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An occasional blog - at least making a first entry to demonstrate a blog

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Alistair S
 

This is something I wrote a while ago and it appears elsewhere on the site (but it's pinned, which means it is invisible to the average human). If you are reading this I appreciate that you must be bored out of your skull and searching for something anything to fill the soulless void of your existence so I do hope that it at least entertains a little - or maybe acts as an emollient while you wait for your wife/husband to finish doing whatever the fuck they need to do when it's time to go out and do something a little more interesting than the mundane routine that we all fall into eventually...

 

Here goes ...

...

So, you’ve listened to songs for a long time now and you’ve decided to write lyrics of your own. It doesn’t look hard. Hell, it can’t be hard – just look at some of the stuff that gets recorded!

What’s more, you are a damaged individual. It may be that you had a bad childhood, you were excluded at school, your marriage failed, you can’t get laid, you had problems with substance abuse, and any or all of myriad reasons that people decide to write songs - choosing that path from all the other masochistic pastimes they could choose.

 

You see, what that dreadful former life made you was ... a keen observer. You are a walking empath. You can see the big picture and the tiny details of people’s lives. You don’t judge – oh, no! You bear witness to the fumbling, daily slapstick and you can relay truths about life and the pitiful vanities of our existence with good humour, wit and kindness, lending insight and wisdom that helps us to laugh at ourselves and love one another just a little more than we otherwise would. You are a latter-day saint and a poet and a warrior, all rolled into one (yes, women can be warriors too).

 

But, more than that, it made you want them to understand you. Admire you. Whatever. They have to think you are pretty goddamn cool. That’s fo’ sho’.

 

So you write. And you find that it’s not so easy to do all that. In fact, it’s hard to do all that - in 3 minutes, especially.

 

And people aren’t quite as bowled over by your genius as you expected. And, because you are a damaged individual (hell, we all are), you don’t like that one ... little ... bit.

 

Help is at hand.

 

Here’s a handy list of the 10 things you do wrong when you write a lyric. I’m guilty of all of them (sometimes in the same lyric! I'm that talented).

 

There are more, but 10 is a catchy number ! Which is why I wrote 11. I despise “catchy”.

 

1. You use the wrong pronoun

You visualise who is talking to who in the song itself - and you also take into account the fact that, when the song is sung, there is a singer talking to an audience. Go, you!

 

However, if you paid too much attention to the latter, you still got it wrong. “I said this and she said that” can sound like a whine or a rant (see point 7, below). It also doesn’t really help the audience to connect. If it was simply “you said that”, it would work so much better and be more immediate.

 

Wait. You went for third person.

 

Third person can work for stories (but the story HAS to be interesting,and yours wasn't - not really). In all other circumstances, you need a good reason to move away from 1st and/or second person.

Mind you, 1st person can get you into trouble with point 7, too.

 

But let’s talk about that later. The point is, you chose the wrong pronoun(s).

 

2. You use the wrong tense

Past tense, in particular, is boring.

 

Some parts of the song can be in the past tense but it needs to be made relevant to the present and, ideally, we would have a time progression that would lead at least to the present and, possibly, into the future.

 

Stories can be past tense – but are they REALLY interesting? If not, don’t bother singing them to me. What if they were related to the present, at least in the bridge?

 

It would be slightly less boring, at least.

 

Or you could make the story funny. That works in whatever tense.

 

3. You lose rhythm by cramming words in

If you don’t understand meter, maybe this thread will help (but read it later. I'm talking.).

 

Even if you do understand it, aren’t there times when you try and cram in two syllables where only one fits?

 

People will say it’s OK. Singers will even cram it in for you. Friends will say it sounds OK.

 

Songwriters will say nothing, and simply be glad they weren’t that guy. Do you want to be that guy?

 

4. You don’t change rhythm between sections

You have a great rhythm running through the song. Still running. Getting bored with it now. Where’s the chorus? Oh! We had it already and I didn't even notice! It had the same rhythm. Please give me a bridge. And change the damned rhythm!

