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:
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:
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.
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
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.
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
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.