Recently I challenged myself to set a piece of religious text to music for SATB. However, I encountered timing issues caused by irregular numbers of syllables in verses, and when to break off phrases.

In the following hymn it is easy since it has 8 syllables per line and can therefore be written in a regular 4/4 time signature:

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel

But what about for irregular hymns or verses? Can I change the time signature midway through the piece? How would I determine the best time signature?

Edit: in the example shown above there's a regular distribution of syllables per line, and the phrasing is obvious since there are rhyming couplets. But what about a format of:

Line 1 (x syllables),

Line 2 (y syllables),

Line 3 (z syllables) ;

etc. It is more difficult since naturally we group phrases in 2 lines which would render the transition from line 2 to 3 awkward

4 Answers 4


I think you are making a simplistic assumption that your melody will be a string of equal notes, one per syllable. Like the first example below. Some hymn tunes do plod along like that, and if the harmonies are interesting they're none the worse for it! But if you aren't Bach (or emulating plainchant) you may want to vary the rhythms a bit. Like the second example (which actually has varied phrase lengths, if not bar lengths. This won't upset a congregation too much though.)

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The syllables in a verse don't all have to be sung to notes of the same length! So if you had, say, lines of 8 and 7 syllables, you could set one of the 7 to a note as long as two syllables elsewhere would need.


What is your aim in writing the piece? Is it for a choir or for a congregation to sing? Most performing groups can handle time signature changes anywhere in a piece. The difficulty would vary depending on how many times you change time signature and if any of those time signature changes are particularly complicated.

Congregational singing requires a more standard and predictable approach in order to keep everyone together. Some hymns have time signature changes, but they are usually at the end of the phrase. (Be Thou My Vision, for example.)

You can also make adjustments by putting in a rest or two at the beginning of a phrase, or by holding certain words or syllables shorter or longer to make the music pattern more similar between phrases.

In my experience, congregations find irregularly phrased hymns difficult to sing (for example, Of the Father's Love Begotten)

  • It would be for an SATB choir
    – S.L
    Sep 23, 2018 at 17:06
  • @ShawnLi, in that case I would suggest that you can put musical and textual consideration on an equal level and do what you feel is artistically best, without worrying about time signature changes.
    – Heather S.
    Sep 23, 2018 at 17:11

1)Try to maintain the same time signature through out every verse, you can change time signature for chorus and bridge however maintain that for entire chorus/bridge.

2)You can change the time signature in the middle of the piece as it fits to the flow.

3)To fit each line into a phrase, maintain a consistent time signature and reduce/add syllables as needed, Example) add articles like a,the,an,one so you will have a consistent feel on each line. like words "and" , "here" in your example. Similarly remove some syllables like "ing,a,shall", reword the phrase to maintain the same meaning of original text with different words.

4) Prolong few syllables for more than one note/pitch(melisma)

5) Try some music tools to compose the music first and then apply words, Check Music Tool Kit android app

Music Tool Kit

  • I do not know why this answer got a negative vote. It is perfectly fine. The strategy may not be useful to everyone, but there is nothing wrong with it to deserve a negative vote. I am up-voting to get rid of that.
    – Heather S.
    Sep 25, 2018 at 10:02

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