First, A Few Definitions...
In this articles we will be talking about Prosody and Meter. Of course, in order to have a good discussion, first we need to figure out what these words mean.
Prosody: the pattern of rhythm and sound used in poetry and lyrics. Meter: the rhythm of a piece of poetry or lyrics, as determined by the length and number of feet in a line. Feet: groups of stressed and unstressed syllables that constitute a metrical unit. Okay, we’ve got that stuff out of the way, now let’s talk about how these terms apply to lyrics.
A Looser Poetry
Prosody and meter, in relation to poetry forms, dictate the amount of syllables to be found in each line and also the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that make up the line.
When writing in a particular poetry form, for example a sonnet, it is important to have the exact amount of lines and syllables. Some may find these strict rules limiting, but it forces you to use your imagination in order to come up with something original and grand that still fits a form that has been around for centuries.
Lyrics are a form of poetry, in fact the word “lyrics” originates from a poem form that had the words sung while being accompanied by a lyre, a stringed instrument common in ancient Greece. The modern day form of lyrics does not strictly adhere to any one set of rules, a fact I’m sure you’ve discovered when listening to the wide variety of modern music.
The remainder of this article will discuss prosody and meter in an abbreviated form that relates to modern lyrics. If you’d like to explore more classic forms of poetry, head to your local library and pick up a few books on the subject. The knowledge you learn from these books will definitely help you in your lyric writing, but the topic is far too vast to go into here.
Prosody, Meter, and You
Okay, so how do you use these ideas in your lyrics. First of all, we’ll talk about prosody. As the above definition states, this is the overall pattern of rhythm and sound in lyrics, so imagine it as the frame of steel girders that make up a skyscraper. These girders give shape to the building.
The actual parts of the building that you see, like vast windows and beautiful statuary, would fall into a pile of rubble without the frame. We’ve already talked about rhyme schemes and these are part of prosody, but we will expand the notion a bit.
Instead of having a structure of ABAB, where A lines rhyme and B lines rhyme, think of the A and B lines as different lengths and compositions. So, every A line would have the same amount of syllables, every B line would have the same amount, and so on. With this method, the structure of an entire song may look like this:
ABAB AC DDEE ABAB ABAB AC DDEE DDEE
The ABAB lines are the verses, the AC lines are the prechorus, and the DDEE lines are the chorus. These lines may or may not rhyme. For example, the DD lines may have the same syllables and structure, but not rhyme, setting up a powerful rhyme at the end of the chorus with the EE lines, which have the same structure and rhyme.
The possibilities are endless, but if you’re writing songs in a certain genre, like the blues or gospel, you’ll find that there are about four or five main structures that are most commonly used. Its a good idea to use these structures when you’re first starting in order to get a better feel for writing lyrics, before striking out on your own and creating your own structures.
Just as prosody gives us a song-wide structure, meter gives us a structure within each line. The meter is determined by stressed an unstressed syllables. A stressed syllable is the part of a word that is given more prominence than the other syllables.
In two-syllable nouns, this is usually the first syllable (not always) and in two-syllable verbs, this is usually the last syllable (again, not always). Stressed syllables are usually pronounced with either a higher pitch or a higher volume and are normally longer than unstressed syllables.
For example the word “teacher.” The “tea-” is the stressed syllable, while “-cher” is unstressed. A word with three or more syllables has a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Two stressed syllables are never placed next to each other except in the case of compound words (like “blackboard.” Both “black” and “board” are single-syllable words that are stressed, so making a compound word of the two puts stressed syllables next to each other. This is the only way that can happen).
A common method of writing meter is to use dots and dashes, the dashes are stressed syllables and the dots are unstressed. So, the example of “teacher” above would be written as: - .
Take the verse you wrote in the last lesson and write it out as stressed and unstressed syllables. The best way to learn this is to repeat the words out loud and listen to how you naturally stress the words. If you’re not sure about a syllable, try saying that syllable louder and more forcefully, then softer, and see which sounds better in the word.
This may seem like a pain, but once you learn it it will become second nature and you won’t have to think about it. You’ll simply be able to read a series of lines and pick out if one doesn’t fit the rhythm. You can probably do this to some extent already, just from listening to songs, poems, and nursery rhymes, but mastering it will help you write better lyrics.
Now that you have the rhythm of each line in your verse mapped out, you need to make sure that they fit together. If the rhyming lines don’t match, try to restructure them so that they have the same meter.
The Big Picture:
Now that we’ve gone through all of this, its time to finish your song. Write other verses that match the meter of your original verse, write out a chorus (it can be the same meter or different, its up to you), and write out a 2 or 4 line bridge. When writing the new verses, remember the importance of the opening line.
It is not as important to start a new verse strong as it is to start the first verse strong, but it is still important. Also, keep your imagery in mind for constructing the rest of the lyrics. Some singer-songwriters plan on drawing out certain words while singing them, essentially creating two syllables out of one.
This is a natural part of singing and a useful practice, so if one of your lines is one syllable short, just make sure that the last word would sound good being split by a vocalist. The final decision about prosody and meter in lyric writing is your ear. Read your lyrics out loud and listen for their flow. If you have a good rhythm going, and then come to a line that doesn’t fit quite right, change that line around to make it fit.
Knowledge of prosody and meter is a great help to writing lyrics and can help you rise to a new level, but this is music and it is meant to be heard. The number one rule in music, above all others, is that it has to sound good. So have fun, experiment, and write some great sounding tunes.
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