 

Words make rhythms. Words can force a change in rhythm. If the words don’t do it, the musician (maybe you) has to be much more innovative in changing rhythm and/or melody than he/she would otherwise need to be. Think of the musicians :)

 

5. You don’t grab attention early enough

Your lyric has a killer line (or twist or idea or something). The trouble is that it’s in the third verse or the bridge.

 

People won’t listen that long. It’s like a joke that needs over a minute to explain before it can be told. The listener turns off.

 

You have maybe 30 seconds to grab some sort of attention – give a surprising line or an idea that draws attention. It needs to be in the first fifteen seconds of singing.

 

You then have another short space of time before you need another – and it’s not long.

 

6. You forgot to write the first verse

The listener doesn’t know who these people are. You do. So you wrote the meat of the song assuming they did too. You started with the second verse. We often write the second verse first. It needs a first verse to set up things and invite the listener in. It’s your introduction, if you like.

 

And see point 5.

 

7. You are preaching (or venting or whining) - and you aren’t being funny about it

I don’t want to be preached at, whined at, or vented at – unless you make me laugh. I bet you don't want that either, do you? No!

 

So don’t write songs that whine, preach or vent. Simple. Unless they make us laugh.

 

I mentioned something in the part about using the wrong pronoun about using 1st person. A lot of songs written in the first person can be whiny, venting or preachy if we aren’t careful.

 

So are a lot of songs about “them”, “They did this, they did that ... they are bad”.

 

It’s a delicate line to tread. A confessional song can work but it has to show the singer as insightful and sensitive – not as a bad person, or a whiner.

 

A song has to make the singer look good. See point 11, below. So, be careful.

 

8. You included details – but you included the wrong details

So, you know you need details (it said so in a book) and so you put them into your song.

 

What colour is the sun? What about the grass? Let’s say “golden” and “emerald” because “yellow” and “green” sounds boring, right?

 

Wrong. The colour is boring, period. It adds nothing to how I feel about what’s happening. In fact, adjectives should be used sparingly. Just find better words, damn you. English has so many of them - for a reason. Mind you, only use words when you know what they mean. Dictionaries help.

 

Details are what bring a picture to life or, better still, an emotion to life. They aren’t what’s in the picture. They are the parts that show how we feel about the picture.

 

They are metaphors for feelings – or they are nothing. They can be sounds, smells or objects or textures. Or they can be one of those that prompt others.

 

“Car wheels on a gravel road”. I can hear them. Now, what do they make me feel?

 

9. You use too many words

What it says above. Trim them. ‘Nuff said.

 

10. Your rhymes lack reason

You paint yourself into a corner with a rhyme scheme and now you have to find a rhyme for “Drove me in his truck”. You don’t want to use the obvious rhyme so you decide to rhyme with “luck” instead. And you contort things a bit and get a line that kind of half-works and then you convince yourself that it’s fine.

 

There is always that one line you aren’t satisfied with in a song, isn’t there? Maybe more than one?

 

Why not just change the word "truck"? Or the whole verse? Or the whole song? You made the corner you are painted into. You can un-paint it.

 

And never (never!) start turning sentences around into "yoda-speak" to get a rhyme. It's just crap.

 

11. You don’t write for women

All songs are written for women. Even songs that are written for male singers are written for women. They are written so that the singer can look good to women. Don’t believe me? Fair enough. But don’t say I never told you.

 

The only exception is that small demographic of teenagers (of all ages) who wear black T-shirts and listen to doom-laden heavy metal genres in their bedrooms at full volume. Guess what? You can’t write songs for them anyway. They are either writing their own or they can’t hear you over the screaming of Megablood Death Spasm (or whoever they are listening too). If they do show any interest it is only because they want you to give some attention to their own written-down angst stuff (i.e. lyrics, but not as we know them, Jim).

 

So, leaving them aside (it’s for the best, trust me) – all songs are written for women.

 

So write songs for women.

 

If you don’t know how to do that, ask one (preferably not your mother). If you are one, ask yourself what you want to hear when you are stressed out. If you don't know any women, buy a black T-shirt.

 

I hate rules. Are these rules? Not at all. Songs can work perfectly well without them – but they are less likely to do so outside of a particular setting.

 

That setting might be a late evening after a few drinks. It might be in front of a group of friends or family. Whatever the setting, it will be in a situation where the song fits the environment or suits the mood the listener is in – but only at that moment, in that place. Only there.

