Waxing lyrical

Another essay.  Later in the week I'm going to post the lyrics I wrote for one of Hallam London's songs and this moved me to think about what I have learned in the process.

Learning to write lyrics has been interesting, it is a slightly different activity from poetry without music, but the difference is a little hard to describe.

What may seem most obvious, but which took a couple of songs for me to get my head around, is that rhythm plays a different role.  In poetry the rhythm is flexible and variable and you use it to carry the words.  There's all sorts of techniques for how the rhythm can enhance the words: long lines, short lines, sections that run faster or slower, smoother or more-brokenly, changes in rhythm etcetera etcetera...

In a song the music does all that, and what the rhythm of the words has to do is repeat consistently so that each verse or chorus can be fitted to a similar musical phrase.  Then, when the music and words are together, you can consider tweaks to the words so that they and the music do even more together.

Another difference is a matter of targeting and this is where it gets hard to explain.  In a poem you have to set your sights high.  You have to convey emotion and you have to illustrate it rather than explain it.  You have to trust the reader to understand the things you aren't saying, and so not hammer them home with a mallet—you have to be subtle.  You have to deal with concrete things (doors, spoons, sunsets) and use them to illustrate abstract things (love, memory, political unrest).  You have to consider characters—even poems without explicit characters have a narrator, and even if the narrator is the poet, they are still a character (for example an idealised version of the real person).  And so on, and so on...

For a song, all this remains true, but the emphasis is very different.  You may have fewer words (exception: really short forms, like haiku :-)).  Even when a song is long it often repeats more than a poem would.

However, you've also got much more limited time.  This really isn't obvious, because a page of words doesn't look like a period of time, but it is; and it is different for poems and songs.

For example: reading a poem the first time often proceeds something like (i) start reading, (ii) get a bit lost, (iii) look forwards and back, (iv) realise some things, (v) begin again, (vi) find bit you like, (vii) read it twice—and so on...  Even when you do proceed straight to the end, only a minute has elapsed and you often then go back to review parts.

The slight time-travel required for that is possible because the words sit stationary on the page and the eyes can scan them in any order they wish.  With a song no time-travel is permitted.  The music runs forwards at a constant rate and carries the words with it.  More than that, the listener's attention is carried forward by the music, and more still, their emotions are also carried along; making it even harder, and less desirable, for them to break out of the moment and work out an interpretation of what they just heard.

So for a lyric the words have to be more direct, more immediate.  They have to work right there in the moment they are performed in.  They may be in one sense a little simpler, but they have to remain equally expressive with it.  Depth is possible, I am sure, but anything the listener only gets on the third play can't be anything that spoils the first two times with its absence.  (However if you are listened to three times that is *SUCCESS* !)

I'm only about 5 or 6 months into this journey.  Learning poetry took getting on for 20 years, so I'm sure if I was being taught by a mystical monk he'd still be telling me I have much to learn.  I'll keep you posted.



  1. I appreciate this exposition of the differences between poetry and song lyrics, and agree with most of what you say. But I query the fact that songs must have a repeatable rhythm, inasmuch as even a song can accommodate playing with the metre: Look at the lyric of Summertime - http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/g/george_gershwin/summertime.html Each verse is subtly different. And even in formal poetry eg a sonnet, there is leeway to tweak the metre - even Shakespeare, arch sonneteer, did it!

  2. Yes, possibly I accidentally exaggerated a bit there. I wasn't meaning to say that the rhyme had to precisely repeat. You can certainly have a beat that is a single beat in one verse, two quavers in the second, a triplet in the third and so on...

    (I just played Summertime to remind myself and yes, Gershwin does make a big thing of this variation, it is one of the main features of that particular song...)

    ...however the meat of the point I am making is that the pattern of feet in lines has to repeat if each verse is to be fitted to the same musical phases. An individual foot can change from two syllables into three, but the over all pattern of line-lengths (in feet) needs to repeat.

    (Of course that is for most songs. Every rule is for breaking and wholly non-repetitive songs surely exist, but as with other rules, it's true more often than false...)

    1. I agree with your meaty point, reserving the right to play a bit!

  3. Thanks for sharing this link on Future learn. I'll keep coming back