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IMG_1104I thought it might be interesting to consider writing lyrics for songs today. Song writing has always fascinated me, but truth be told I’ve never written even one and don’t really know the first thing about it. So I decided to try to teach myself and all of us a little by investigating. If you are already a songwriter, please comment and add to anything I write here. I am in “learning mode”.  To write this article I read many articles and will share the meat of a few with you and give you the links to explore further.

Apparently one may begin by writing a song and then writing the lyrics, or by writing the lyrics and filling them in with a song. Some songwriters do both. I’m not going into detail on the chord structure and music side of this. Obviously the two most common instruments to compose on have been the guitar or the piano and the approach is probably different with each. As we are primarily poets, I was interested in the ways poetry was like and different from songwriting.

The word lyric comes from lyre and lyrics were sung early on in Greece in much the same way we use them today – from patriotic hymns to national anthems to sports anthems to love songs.  From what I’ve read they were popular then as they are now.

Pat Pattison who wrote the book Writing Better Lyrics gave an interview to Reader’s Digest. The interviewer was not named. (Read the complete interview here.) I will quote most of it as it addresses exactly what I wanted to know myself..

“Songs are your best teachers. I try to learn something from every song I hear. I try to see what’s working, and why – where the song connects with me – where it makes me feel something. Then I look under the hood to see how it was put together, to extract tools that I can pass on to my students. I’ve learned a lot since I published WBL, and I’ve tried to pass those new ideas along in this edition.

“Since the invention of the printing press, poetry is delivered mainly to the eye. Lyrics are delivered mainly to the ear. Many consequences follow from this:

1)Poets can depend on the reader’s being able to stop and go back, even to look up words while reading the poem. A lyricist can’t.

2) Since the end of a line in poetry is a visual cue, a poet can end a line, yet let the content continue on to the next line, creating tension, but not confusion. The end of a lyric line has a sonic cue—the end of a melodic phrase. Because the song is aimed at the ear, when a lyricist tries to carry a thought into the next melodic phrase, it usually creates confusion, since there is a disconnect between the melodic roadmap and grammatical structure.

3)  Because a lyric is a sonic event (directed to the ear), rhyme is important, since it provides a roadmap for the ear; showing relationships between lines, creating forward motion, creating either stability or instability in sections, and telling the ear where sections end.

Though rhyme is common in poetry it is less important, since the reader can see where a section ends. Even when poems rhyme, they don’t necessarily announce a phrase’s end or a section’s end:

Note that with the recent trend toward the performance of poetry in slams and rap, both directed more to the ear than the eye, rhyme becomes an important element, since both are directed to the ear rather than the eye.

4) The compositional strategies of the poet differ dramatically from the lyricist’s. The vast majority of poems, whether fixed form, blank verse, or free verse, are linear journeys, moving from idea to idea, line to line, until the end. Except in rare cases, such as the rondel, poetry’s compositional strategy does not use repetition of content. Older ballade poetry sometimes uses repetition, but note that it was performed, and directed to the ear rather than the eye.

5)Lyrics depend heavily on repeated content, usually refrains or choruses. The development of ideas must take account of the repeated sections, and in the ideal case, transform or deepen the meaning of that same content each time we hear it.

6)  A lyricist has extremely limited space to work with. Normal commercial songs, lasting 2 ½ to 3 minutes, limit space dramatically. Not counting the repeated choruses or refrains, the average commercial song contains 12 –to 20 lines. Unless working in a fixed form (sonnet, terza rima, haiku etc), the poem can continue as long as it needs to.

7) Lyrics are far more dependent on regular rhythm than poems, since a lyric’s rhythm is joined to musical rhythm. The musical rhythm, because it can extend a syllable’s length or syncopate its rhythm, can transform what, if spoken, would be mind-numbingly regular, into an interesting journey.