 

But ... but ... don’t the songs you love have the power to change the environment? Don’t they change your mood when you hear them?

 

Yes, they do. But they don’t do that by accident, and most listeners aren’t too forgiving. Give them an excuse not to listen and they will take it. A flighty, fickle fiend is what an average listener is. Including us.

 

This list could also be headed “10 excuses a listener can use to stop listening”. Except there are 11 of them!

 

Sue me.

Alistair S

Meter Matters!

I think we can all agree that a song is meant to be a marriage between words and music. Some marriages work better than others for all kinds of reasons.

There are emotional resonances between the music and the words, for example. Some songs are very strong in terms of the music and weaker lyrically and some work the other way round.

 

I don’t plan on talking about every aspect of putting words to music (or music to words) in this post. I just want to talk about rhythm.

 

Does meter matter?

 

I say it does, but I want to try and say why – because I see lyricists often claim that the music can somehow cater for poor meter. I think it can sometimes appear that way if the lyricist doesn’t understand what is happening musically.

 

This will probably be a long post and may sound over-analytical at times. However, many people do all of this intuitively. It only becomes necessary to go into this level of detail in order to explain it. However, if you don’t do it intuitively, it needs to be understood.

 

This is especially important if you don’t write your own music (or if you have a problem writing lyrics for your music).

 

Some of what I say may be controversial (but I hope not). Others may want to chip in and explain if I get things wrong, particularly on the music side.

I wrote this fairly quickly this evening, so may need to edit it as time goes by. 

 

1. Language has a natural rhythm

 

When we speak, there is a natural rhythm in every sentence that comes out of our mouths. This comes about in two ways. The first is that we stress certain syllables in each word. Take the word “syllable”. We stress the “Syll”, so it becomes “SYLLable”.

 

“There is a house in New Orleans” = “There IS a HOUSE in NEW OrLEANS”. Imagine clapping on each stressed syllable. You would have 4 hand-claps in that phrase and there would be a rhythm.

 

The second way we provide rhythm is by varying the speed. We pause. We run words together. We draw out syllables.

 

It’s kind of musical, isn’t it? Music has rhythm and pacing (via note lengths and pauses).

 

2. Songs are a form of communication and words should sound natural when sung

 

I don’t think this is controversial. I don’t mean that every word has to be conversational (that’s a different argument). I simply mean that we shouldn’t be stressing syllables that shouldn’t be stressed - we want to pronounce words properly. Sometimes people don't do that in songs – and it normally sounds bad (and it happens because of bad meter).

 

Let’s take “Yesterday” as an example of how to do it right - then screw it up!

 

The second verse starts with:

 

Suddenly,

I ‘m not half the man I used to be

 

Sing it – in your head.

 

Now, using the same melody, sing this:

 

Bill and me,

Watched the movie Catastrophe Three

 

Tricky, isn’t it? Without a lot of messing around, the word “catastrophe” sounds all wrong.

 

We don’t want to put singers in that position … do we?

 

3. Music has a determined rhythm

 

Any piece of music has a determined rhythm – it has a time signature.

 

A piece of music in 4/4 (common time), for example, has 4 beats to a bar. However, these beats are not equal. The first beat is known as the down-beat and is the strongest. The third beat is not quite as strong, but is stronger than beats 2 and 4.

 

BOM – bom – Da – bom

 

A piece of music in 3/4 time (waltz time) will have 3 beats to a bar and will sound like “ONE two three, ONE two three” – with the heaviest beat on the “ONE”.

6/8 is like two 3/4 bars tied into one and will have the heaviest beats on the first and fourth beats.

 

A song may contain multiple time signatures but, if they do, they change in a structured way that follows musical patterns.

 

4. The time signature lends itself to certain places for the stresses

 

Think back to when we clapped hands to “There IS a HOUSE in NEW OrLEANS”. The ideal place to position our stresses is on the heaviest beats. That is what is done in the song.

 

Here’s the sheet music:

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Notice where the stresses fall in relation to the bar. In this version, it is in 4/4. There are other versions of the song out there in 2/4, 3/4 and 6/8 but the same rule applies in each one.

