Music nerds, poetry fans, and churchgoing lovers of hymns are all familiar with the common measure. A full appreciation of common measure requires some knowledge of poetic theory, but it’s totally worthwhile to know. Also called common meter, hymnal stanza, or ballad meter, common measure refers to a poem or song lyric that alternates between “iambic tetrameter” and “iambic trimeter.” Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? It’s simpler than it may seem, and is valuable information to boot. Knowing a bit about common measure is important if you want to understand why lyrics to vastly different songs can be sung interchangeably. If this dunderhead can do it, surely you can too!
The Gilligan’s Island theme and Amazing Grace may be the most famous example of interchangeable common measure lyrics. But there are plenty more. Knowing which song lyrics can be swapped out can make you riotous fun at parties, and help you look even smarter than you are. Interchangeable song lyrics are crazy fun to sing — just ask any kid, musician, drunk person, or Sunday school teacher. They do it all the time. It even works for songs you probably thought were boring. Greensleeves and What Child is This are practically the same song!
It doesn’t take much research to find scores (pun intended) of lyrics that can be sung interchangeably with other popular common measure tunes.
Here’s a wee list:
O Little Town of Bethlehem and House of the Rising Sun
I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and America the Beautiful
Yellow Rose of Texas and The Ballad of Jed Clampett (Beverly Hillbillies theme)
Pokemon theme song and Rains of Castamere (from Game of Thrones)
Casey at the Bat and Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could not Stop for Death
Yankee Doodle and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Australia’s National Anthem and Irish Drinking Song — though I wouldn’t recommend mentioning that to your Aussie friends — or your Irish friends for that matter! You don’t want to start some sort of intercontinental brawl.
Why does common measure work this way? Because of the commonality of alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. An “iamb” is also referred to as a musical foot, which is made up of an unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter has been a popular combination for hundreds of years, maybe thousands — hence the term common measure.
When you say the lyrics out loud — they sound as poetic as they are. That’s because of how our friend, the iamb, is handled within the overall rhyme scheme. The typical rhyme scheme in the common measure is either a-b-a-b or a-b-c-b. An iambic trimeter has three iambs per line, and an iambic tetrameter has four. These two line types alternate in any common measure poem or song. In both cases each “foot” or iamb consists of an unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. This results in a familiar sounding rhythm that also allows lyrics to be swapped out ad infinitum. Cool, huh?