If you raised a faint smile reading the paragraph above, it’s because the first line of the poem promised rhymes that never appeared. We’ve all heard hundreds of limericks, and the form requires a specific AABBA rhyme scheme, where the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme as a separate couplet. That expectation of rhyme has been hard-wired into your brain by all the limericks you’ve ever heard.
A similar expectation is built into the brains of music fans through years of listening to popular songs. There are examples of successful non-rhyming songs, but these are pretty rare – almost all songs use rhyme in some way. For the songwriter, rhyming your lyrics really goes with the gig. And if you’re writing in the English language, pretty soon you run into the universal songwriter’s problem: all the best rhymes have been used.
A large part of the craft of writing songs is the ability to be a problem-solver, and rhyming could be viewed as a simple word puzzle, where our task is to find the solution. Let’s say you want to convey a classic song idea such as “You’re the one I love”. There are only three ‘perfect’ rhymes available for the word ‘love’, and they are ‘glove’, ‘above’ and ‘dove’, all of which have been so heavily used by songwriters for hundreds of years that they’re near impossible to use without sounding clichéd. One solution is to choose a ‘forced’ rhyme that doesn’t quite work so well, such as rhyming ‘love’ with ‘enough’ or ‘of’. This works some of the time, but again it’s a well-known rat run for songwriters. The love/of rhyme appears in thousands of songs, such as the 1928 jazz standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby, which rhymes the title phrase with the slightly tortuous ‘That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby’.
And these rhyme challenges are the same for all of us. The word ‘heart’ is the only really useful noun in English that works as a decent metaphor for ‘feeling’, ‘spirit’, ‘my emotional self’ etc. And the only useable rhymes (apart from the obvious rude one) are ‘start’, ‘art’, ‘smart’ and ‘part’, plus related two-syllable words such as ‘apart’ and ‘restart’. This limited palette is endlessly recycled by songwriters, but the Heart-shaped well shows no signs of drying up. The difficulty is that some of the rhymes can force the song into particular phrases. How many times have we heard ‘back to the start’, ‘tear us apart’ and ‘playing the part’? It’s a fine line between classic and predictable.
Sooner or later – usually sooner – every songwriter runs into what I like to call a Rhyme Trap. This is where you write one line, then end up actually changing the meaning of what you’re trying to say just because you need the next line to rhyme. The character in Oasis’s Supersonic seems pretty macho, and perhaps isn’t the kind of guy who would drink ‘gin and tonic’, but the rhyme works, and the phrase sings well, so Noel chooses singability and rhyme over meaning. He’s a bit of a serial offender – the character in She’s Electric has a ‘cousin’. In fact she’s got about a ‘dozen’. By the third line, the verse’s AAA triple-rhyme structure has run out of perfect rhymes, forcing the ending with ‘oven’ (this is called a double assonance rhyme, poetry fans).
So what’s a poor songwriter to do? Going back to our example, we could simply tweak the phrase ‘You’re the one I love’ until it reads ‘I’m in love with you’. This leaves us with the much easier problem of rhyming ‘you’. Suddenly our rhyme pallette is enormous, giving us well over 30 perfect rhymes including ‘blue’, ‘clue’, ‘do’, ‘shoe’, ‘through’, ‘to’, ‘view’ and ‘who’. Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love shows this technique in action; the song sidesteps the ‘love’ rhyme trap by putting the word in the middle of a line, so that the lyric reads ‘Looking out for love in the night so still / Oh I’ll build you a kingdom in that house on the hill’. No hands in gloves, turtle doves or skies above to be found here. So, if there’s no solution, change the problem. Or take those tricky rhymes and wobbl’em.
Lyrics are not poetry. And a poem is not a lyric. Poems have their own ‘music’, made by the natural rise and fall of the vowels, the rhythmic flow of the syllables and the breaks at the end of lines. As songwriters we can use melody to control how the audience receives our lyric. Melody has the power to give a few simple words a powerful emotional impact, in a way that neither a poem or an instrumental tune can achieve on its own. But how do we choose words that show our melodies in the best light?
