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For example, in eighteen forty-nine, a religious leader from Massachusetts wrote the words to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

--VOA Learning English

Does the phrase mean there was already a song - melody - and he put his own lyrics to the song?

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    On a somewhat related note (no pun intended), songs which are religious and intended to be sung at church are usually referred to as hymns, and songs and hymns which are explicitly related to and sung near to Christmas are called [Christmas] Carols - so most English people would refer to It came upon a midnight clear as a carol rather than as a song. – Matt Dec 23 '13 at 0:48
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    It's uncanny how many hymns have tunes and lyrics that were not written by the same person. Quite often (sometimes decades later, even) the words to a poem are set to music, or an established tune is given new words. With the sentence you've given here, it's not clear from the context which is the case: it could go either way, and the sentence doesn't even rule out the possibility that this same person also wrote the tune. (That said, my hymnal tells me that the words were written by Sears, and the tune composed by Willis, who both lived in the 19th century.) – J.R. Dec 24 '13 at 11:08
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No. In English, the words to a song, are the lyrics of a song:

I know all of the words to We wish you a Merry Christmas off by heart!

Consequently the sentence means that a religious leader from Massachusetts wrote the lyrics of (the song) It came upon a midnight clear. It is not clear from the sentence whether he wrote those lyrics before the song (e.g. he wrote the words as a poem and they were later put to music), or if he wrote the lyrics to create a new song from an old tune, or if he wrote the lyrics for a new tune with the intent of combining them into an entirely novel song.

All that we can know from that sentence is that the song's lyrics were written by him, and that he wrote those words in 1849.

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    According to Wikipedia, Sears wrote the five-stanza poem in 1849, and it was set to music in 1850. So really it's OP's citation that's non-standard, not his (perfectly reasonable) interpretation. We wouldn't say, for example, Wordsworth wrote the words to "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" in 1804, any more than we would say Swift wrote the words to Gulliver's Travels in 1726. – FumbleFingers Dec 23 '13 at 2:44

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