#1July 10th, 2010 · 12:13 PM
102 threads / 59 songs
204 posts
Canada
Lesson 13: Lyrics 1
So I forgot 13. I guess it's time to discuss lyrics. Now because the subject matter we're about to tackle is far more subjective than anything else we've touched on so far, I need to start with a small disclaimer. I don't have a formal theory of lyric writing, what follows are the author's opinions concerning what he feels makes good or bad lyrics. Feel free to disagree, post your comments in the thread and we'll try and discuss them.

As an oversimplification, a song can be broken down into 3 components, rhythm, tone, and lyrics. There is a very obvious hierarchy here and it goes like this:

Most important
Rhythm
Tone
Lyrics
Least important

The reason for this is simple. Rhythmic dissonance is the most obvious of all 3 (even the tone deaf can sense it) and as such rhythmic consonance is fundamental to a pleasing song. Since tonal dissonance is more noticeable than lyrical dissonance (i.e. lyrics that don't sound good), tone takes precedence over lyrics in terms of what's more important to make a good song.

The takeaway: You can write a hit song with non-sensical, obscenely terrible lyrics. Just look at Wonderwall.

So what makes lyrics good or bad?

To answer this we need to understand how lyrics function within the structure of a song.

Lyrics provide two functions. They give the singer something to sing and they give the audience something to listen to that isn't strictly music. An ideal set of lyrics needs to be easy to sing and give the audience something stimulating to listen to and think about. But again since the first function is a musical one and the second a lyrical one, the first takes precedence. A profound lyric that can't be easily sung will never make a good song, it's more important that people can sing your words.

So how to we make lyrics singable?

There are many considerations but two of the main ones are rhyme and flow. Rhyming lyrics tend to be easier to sing (probably for some linguistic reason I don't know about). Be cautious with rhyme. The poetic side of your lyrics often suffer when you constrain yourself to rhyme because it forces you to compromise what you want to say. There's nothing worse than forced rhyme or lyrics that remain primitive in an effort to rhyme. Some of my favourite lyricists never rhyme but just say what they want.

Take a look at "Shed a Little Light" by James Taylor. The first verse doesn't look like a lyric at all but give it a listen (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p18qu4Te9j4) and see what you think.

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong
We are bound together
By the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead
We are bound and we are bound

When rhyme is done well it can really enhance a song. But remember, never compromise what you want to say lyrically for rhyme. If you're music isn't singable because it lacks rhyme experiment with new phrasing before you settle on making it rhyme.

Rhyme often comes in a scheme, a set method of rhyming particular lines with each other (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhyme_scheme). One very effective way of drawing attention to a particular part of your lyrics is to break a rhyme scheme. This is most effective if it's done at the end of a line when the audience is expecting a rhyme. It also works particularly well when used when the music also breaks the mode and does something strange. In a progression like:

| G / C | G / D |
| C / D | G |
| Am / D | G / Em |
| C / G | B |

It's often effective to break a rhyming scheme on the B. It's at the end of a the phrase so it the lyrics have a bit more weight and the B chord sticks out because it contains a D#, which is out of the key of G, so this is a great time to make your lyrics stick out too.

Making lyrics flow is a whole other beast. We'll tackle it next time and we'll take a look at the poetic side of lyricism in time as well.
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