To make a lyric singable, the vowels have to work properly. When a singer performs a song, the audience hears vowels more easily than consonants. Try singing the two-syllable word ‘calling’ over any two musical notes in the middle of your vocal range. Sing it out loud and long, and enjoy the feeling of those big vowels passing over your teeth. Now, using the same two notes, try doing the same with the word ‘quickest’. Doesn’t feel as good, does it? ‘Calling’ sings really well because the ‘aaaaa’ sound opens up your mouth and gives you a meaty vowel, whereas ‘quickest’ sounds unmusical because it contains more vocally restrictive vowels and tougher consonants, especially when you get to the ugly ‘st’ at the end of the word. And sure enough if you research the lyrics of any style of music, the word ‘calling’ is much more likely to appear than ‘quickest’, even though they’re both pretty common words. Songwriters tend to favour words with big vowels that avoid tongue-twisting combinations of hard consonants. As a rule of thumb, we should avoid sibilant words (with lots of ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds) whenever we can.
And listeners prefer single-syllable words most of the time. Read that last sentence back and try to sing it. Whatever notes you choose, it all starts to come crashing down when you sing ‘listeners prefer single-syllable’, but the phrase ‘words most of the time’ sings really well. You can stretch a monosyllable out over lots of notes (this is called a ‘melisma’) – for example the word ‘fire’ in Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire is spread over three notes – but it’s impossible to make a two-syllable word fit a single note. Overdoing melismas when they’re not needed is generally considered a crime against music, but let’s not lower the tone with talk of Mariah Carey.
Let’s test our syllable-count theory on a couple of classic songs. The Beatles’ We Can Work it Out opens with the lines ‘Try to see it my way / only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong’. That’s 18 words, 17 of which are monosyllables. Hey Joe begins with ‘Hey Joe / where you goin’ with that gun in your hand (x2) / I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, you know I caught her messin’ round with another man (x2)’ – 39 words, 34 monosyllables.
If lyrics are not poetry, neither are they the same thing as prose. This means you can take serious liberties with the English language and get away with it, as long as it sounds good when sung. Having melody on your side means you can say things in a lyric that are grammatically incorrect, such as Paul McCartney’s famous line “…ever-changing world in which we live in” (from Live and Let Die). You can cram in some dodgy rhymes, such as Kurt Cobain’s ‘self-assured / dirty word’ (from Smells Like Teen Spirit).You can make up words, as in ‘Pompitous of love’ (from Steve Miller’s The Joker). Or just use any old sounds. Be Bop A Lula. Na Na Na. No Diggity. Goo goo g’joob. And if the phrase sings well, it might notmatter if the song’s overall ‘story’ doesn’t make much sense, such as Deep Purple’s Black Night or Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger. To misquote Duke Ellington, if it don’t mean a thing, all you gotta do is sing.
For the songwriter, the best and most obvious way to make a lyric singable is simply to sing it and see if it works. A lyric that looks great on the page may not work so well when you shine the cold light of melody upon it. Even if you’re not a singer yourself it’s worth singing out loud when you write – regardless of the quality or tuning, if you hear the words in context it’ll become obvious where the tweaks are needed. And if your lyric doesn’t read like the finest English poetry, no-one in the mosh-pit is going to complain.
Nine of the eleven songwriters are now here – our final two, Nuala and Ziggy, arrive later today. For the first full day we started with a discussion of last night’s task, which was simply for everyone to write ten titles and then discuss with the group how they might be developed further into lyric ideas and eventually complete songs.
This was followed by a lecture in which we discussed some of the techniques, challenges and pitfalls of the songwriter’s creative process, and some playback of existing songs, including Rodger and Amy’s song ‘Renegade Fishermen‘ from 2007 (a word-setting task), plus some pop songs including Sarah Bareilles’ Love Song, The Beatles’ Yesterday, George Formby’s Little Ukulele and various other songs that came up in conversation.
And then onward to the first full task, which is to separate lyric-writing and lyric ‘setting’ (i.e. writing the music). Each songwriter is to write a lyric in its entirety, and then pass it on to another songwriter for completion. This is the simplest form of collaboration because it doesn’t involve any negotiation; some songwriters find it very liberating to write music for a pre-existing lyric, although some have difficulty with writing a lyric with the knowledge that they have no control over how it’s going to sound.
Our week at Barncrosh Farm coincides with the terrible Nov 2009 weather that hit Cumbria and to some extent our current location – Dumfries and Galloway. 30 roads are reported closed, so we may end up with more songwriting time than we planned!
[note - Feb 2013 - most of the links from this 2008 article are now defunct, but the basic principles of how I project lyrics in lectures are the same, so I'm leaving this post online for archive purposes].
