Good Lyrics: Always Consider the Natural Pulse

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Nothing kills a lyric faster than forcing words into a rhythmic scheme that just doesn’t work. What you should be after is a natural flow. For that reason, it’s really important for songwriters to recite their lyric as if it were prose, tweaking it until it feels easy to say, and conveys exactly what’s needed. Rhyming and rhythmic schemes need to take a back seat to natural pulse.

Say the following line to yourself:

Here we are, back where we began

This line is an easy one; it’s easy to see what we mean by natural pulse. Certain words get more of an accent than others:

HERE we are, BACK where we beGAN.

When you set a line like this, you’ll want to ensure that the natural rhythm of the words are supported by the rhythm of the music. For example, it’s hard to consider the word “here” to be anywhere except the beginning of a bar – the strong beat. It can’t be placed on the 4th beat of a bar easily, because it disrupts the sentence’s natural pulse, giving us: “here WE are…”

While this seems easy enough, problems can arise when inner meaning or subtext is inadvertently changed by misplacing an accent. Subtext is the implied meaning of your words. For example, if you say, “We’re going to be late,” the meaning is clear. If we say “Take your time, life is long”, and say it with a sigh, the ironic subtext shines through.

Often with song lyrics, subtext is changed by simply placing the accents in different places. Misplacing those accents can be a missed opportunity to portray subtext. Consider this line:

I don’t want to be with her anymore…

The first step in setting this line is to say it naturally, allowing the inherent pulses to come forth. But this line can be said in a variety of ways, all conveying a different subtext:

1. I don’t WANT to be with HER anymore;
2. i DON’T want to BE with her anyMORE;
3. I don’t want to BE with her anymore;
4. i DON’T want to be with HER anymore;

Depending on how you set the words, you’re communicating a different thing. Version 1 puts the emphasis on “her”, with the subtext conveying that there is another woman in the picture. Version 2 simply tells the audience that you simply don’t want to be with this or any person right now. Version 3’s emphasis on “be” expresses a sense of impatience, while Version 4’s stress on “don’t” and “her” adds a feeling of irritation that wasn’t there in Version 1.

Setting these words will mean that you must consider these accented words, and place them on the strong parts of musical phrases. In 4/4 (common) time, those words will work best on beats 1 and 3, with the other words falling in between.

If your songwriting formula has you starting with melody, or at least with melodic shapes, always consider the possibility (perhaps the probability) that you’ll need to modify the specific rhythms of that melody to support the intended meaning of your text. Don’t let mis-matched melodic and textual rhythms rob your lyric of important inner meaning.
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