 

5. A song is a series of patterns

 

If just writing lyrics and one has no musical background, that can be hard to think about. The good news is that you probably don’t need to – as long as you maintain and replicate patterns properly.

 

A song can be seen as a series of repeating patterns. The most obvious patterns are the patterns for a verse or a chorus.

 

The chorus will be the same in both words and music (usually). So, the chorus should look after itself. Write it once and repeat it and the same music will work every time.

 

The verses must also follow the same pattern as each other because they will be set to the same music as each other.

 

When we write our first verse, we set a template for every other verse to follow.

 

Let’s look at “Yesterday” again.

 

V1.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.

Now it looks as though they're here to stay.

Oh, I believe in yesterday.

 

V2

Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be,

There's a shadow hanging over me,

Oh, yesterday came suddenly.

 

Line 1 in each verse matches. Line 2 in each verse matches. Line 3 in each verse matches. How do they match? The stresses appear in the same place!

 

That’s an important point. Counting syllables is useless. Count stresses.

 

Yes, line 1 in each verse has 12 syllables, line 2 has 9 syllables in each verse and line 3 has 8 syllables in each verse. Often that will be the case.

 

However … it is the stresses that matter and they need to match.

 

6. The stresses in a pattern must match whenever that pattern is repeated

 

Remember the “catastrophe” version? “Bill and me watched the movie Catastrophe Three” also has 12 syllables – but it doesn’t work. The stresses have to match or the singer will have a problem.

 

So, stress-matching is extremely helpful, musically – and can be a major problem if attention isn’t paid to it.

 

It’s not just the verse, either. There can be patterns inside verses where rhythms are repeated and there can be pre-choruses and so on. The important thing is the matching of stresses when a pattern is repeated. This is so that the singer can sing the words as they should be pronounced naturally, without undue difficulty, every time the pattern is repeated.

 

7. Phrasing can alter things to a degree

 

Ah, but what about phrasing? Throw in a pause here or there and things can be made to work, surely?

 

Well, to a degree.

 

For example, a lyrical line will often not be sung beginning on beat 1. If you look at the sheet music for The House of The Rising Sun, the line “There is a house in New Orleans” doesn’t start on the first beat. There is an unstressed syllable there before the first, stressed syllable (“IS”) – it’s called anacrusis and is sometimes used in poetry too.

 

Sometimes, the first stressed syllable is sung just before the downbeat. In these cases, it usually starts in beat 4 and is a tied note leading into the next bar. It serves to emphasise that syllable even stronger.

 

Equally, sometimes a line may start on the second (or even third) beat. That slight delay can introduce a degree of uncertainty to the delivery. Ideally, this will be deliberately designed by the lyricist because that uncertainty (or ennui or whatever) is desirable for prosody. It’s used in “Yesterday”, in fact.

 

Note that stresses still fall in the "right" places.

 

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You could also shorten lines and let the music play without words. You’d normally do this for a specific effect, I would suggest. What you can’t do is squeeze in extra words (except for comic effect). Actually, this isn't an absolute truth, but care must be taken.

 

In extremis, a singer may be able to introduce a slight pause, mid-line and get back on track. It’s not ideal unless, again, it is deliberate – because, for example, it follows the natural pace of what is being said (a natural hesitation).

 

While I have focused on stresses, I did mention pacing in point 1 as well. It is also helpful to the singer to try and replicate pacing whenever patterns are repeated.

 

8. To summarise

 

Meter matters!

 

Replicating the patterns of stresses (and, to a lesser degree, pacing) is hugely helpful when putting music to words. Music is maths to a large degree and this discipline makes life much easier. I am of the opinion that it is the lyricist’s JOB to do that.

 

The great thing is, if you don’t write music, your lyrics will contain a noticeable rhythm if you pay attention to this stuff. They will read musically and be more likely to attract collaborators, if that is what you want.

 

Yes, some flexing is possible. However, it should only ever be deliberate and NOT because the lyricist wanted to get another word in or couldn’t think of a way around matching the pattern.

 

It should be done knowing and designing the musical delivery and should not leave a problem to be solved during musical composition.

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