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In songwriting, there are two problems that become immediately obvious if the placement of your lyric is wrong. You either 1) make your lyric unintelligible; or you 2) convey the wrong meaning. Words have a natural pulse, and if you place those words in such a way that the wrong syllable gets emphasized, you make it difficult, or impossible, to understand what’s actually being sung. (Say “um-brel-LA” with the pulse on the last syllable, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Or you can convey the wrong meaning by inadvertently placing stress where it shouldn’t be. “That’s MY dog” means that it isn’t anyone else’s, while “That’s my DOG” means that it’s not my cat.
A well-placed lyric makes it easier to understand, and much easier for a listener to sing along with. Words that are constantly placed contrary to their natural pulse give a feel of amateurism to music, so it’s a vital part of making yourself a top-level songwriter.
It’s tricky, because music itself has a natural pulse. So the task for songwriters is to get the natural pulse of words to fit the natural pulse of the music.
In the case of music, however, those pulses happen with predictable regularity. In most popular music genres, music is presented as alternating strong beats and weak beats. Since words don’t usually work that way, it’s the important job of a lyricist to combine words properly.
It’s this issue of proper placement of text that results in your song’s predominant rhythmic pattern. Rhythms will be created as you fit words on and in between beats.
To get this right, check out the following tips:
- Always read your song’s lyric to yourself, unsung, simply as prose, many times before setting it to music.
- Experiment with alternating the pulse of certain words within your text, and observe how the meaning of your words changes as the pulse changes. Draw lines under words and syllables that convey the meaning you’re tying to present. Most of the time, you’ll find that nouns and pronouns will work best when they are stressed, while prepositions (“after”, “under”, “with”, etc) and conjunctions (“and”, “or”, etc.) often sound awkward if they’re strongly stressed.
- Keep a beat by tapping your knee as you say words. Alternate between a strong tap and a weak tap, as this will represent the kind of time signature that’s most common.
- As an interesting experiment, try saying your lyric to a “triple-time” feel by tapping once strongly, followed by two weak taps. Triple-time music can dramatically alter the feel of music, and you may be in for some pleasant surprises.
The most important goal of a song’s lyric is to get something that sounds natural. Your goal should not be to write sophisticated poetry, particularly if you want to write songs that appeal to the masses. It’s quite possible to write clever lyrics without having to resort to words that aren’t in common usage.
Common, everyday words should be the goal of every good songwriter. But beyond that, placing words to match the pulse of the music gives songs a natural appeal, and ultimately makes them easy to remember and easy to sing.
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“the task for songwriters is to get the natural pulse of words to fit the natural pulse of the music.”
If i may ask, What are the examples of pulse of the word. Thanks.
By a word’s pulse, I’m talking about the accents, or stresses. For example, if we say “umbrella”, we put the stress on the middle syllable (“um-BREL-a”). If you set that word to music, you’ll want to be sure that the music allows that middle syllable to get stressed. So, for example, the first beat of a bar gets a strong beat, so you might choose to start the word “umbrella” on the 2nd 8th-note of the last beat of a bar (typically a weak part of a beat), and then place the stressed syllable “BREL” on the first beat.
I mention the natural pulse of words in a video I did recently, which you can see here: “5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics.” I hope you find that useful.
Thanks alot for the reply. Really helpful.
Triple-time? I’ve never thought/heard of that! Thanks. 🙂 Also, I have a hard time with emphatic conjunctions. They sneak on top of important notes.
Songs in a triple time signature, like the folksong “Home on the Range”, or McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre”, are certainly not as common as those in standard 4/4. But it can give songs a touch of uniqueness. I know what you mean about conjunctions, and I think the best solution is to always say lyrics to yourself over and over again, until you’re sure it’s coming out the most natural way possible.