Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in their own way, interpreting the ideas in “Ode to Joy” in response to today’s world and adapting the text into local languages.

Melody and Poetry in “Ram Tori Maya”

The Hindustani Bhajan

Composer Reena Esmail’s “Ram Tori Maya” is a setting of a Hindustani bhajan: a devotional song that can be spiritual in nature and can also be about global issues. It is in verse-chorus form and sung in Hindi. The lyrics for this bhajan were written by an unknown poet in the 1800s, and the melody was written by a composer named Ninu Mazumdar much more recently.

  • Read the English lyrics of the bhajan. (These are loosely translated because the poetic language in Hindi has many concepts with no English equivalents.)
  • Discuss the lyrics.
    • What does it mean to be focused on something? What is devotion? What kinds of things do you think deserve your focus and devotion?
    • What is something you are devoted to and want to focus on?
    • What might distract you from focusing on doing what you love?
    • How can you stay focused on your goals?
    • What does it mean to “dance to other people’s tunes?”
  • Write a bhajan poem about following your heart and devoting yourself to something you love.

“Ram Tori Maya”


Ram tori maya, nach nachave
Nis din mera manva vyakul
Sumirat sudhi nahi ave
Jorat tori, neha sut mera
Nirvarat arujhave
Kehi bhidi bhajan karu more sahib
Barbas mohe satave
Ram tori maya, nach nachave


(Oh Lord*), these worldly distractions are making me dance to their tune.
Every day, my mind is so restless that I’m not finding the time to focus.
And without that focus, peace will not come to me.
My mind is like a child
And I have gotten entangled in that worldly attachment.
(Oh Lord*), when can I find the time to engage with you
When the mundane things are nagging at me?
(Oh Lord*), these worldly distractions are making me dance to their tune.

This reference is not literally religious, but an exclamation
that aspires to a higher purpose.

Using Lyrics to Share a Message of Unity and Hope

  • During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, music played an important role in unifying people against injustice. Freedom songs were designed to be sung in groups, with repetitive melodic phrases and simple, adaptable lyrics. They were often derived from familiar music to encourage a wide number of activists to join in the singing. The lyrics to these songs were then altered, providing a platform to share common struggles and emotions as well as messages of hope and freedom.
  • Read the lyrics to “We Shall Not Be Moved” and listen to the audio track “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
    • What message do these lyrics communicate?
    • What emotions are expressed in this song?
    • Why do you think some of the lyrics repeat?
    • What elements in the music help communicate the meaning of the words?
  • Play the audio track “We Shall Not Be Moved” and practice singing the melody together. Note: This track represents just one version of the melody. Throughout history, performers have added their own unique style to the song, sometimes singing a slightly different rhythm or melodic contour.

Creative Extension: My Freedom Song

“We Shall Not Be Moved”—typical of many spirituals and freedom songs—consists of a series of verses wherein a single line changes in each verse. This allows the song to be sung for as long as a group wants to sing it. New lyrics can be easily added or changed to communicate an issue that is most urgent at a given time.

  • As a class, discuss issues that are on students’ minds and a change they would like to see to address that issue. These might be problems at home, school, or in the larger world.
    • What is a problem in our lives?
    • How does it make you feel?
    • What can we do about it?
    • What might stand in our way?
  • The lyrics in “We Shall Not Be Moved” include a simile—“like a tree that’s planted by the water”— that is repeated throughout the song.
    • What do you think is the meaning of that simile?
    • Like a tree’s roots, what kind of roots do you have that help you stay strong?
    • Who can join with you to make a positive change in the world?
  • Individually or in small groups, decide on the issue and message you want to communicate. Then brainstorm a few steps that you could take to make this change.
  • Using the same melody and form, write new lyrics to “We Shall Not Be Moved” to communicate your message. Use My Freedom Song (PDF) to guide the creation of your new lyrics.
  • For an added creative challenge, create a visual representation of your message using images and some words. This visual may be inspired by protest signs, murals, and art that reflect current events.

Go Deeper

“We Shall Not Be Moved” has been reimagined and performed all over the world by singers such as Pete Seeger, Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, and Mavis Staples. In addition to changing the lyrics, song leaders also contribute their own unique musical style by adjusting the rhythms, adding melodic ornamentation, and varying the tempo.

  • Listen to or watch different versions of this song.
    • What do you notice in each of the different versions?
    • How does each artist make the song their own?
    • What is the primary message that they are trying to communicate?
  • Practice singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” along with some of these performers.
  • Using your new lyrics for “We Shall Not Be Moved,” add or change other elements to reimagine the song in your own way. For example, alter the rhythms, embellish the melody, add a spoken word section, use a different language in your lyrics, or change the dynamics and tempo.

Evolution of a Freedom Song

The origins of “We Shall Not Be Moved” are largely unknown. Like many freedom songs, it is believed to have begun as a spiritual during the era of American slavery, with the lyrics “I shall not be moved,” detailing the singer’s determination to stay strong in their faith to God. Over time, the lyrics have evolved to represent various causes and movements around the world.

  • In the 1930s, the song became “We Shall Not Be Moved” and was sung by union workers as an anthem of the labor movement. Lyrics were added to represent each union organization and to demand better working conditions.
  • During the Civil Rights Movement, verses were adjusted to reflect racial unity.
  • The song was translated and adapted into Spanish language anthems by the United Farm Workers during the Chicano Movement, and again in Chile during the 1973 military coup.

This timeless song is likely to be sung and adapted for years to come, giving voice to activists and uniting people around shared goals and dreams.

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