I occasionally get asked, by undergraduate students, Festival songwriters, and songwriting teacherswhat software and hardware I use to project lyrics and play back songs for analysis during songwriting lectures. Sometimes the question actually hijacks lectures and diverts us from discussing the actual song, so I’m going to write this blog post about it, so next time someone asks, I can just send them this link and get on with talking about songwriting!
This is unapologetically nerdy and exhaustive, because the people who ask about this sort of thing often want lots of technical detail.
During lectures I have my Mac laptop with me – it’s a standard Mac Powerbook running OSX andiTunes. This is connected to a VGA projector (see photo) and a mini-jack audio cable connects the Mac to whatever sound system we’re using (in the photo example we used a small mixing desk on the table, routed into the theatre PA system in the ceiling).
My iTunes library is around 6000 MP3s that I’ve collected over the years from various sources. The computer is always live on the ‘net, so if someone in the lecture class wants to discuss a song I don’t have, I just spend the £0.79 then and there and buy it online.
Because I’m sometimes running a PowerPoint or web browser simultaneously, I like to be able to play and pause iTunes remotely in the background. Sometimes I use the Apple remote for this, but most of the time I prefer to use a background application called Synergy, which is a simple iTunes controller that provides play, pause, next track functions etc, using function keys.
Lyrics and MP3s – the background
We all know that despite many years of attempts by rights owners to prevent fans publishing song lyrics online, it’s possible to locate the lyrics to almost any song on the ‘net. But using a web browser to do this live in a lecture is inelegant, and distracts the class from the song. So I combine two techniques – MP3 lyric metatags and lyric widgets.
An MP3 metatag (or to get really techy, its ID3 metadata… stay with me, here – it gets interesting soon!) is simply a way that the MP3 file can have textual information or images (title, artist, composer, cover artwork and lyrics) attached to the file. iTunes has a really simple text editor – just click Apple-I on any iTunes track to bring it up.
So once the lyric is found on the ‘net and then pasted into the MP3’s iTunes lyric info window, it’s there in the file forever, right there on my hard drive. This works for MP3s and also protected AAC files bought from the iTunes Music Store.
So far so good, but that’s still a lot of hassle, especially if I’m running seat-of-the-pants lectures like this year’s SWF (where I asked every member of the audience to write down a choice of song for analysis, then downloaded them live in the classroom). And it’s also not very useful to bring up the Apple-I info window, because the font size isn’t big enough for the class to see on a projector.
In 2005 I discovered Mac OSX lyrics widgets. These are small applications that run in the background using Apple’s OSX Dashboard (i.e. they work with any Mac). There are several, but they all do essentially the same thing – display lyrics attractively on screen from the iTunes lyric data. But that’s not all. If they don’t find any lyric data, they automatically search the ‘net for the lyric, and then extract the text from the lyrics sites they interrogate, and paste it into the MP3 for you. All this happens live, in the background, meaning I can download a song (legally, of course) and then have the lyric embedded in it within less than 10 seconds.
I use several widgets, running concurrently, because they all search slightly different lyric sites. I’ve found that if one widget doesn’t find the lyric, another one will, and then the first one will simply pull the data from the MP3 itself (which will have been embedded automatically by whichever widget found the lyric online first). My current ones are;
Sing That iTune, Fire, Harmonic and the defunct but easy-to-find PearLyrics.
Icing on the cake – hot corners
Mac users will know that OSX supports hot corners. So I set up the Mac so that every time I move the mouse pointer to the top left of the screen, it launches Dashboard. Having previously set things up so that the lyrics widgets are always running, this means, in a lecture, all I have to do is play an MP3, sweep the mouse to the top left of the screen, and the lyrics appear!
But there’s more…
Sometimes, we have an iTunes playlist running while we’re setting up a lecture – a list of recent hits, or songs in a particular form, theme or genre. So to make this a bit more visual, I also occasionally use Jewelcase, a shareware plugin for iTunes that displays not only the lyric metatag, but also the JPG of the album cover metatag – and puts the whole thing in a beautifully rendered spinning CD jewel case. Projected 20ft high in a lecture, it is a thing to behold!
And a tiny bit more…
This setup works great for lectures, but sometimes we’re discussing tempo. We can usually find the chords and key of a song (just by having an acoustic guitar to hand), and we can see its form usually from looking at the lyric and listening to the playback, but finding the tempo was always a bit fiddly, using a metronome there in the lecture.
So I searched the ‘net for a tool that would enable me to mouse-click along to a track, display its tempo in Beats Per Minute, then embed the tempo in the MP3 for next time. It’s called BPM Widget. Does what it says on the tin!