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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] The earliest known examples of this procedure (sometimes referred to as ''adaptation'') date back to the 9th century used in connection with Gregorian chant.[2]


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

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. Examples include:

  • 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.[3]
  • Monteverdi's "Quel augellin che canta" (4th madrigal book), was transformed into "Qui laudes tuas cantat", using the sacred poem texts by Aquilino Coppini.[4]
  • 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. Examples include:


Intentional parodies of lyrics, especially for satirical purposes. Examples include;

Writers of contrafacta and parody tried to emulate an earlier song's poetic metre, rhyme scheme, and musical metre. They went further by also establishing a close connection to the model's words and ideas and adapting them to a new purpose, whether humorous or serious.[5]


The Australian music quiz show, Spicks and Specks has a game called Substitute, in which players have to identify a popular-music song from someone singing completely unrelated words, such as from a book about knitting, to the tune of that song.


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,[8] the 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. ^ Falck, Robert; Picker, Martin (2001). "Contrafactum (from medieval Lat. contrafacere: 'to imitate', 'counterfeit', 'forge')". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.06361. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0.
  2. ^ Rootes, Larry (Spring 2001). "Hymnody: A Development of the Middle Ages". Sacred Music. Richmond. 128 (1). ProQuest 1202734.
  3. ^ "Tunes by name". Cyberhymnal. Archived from the original on 2012-03-18. Retrieved 2008-06-04.
  4. ^ Rorke, Margaret Ann (1984). "Sacred Contrafacta of Monteverdi Madrigals and Cardinal Borromeo's Milan". Music & Letters. 65 (2): 168–175. doi:10.1093/ml/65.2.168. JSTOR 736980.
  5. ^ Lohman, Laura (22 November 2020). "'More Truth than Poetry': Parody and Intertextuality in Early American Political Song". MUSICultures. 47: 34–62. ProQuest 2481240065.
  6. ^ Schachter, Michael (2013). "'Autumn Leaves': Intricacies of Style in Keith Jarrett's Approach to the Jazz Standard". Indiana Theory Review. 31 (1–2): 115–167. JSTOR 10.2979/inditheorevi.31.1-2.0115. Project MUSE 669644.
  7. ^ Florimond van Duyse, "Het oude Nederlandsche lied. Tweede deel", Martinus Nijhoff / De Nederlandsche Boekhandel, The Hague/Antwerp, 1905[verification needed]
  8. ^ As American as tarte aux pommes! Celebrating the Fourth with some American Music