Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Writing Song Lyrics

"Whatever is too stupid to say can be sung."

    - Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

Introductory Lyric Writing:

     Humankind's first musical instrument was undoubtedly the drum.  When Paul Simon went to South America to record "The Rhythm of the Saints" (released in 1990) he was astounded to see Brazilian kids being able to drum for hours, still maintaining a regularity that computerized equipment could barely surpass.   Today, with forms like rap, we seem to have come full circle:  words and drums, nothing else.  As they say in the music industry:  "The beat's the boss." 

Tip #1:  Have your beats fall on important words:  the nouns and verbs that tell the gist of your story.

     As a budding songwriter you want your tunes to be "singable".¹  You want people belting them out in the shower or humming them absent-mindedly as they play their computer games.  You want music directors, agents and producers to think of your pieces as earworms.  You want people to stop hitting their radio buttons when they come across your work.  Next to melody and beat, the most important aspect of your composition is the lyrics--not their meaning, mind you;  just the sounds of the words themselves.  In short, you want your music to be catchy and your words to be memorable. 

Leonard Cohen
And who will write love songs for you
when I am lord at last
and your body is a little highway shrine
that all my priests have passed?

    - "Priests" by Leonard Cohen, describing having one's songs played on car radios

     In this post you will find advice on how to write effective lyrics.  Don't sweat the nomenclature;  you just need to understand a few basic concepts.

     The two things that will make your words unforgettable are repetitions of sounds and rhythms.  You're already familiar with rhymes at the ends of lines.  In song, these don't have to be anywhere near exact, like "mask" and cask".  Virtually anything with the same vowel sounds will do.

Bob Dylan
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?

      - "Blowin' in the wind" by Bob Dylan

     In addition to rhymes, it is a good idea to repeat other sounds within the lines, especially in words/syllables that will be underscored by beats.  These "reps" are called:

1.  alliteration if they come at the beginning of stressed syllables;  if elsewhere,

2.  assonance if they involve vowels;  or,

3.  consonance if they involve consonant sounds.

     Your chorus is, essentially, one huge mega-rep used to burrow into unsuspecting brains.  

     Clearly, singing takes more time than speaking.  This, itself, helps underline your words, just as over-enunciating them slowly would (e.g. "READ...MY...LIPS...").  A sonnet takes about 65 seconds to recite but Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII, performed by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, can take more than twice that long (2:56 minutes, in this case):


    While we're talking about Pink Floyd, consider these two lines from "Comfortably Numb":

Pink Floyd's David Gilmour

have become comfortably numb

    How can one word--one syllable, even!--be an entire line?  By having the performer sustain it for more than one beat.  This adds drama, poignancy and, above all, time to the performance.  Note that this elongation almost always involves vowel sounds, and usually long ones:  "pay", "paw", "pea", "pie", "Poe", "Pooh", or "pew" as opposed to "pen", "pin", or "pun", with "pan" lying somewhere in between.  Remember this when you are writing the last--the rhyming--word of your line.  Singers love to milk these!

Accentual versus Accentual-Syllabic:

    Most lines or songs are syllabic:  one note per syllable.  Take, for example, that second line from "Comfortably Numb":

have become comfortably numb 
DUM  de DUM DUM de dede DUM

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #82
    The music and singing both have a set number of beats--four, in this case--per line without regard to the number of other syllables between them.  Beyond that, there doesn't seem to be much of a pattern going on.

     Nevertheless, this "accentual" approach is how most English poetry was fashioned a thousand years ago;  to this day, it is still very common in English lyrics.

     More recent practice has shown that, if we put the same number of other syllables between each beat, we increase the song's singability.  These form units called "feet" which are either 2 or 3 syllables long, each featuring a beat.  That gives us five different possibilities, depending on where the beat lands within the 2- or 3-syllable foot:

1. First of two:  Trochaic (DUM-de): 

"Tommy | can you | hear me?"

   - Sound Repetitions:  "hear me"
   - Source:  "Tommy" by "The Who"

2. Second of two:  Iambic (de-DUM): 

"And we | will run | the rid|ges of | our green | land, Ten|nessee."

   - Reps:  "run" - "ridges", "green land Tennessee"
   - Source:  "Run the Ridges" as sung by the Kingston Trio

3. First of three:  Dactylic  (DUM-de-de):

"Raindrops on | roses and | whiskers on | kittens"

   - Reps:  "Raindrops" - "roses",  "whiskers" - kittens
   - Source:  "My Favorite Things"² by Rodgers and Hammerstein

4. Second of three:  Amphibrachic  (de-DUM-de):

   "It's four in | the morning | the end of | December"

   - Reps:  "four" - "morning", "morning" - "end" - "December"
   - Source:  "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen

5. Third of three:  Anapestic  (de-de-DUM):

"We crossed ov|er the bord|er the hour | before dawn."

   - Reps:  crossed, over, border, hour, before
   - Source:  "Roads to Moscow" by Al Stewart

     It would help if you were to learn the basics of scansion (roughly:  rhythmic writing) but, for now, let's simplify:

Tip #2:  Keep either one other syllable between each beat or two other syllables between each beat.

     Note that what is considered a stressed syllable in poetry is not the same as in song, where, again, "the beat's the boss."  For example, if you were speaking, this sentence would be pronounced thus:

"And we will run the rid|ges of our green | land, Ten|nessee."

     ...as opposed to the song where, because of the beat, every second syllable is accented:  "of" is promoted to a stress while "land" is demoted to an unaccented word.

"And we | will run | the rid|ges of | our green | land, Ten|nessee."

Sonic Tempo:

     Earlier we mentioned how some vowel sounds are slow (e.g. "pay", "pew") while others are fast (e.g. "pin", "pen").  The same is true of consonant sounds:  "sh" and "j" take much longer than "p" or "t".  For example, compared to "pit", the word "josh" takes forever and a day to say.  To avoid unbalancing your line, then, try to distribute both types of sounds/words evenly within your lines.³

Tip #3:

Do not crowd a bunch of slow sounds into one spot and faster ones elsewhere.

Tip #4:  Better to have one syllable too few than one too many.

     Cramming too many syllables into too few beats can lead to people mishearing your lyrics, as in this famous case of eleven jammed around three:

tell them a hookah-smoking caterpillar

Tip #5:  As in life, if you're going to mess up, do so earlier, not later.

     Here is an example of a great lyricist going wrong:

     Note that sqeezing three syllables before and between beats works okay near the beginning of the line:

And¹ when² you³ rise and listen¹ to² the³ song again

     ...but it fails miserably here, at the end of a line:

there are wings on the raven¹ on² the³ wind

     Much better would have been:

there are wings on the raven wind

In Conclusion:

     I understand that country folk may not be your genre of choice but, on the subject of singability, study the earlier efforts of the master:  John Prine.

     Note that we said your lyrics should be "memorable" or, ideally, "unforgettable".  We didn't mention "discernible" or "intelligible".  Remember the scene from "27 Dresses" where Jane and Kevin butcher the lyrics to Elton John's "Benny and the Jets"?  This reinforces the point that lyrics are about sound, not meaning.

     Songs are about what the audience hears, not what the singer says.


¹ - For what it's worth, there is a natural tendency among successful songwriters to write less singable, more complex tunes later on in their careers.

² - Technically, this lyric can be scanned as dactylic, amphibrachic or anapestic.

³ - Some of us geeks believe the same is true in metrical poetry, saying that "all verse is quantitative."  Should all lines of English language poetry take the same time to recite?  That debate rages on.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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