Poetry must contain its own theme and variation, setting a rhythm and syncopating against it, as in the first two lines of Keats’ “Ode On a Grecian Urn:”

Thou still unravished bride of quietness – / – / – / – / – –
Thou foster child of silence and slow time – / – / – / – – / /

The first 4 feet of line 1 are strictly iambic. The last foot is pyrrhic, creating a dimunendo that supports “quietness.” The first three feet of line 2 are strictly iambic. The fourth foot is pyrrhic, supporting “silence,” while the final spondee slows the line down, reinforcing the slowness of time. Neat.

8). Because of Western Music’s love affair with 2, 4 and 8 bar phrases, the standard lines of lyric are usually tetrameter (4 strong stresses) and trimeter (3 strong stresses). The usual lyric section is built in common meter (Mary had a little lamb). The overwhelming majority of English poetry is written in 5-stress lines (on a foundation of iambic pentameter). The only lyric form consistently employing 5-stress lines is blues:

“There are many other differences, but this ought to suffice to quell the often heard claim, “Her lyrics are pure poetry.” No, they aren’t, though they are likely written in fresh, interesting language, using images and metaphor effectively. At least great poetry and great lyrics share that in common.

“The best writing advice I have received comes from three sources: Aristotle’s Poetics, where he says that every great work of art displays the same quality: Unity. Everything works together, everything in the work belongs and serves the purpose of the work. Aristotle’s may have been the first statement of Prosody: appropriate relationship between elements, whatever they may be: melody and words, chords and message, rhyme scheme and emotion, and many others. This has become the guiding principle in all my writing and teaching.

Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant lecture series at Harvard in 1973, “The Unanswered Question.” He shows the depth of the relationship between music and poetry, and how both use the same fundamental principles—true, indeed, for all the arts. They are all fundamentally the same, just having different avenues of expression. Painting is different than song, but at the deepest level, they all use the same principles: tension/resolution, symmetry/asymmetry, etc. This has allowed me to teach poetry to musicians, using a language they know and love to explain how poems work: counter-pointing, rhythm, syncopation; constructing tonic, subdominant or dominant functions at the ends of lines. They get it instantly, and it allows them to look at the other arts the same way.

“Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. A marvelous book, especially chapter three where he talks about poetic use of rhythm, and the emotional effects of various syncopations within a line of metered poetry. The relationship between lyric and melody works in the same way.

“The combined effect of the three works creates compelling reasons to have a huge toolbox to draw from, and to select and use these tools in support of the central idea of your song: its number of lines, lengths of lines, rhythm and phrasing of lines, rhyme scheme, and rhyme types. The structure you create acts as a film score would – adding additional emotion to the message, even controlling how the listener perceives it.

“Looking at writing through the eye-glasses of Prosody focuses everything. It keeps the message and emotion central, and organizes the elements of structure to support them. It works for writers and makes teaching writing immeasurably more effective.”


I’ve noticed today’s music doesn’t rhyme as much as it did back in the big pop days of the 30s to the 50s. Those were the days of tin pan alley and songs had a formula developed by brilliant song writers and song writing teams who were composing for broadway variety shows, burlesque and broadway shows. These have evolved over the years but here is a concise look at the way to write a tin pan alley hit in 32 bars.

Another good article on just how to write a song is at Wiki-How http://www.musicindustryhowto.com/how-to-write-a-song-for-beginners-a-step-by-step-guide-to-becoming-a-songwriter/

There were articles talking about Paul Simon with BIlly Collins, Stephen Sondheim, and the best is Bob Dylan’s The Song Talk which is linked here. I would have liked to have been at the discussion between Paul and Billy but this was simply a concise summation of what they talked about but not what they said. As I read all of these articles, I found that like poetry there is no particular way to do it. Write a song, then write the words – make it work: we have plenty of examples of that many of them clever, funny, heartfelt and enduring. Write the words, give it to a composer who is a performer and can sing – Bernie and Elton John. Write a book, write the songs – Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loew, George and Ira Gershwin. Write both: Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, and the brilliant Cole Porter.

I’m working on a tune and a lyric as a rank beginner. Feel free to post song and lyric or either on your blog. Good luck to all, and if you decide not to leave us a song, comment anyway. Thanks for coming by the pub today and those of you who wrote, link with Mr. Linky below.  Looking forward to your contributions!