A lesser-known musical term, contrafactum, refers to a song in which the melody is similar or even identical to another song yet contains different lyrics. One of the most popular examples of contrafacta are “What Child is This” and “Greensleeves.” While the lyrics convey very different meanings, the melody remains the same for both.
There are several reasons for why a composer would choose to repeat one melody across two different pieces. Often times, the composer has chosen to reuse the melody from another piece because it brings together the beginning and end of a show. For example, “Come to Me,” also known as “Fantine’s Death,” is sung in the first act of ‘Les Miserables.’ “On My Own,” the contrafactum of “Come to Me,” is performed during the second act of the show.
Another popular Broadway show containing contrafacta is ‘The Music Man’. For this show, Meredith Willson used similar melody lines in “Goodnight, My Someone” and the show’s signature tune “76 Trombones.” Even though they are performed in succession, it is not obvious that “Goodnight, My Someone” is a contrafactum as it is played at a much slower tempo in ¾ time.
The current musicnotes.com FREE download of the month, “To Anacreon in Heaven” is a contrafactum. John Stafford Smith created the beautiful melody that Fancis Scott Key penned the infamous “Star-Spangled Banner” to years later. Be sure to head to musicnotes.com now to download your free contrafactum before the month is over!