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In vocal music, contrafactum (or contrafact, pl. contrafacta) is "the substitution of one text for another without substantial change to the music".[1]


Translations meant for singing are not usually intentional "substitution", examples of contrafacta that are wholesale substitution of a different text include the following types:

Poems set to music[edit]

An existing tune already possessing secular or sacred words is given a new poem, which often happens in hymns, and sometimes, more than one new set of words is created over time:

  • The words of What Child Is This? were fitted to the tune of the folksong "Greensleeves".
  • The Charles Wesley hymn text Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was fitted by William Hayman Cummings to a tune from Mendelssohn's Gutenberg cantata Festgesang
  • The hymn tune "Dix" has been given several sets of words, among them As with Gladness Men of Old and For the Beauty of the Earth.[2]
  • In Japan, the Scots song "Auld Lang Syne" (lit. "Long Time Ago", "Old Times") has a new set of words in the song "Hotaru no hikari" (lit. "The Light of the firefly"), and is used at graduation ceremonies. Another Western song, also reworked with different lyrics around the same period (late 19th century) and used at graduation ceremonies, sometimes confused with "Hotaru", is "Aogeba tōtoshi".


A lyricist might re-cast his/her own song (or someone else's song) with new lyrics, as in the case of Alan Jay Lerner with the number She Wasn't You / He Isn't You from the stage and film versions, respectively, of the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.


Intentional parodies (as opposed to mere translations) of lyrics, especially for satirical purposes, are practiced in the United States by "Weird Al" Yankovic with popular music; the humorist Tom Lehrer with his song "The Elements", which uses a tune from The Pirates of Penzance; Forbidden Broadway with musicals; the Capitol Steps; and Mark Russell (the last two involve political parody).


Other notable songs with significantly-different lyrics in different languages include the following:

Songs which have been re-written by the same writer with different lyrics include:

Contrafactum has been used in writing several national anthems, such as those of the United States,[4] United Kingdom, Russia and the Netherlands.

Legal issues[edit]

The above examples involve either music that is in the public domain or lyrics that are modified by the original lyricist, but an obvious consideration in producing a contrafactum of someone else's music in modern times is the copyright of the original music or lyrics upon which the contrafactum is based.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Faulk, Robert; Martin Picker. "Contrafactum". Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. Retrieved 2006-07-25.
  2. ^ "Tunes by name". Cyberhymnal. Archived from the original on 2012-03-18. Retrieved 2008-06-04.
  3. ^ Florimond van Duyse, "Het oude Nederlandsche lied. Tweede deel", Martinus Nijhoff / De Nederlandsche Boekhandel, The Hague/Antwerp, 1905
  4. ^ As American as tarte aux pommes! Celebrating the Fourth with some American Music