Jump to content
  • entries
    2
  • comments
    29
  • views
    263

Meter Matters!

Alistair S

468 views

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:

19425223.jpg

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.

 

3b823b2d41d9a3bdd451e10aed3acf7d.jpg

 

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.

  • Like 6


16 Comments


Recommended Comments

Excellent!  This should be an almost mandatory read before anyone’s first lyric post. 

Share this comment


Link to comment

Super helpful, Alistair. Hope many folks read it. I had to be schooled about this over and over again in my early attempts at lyric writing, which often neglected much of the wisdom you impart here.

 

I would argue that counting syllables isn't useless -- it's useless if that's ALL you do. You have to focus on the stresses as the priority but keep an eye on the syllables, too.

 

Especially for those of us who don't write music, it takes a lot of work to think about what the lyric will sound like SUNG. Getting the stresses right so that the language sounds natural, writing lines that make some sort of sense, rhyming (if you want your lyric to rhyme), and changing up the rhythms so that verses and chorus have some sonic variety -- it all requires thought and diligence. And a lot of the hardest work is done in the revising.

 

Thanks for posting this.

 

Doug

 

 

  • Like 2

Share this comment


Link to comment

I agree about counting stresses and being aware of syllable counts.  And Doug's point about the hardest work is done in the revising? Spot on!

 

I am not trained in musical theory, and it's hard for me to think in terms of bars and time signatures. I admire people who can do that. It's easier for me to think about these things in terms of maintaining a natural rhythm, and then doing the work to make sure everything matches where it should. 

 

Good blog!

 

Patty

 

Share this comment


Link to comment

Every once in a while I'll be learning a cover version of some song and think 'man, this lyric needed rewriting!' because the meter and prosody were so bad!

Share this comment


Link to comment

My opinion is that musicality for lyricists is most effectively developed through writing to a finished score - melody and changes complete.

 

And that the more one learns about the musical process, the better we lyricists can do our job.

 

"Music is maths to a large degree"

 

I doubt the truth of this widely shared observation and question the wisdom of its repetition without caveats. I have regularly heard folk deride the works of Bach, for example, because "it's all mathematical".  Yet that evaluation seems to me purely retrospective - like all theory.  Music can be made mathematically, I know, and it has been my pain to have listened to some of it.  12 tone series and stuff like that.  You set up a formula and follow it.  Modern, experimental, blah blah blah.  But it all sounds like crap to me.  Real music seems to me the product of a composer pursuing what sounds right to the ear.  And then afterwards other people come along and use a little maths to make sense of why it works the way it does.

 

I believe it's also very important and useful to get down with different scales and understand the different chords they generate.

 

Share this comment


Link to comment

While I understand what David (Hobo) says above, and find some of his songs quite good and imaginative, I would wholeheartedly disagree with the approach for myself and a majority of songwriters AND listeners.   Sure, there are aficionados who would appreciate that type of ever-changing style, much as in a freeform jazz instrumental, but I think the audience is limited and without the repetition (of verse melodies) most listeners would hear the song - but not hear it, and would not remember it the next day.

 

Of course, we, as songwriters can choose to write what we want, or what we think our listeners want, or some combination of the two.

Share this comment


Link to comment
On 12/14/2017 at 15:24, Lazz said:

...a composer pursuing what sounds right to the ear.  And then afterwards other people come along and use a little maths to make sense of why it works the way it does.

And presto - the definition of music theory. Or at least that's what it's supposed to be, imo. A think a lot of theorists or musicians studying theory forget that. They try to overlay formula on song as if that's the structure ipso facto, thinking it should be that way, instead of realizing/remembering that first people just wrote, and analysts later came and tried to codify what seemed to be working best. What's been working best (historically) = music theory. 

Share this comment


Link to comment

Great post Alistair!!!

 

Just to add to it, though it doesn't necessarily involve meter, but still goes with lyric writing, the really big challenge for those who only write lyrics and do not sing themselves (It's still a challenge if you sing but it helps), is to get the vowels correct and design them to suite a particular singer. For most people (singers) there are only a few vowels you can hit full voice in the above ranges, some words (vowels) sound great, many do not, and that varies from singer to singer, same goes for the lower notes. A great lyric has meter, phrasing and vowels that all sound natural and effortless. It's an art.

 

There's a couple of songs that I like and know of that's impossible for me to sing because the high note in the chorus has an "ee" sound (feet, free). If the note, mixed with the "ee" sound, is too high for me it just sounds awful or worse, my voice breaks when I go for it. That's something I think of when I write my songs. I know which words and vowels I can make sound good, and which I can't. And no matter how great the lyrics are for that song, this is something I can not simply brush off, in the end I still have to change it because otherwise I can not sing it the way it is intended.

 

The really great lyricists out there know this, and when you sing their songs you don't even think about it. Their lyrics are just a natural fit. It just flows. Still working on finding that natural fit and flow myself...one day perhaps.

 

:)

  • Like 2
  • Thanks 1

Share this comment


Link to comment

I think you do great! But I so agree on that "ee" sound! I've raised it with lyricists in the past but it's hard to get across until you have experienced it!

Share this comment


Link to comment
On 2/28/2018 at 12:05, The S said:

Great post Alistair!!!

 

Just to add to it, though it doesn't necessarily involve meter, but still goes with lyric writing, the really big challenge for those who only write lyrics and do not sing themselves (It's still a challenge if you sing but it helps), is to get the vowels correct and design them to suite a particular singer. For most people (singers) there are only a few vowels you can hit full voice in the above ranges, some words (vowels) sound great, many do not, and that varies from singer to singer, same goes for the lower notes. A great lyric has meter, phrasing and vowels that all sound natural and effortless. It's an art.

 

There's a couple of songs that I like and know of that's impossible for me to sing because the high note in the chorus has an "ee" sound (feet, free). If the note, mixed with the "ee" sound, is too high for me it just sounds awful or worse, my voice breaks when I go for it. That's something I think of when I write my songs. I know which words and vowels I can make sound good, and which I can't. And no matter how great the lyrics are for that song, this is something I can not simply brush off, in the end I still have to change it because otherwise I can not sing it the way it is intended.

 

The really great lyricists out there know this, and when you sing their songs you don't even think about it. Their lyrics are just a natural fit. It just flows. Still working on finding that natural fit and flow myself...one day perhaps.

 

:)

An interesting insight, The S, and thank you for sharing it. ;)  It reminded me that when I co-wrote an album of lyrics for a rock band in Italy 2-3 years ago, I was intrigued by the way the band's singer/co-lyricist was so focused on where he wanted vowel sounds placed. 

 

Up until now I've tried to ensure that certain vowel sounds are used to reflect the mood of a piece, or to allow for a smoother slide into a new line, but your post has brought another aspect to light. I'll try to bear it in mind. One more challenge. ;)

 

 

  • Like 1

Share this comment


Link to comment

I have really been wasting so much brainpower counting syllables on my fingers all this time. You are so right on that, why am I not counting stresses? I mean I like to think I do when putting pen to paper, but I know damn well I am always counting syllables.

 

Thanks. That alone is food for thought.

 

My mind is whirling at the moment, and it is funny you mentioned Yesterday. That song is famous for Paul having wrote it in a dream and when he first played it he sang "Bacon and Eggs".  I call it Bacon and Eggs writing, because that is how I write. I write music first and then find words, but in order to write the melody I just sing nonsense, sometimes not even words, just noises. The weird thing is so much of my stuff sounds better with the nonsense, as soon as I try to write words I tend to lose something. Is it the stresses? Am I too focussed on syllables? 

 

Maybe, something to think about.

 

Excellent post Alistair, really informative. Gonna have to start paying attention to these blogs now. Some great stuff here.

 

 

  • Like 1

Share this comment


Link to comment
5 hours ago, Murphster said:

...but in order to write the melody I just sing nonsense, sometimes not even words, just noises. The weird thing is so much of my stuff sounds better with the nonsense, as soon as I try to write words I tend to lose something. Is it the stresses? Am I too focussed on syllables? 

 

This is what it's all about Murphster, and we're all in the same boat and many if not most of us is doing it the exact way you're describing. What I do when it is time for lyrics is I sit down with my guitar, play whatever song I'm working on and just randomly sing whatever lines come up, I listen for useful phrases or whole sentences and write them down and pay much attention to where in the song I sang them and how. Then I know what sounds good and where in the song it sounds good. I do this for a long time and many times over. I collect. This way you'll get a lot of stuff that just sounds natural and flows.

 

After that you just have to sit down and try to figure out what the hell you're singing about!?! :P 

 

Nah, back to a more serious note, if you do this, you will have many useful phrases and/or whole sentences. Stuff you can use, or just change to words with the same stresses and whatnot. After that, you add meaning and context to your lyrics, try to fill in the blanks so to speak. It's like Dylan and Young say, in the end it's more about working sort of backwards to get it all to fit and try to solve the puzzle.

 

I'm rambling, but it's so much fun to talk about. Hope you find something relevant in there.

 

 

/Peter

  • Like 1

Share this comment


Link to comment
On 2/28/2018 at 12:05, The S said:

Great post Alistair!!!

 

Just to add to it, though it doesn't necessarily involve meter, but still goes with lyric writing, the really big challenge for those who only write lyrics and do not sing themselves (It's still a challenge if you sing but it helps), is to get the vowels correct and design them to suite a particular singer. For most people (singers) there are only a few vowels you can hit full voice in the above ranges, some words (vowels) sound great, many do not, and that varies from singer to singer, same goes for the lower notes. A great lyric has meter, phrasing and vowels that all sound natural and effortless. It's an art.

 

There's a couple of songs that I like and know of that's impossible for me to sing because the high note in the chorus has an "ee" sound (feet, free). If the note, mixed with the "ee" sound, is too high for me it just sounds awful or worse, my voice breaks when I go for it. That's something I think of when I write my songs. I know which words and vowels I can make sound good, and which I can't. And no matter how great the lyrics are for that song, this is something I can not simply brush off, in the end I still have to change it because otherwise I can not sing it the way it is intended.

 

The really great lyricists out there know this, and when you sing their songs you don't even think about it. Their lyrics are just a natural fit. It just flows. Still working on finding that natural fit and flow myself...one day perhaps.

 

:)

 

Share this comment


Link to comment

Thanks for this is has given me much to think about while writing.

 

Quote

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.

I have often wondered why it just felt right to start singing just before the downbeat.
 

On 3/1/2018 at 02:52, Murphster said:

 I write music first and then find words, but in order to write the melody I just sing nonsense, sometimes not even words, just noises.

 

I am not this kind of lyric writer. I have only be at it for a few years now and I still have much to learn. Writing a song for me is all about feel. It has to feel right. For me it is the words that come to mind first. If they come with a melody or it's easy to put to one, then I know I have something to build on, if not they rarely go anywhere.

I will have to go take a look at my song and count the stresses to see if I am doing this or not.

Share this comment


Link to comment
On 12/14/2017 at 13:24, Lazz said:

 

I believe it's also very important and useful to get down with different scales and understand the different chords they generate.

Lazz, 

Can you expand on this? Why does a lyricist need to understand the different chords that different scales generate?

 

Thanks,

 

Patty

Share this comment


Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×