When I was in Grade 7 I remember my teacher, Mr. Fergus, giving us word definition tests every week…I hated them. Words intimidated me for some reason. My vocabulary, I felt, was limited at best, and who the heck needed all of those big words anyway when you could use small ones? I still love the saying “Don’t use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice!”
Most of us understand the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) rule when it comes to vocabulary in songwriting. Don’t pop in a fancy word when the rest of the song doesn’t have any. Lyrics seem to be a struggle for a lot of songwriters…they are what I consider to be my weakest element in my songwriting! Why? Well, maybe I still picture myself sitting in Mr. Fergus’ class, dreading the next vocabulary test. As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time working on my lyrics in the last few years in order to overcome my fear of them. And I’ve learned a few things along the way!
Most importantly, words aren’t just a bunch of letters strung together, they can actually “sing” in a lyric! Some words even sound like the emotion or sound you’re trying to express…”hiss” is one that comes to mind. These words are called “Onomatopoeia“…other examples are clang, pop, ding, wham, splonk, and splat.
You may have heard the term “scan” in a songwriting context. When a line in a song scans well, it has a flow to it, where the sounds of the words, the vowels and consonants all flow together beautifully. A line that scans well is easily sung. One that doesn’t, feels like a tongue twister!
The wrong word in the wrong position can completely blow a line….it can throw the tempo and feel off entirely. A lot of this comes from a songwriter not spending enough time and attention on the lyrics, including misplaced vowels and consonants, and bad placement altogether.
Oh, oh. We’re in English 101 class again 🙂 What is a vowel? Do you remember? A,E,I,O,U and sometimes Y. In the English language you can get two different sounds from each of these vowels, and different sounds from combinations of them. Bonus! And what are consonants? All of the other letters. I’m going to assume you know what a syllable is 🙂 What I want to discuss here is what vowels, consonants and syllables have to do with WHERE you place a word in a lyric and HOW you use it!
Let’s look at any old word…how about the word “it”. The “i” in “it” is a short sound…so an easy rule to remember is “short sound, short note”. For instance, you don’t want to sing the word “it” over a whole note (4 beats). Not only is the “i” in “it” short, but the word has only one syllable. And NOT ONLY THAT, but the word itself is not all that significant. What does that tell you? Don’t put it in a powerful position! For instance, here’s a simple line:
Don’t you know it
If you say this line in conversation, which words would you stress or emphasize? Probably “don’t” and “know”…the “you” and the “it” are not as significant. If you emphasized the phrase this way: don’t YOU know IT…it wouldn’t sound right!
Now look at that line again from another perspective. Which words could you place the longer musical notes under? The same words that are emphasized:
doooonn’t you knoowww it
The word “you” could also have a longer note under it. But the little word “it” will never work that way, certainly not very well! Words that end with a long vowel and no consonant, like “you” or “goodbye” work well at the end of lines, especially if the note at the end of a line is held for any length of time. Words with a hard consonant ending will SOMETIMES work, as in the example “don’t” above. “Don’t” ends with a hard “t”, but because it has a long vowel sound of “o” in it, the word can be sung over a longer note, and the “t” not sounded until the very end of the note. But it can also be sung over a shorter note, with a very quick ending. So let the natural rhythm of your lyrics dictate the flow of your melody…don’t force them into positions where they are uncomfortable!
Now let’s take a look at a verse of a song you probably won’t know, and you try to figure out how the melody might work with it:
Is this goodbye?
Well we haven’t said a thing all day
It’s almost time
So I’m wondering when the dam will break
(“Let It Go” Copyright © 1996 I. Woloshen SOCAN)
Look at the above verse and see if you can figure out the natural rhythm of the words…this, as we’ve said, is called the meter. It could probably be interpreted more than one way!
If you write music and melody first, which is what I usually do, the rhythm and meter of the melody dictates where a long or short vowel might be. Some people find this much more difficult or limiting when it comes to finding words that will “fit” into those notes. When I’m sitting down and creating a melody, sometimes as I’m singing kind of nonsense lyrics, a line or a phrase will pop out that works well with it. Most of the time I have the melody finished before I even starting thinking about lyrics. But I can always mess a little with the melody to accommodate a word or phrase that I really like. It really is very much like a puzzle, except that YOU decide what the end result is going to be and how the pieces will all fit together!
This is really only a brief introduction to vowels and consonants and syllables (oh, my!), and how they work in songwriting. But the next time you sit down to write a melody to your lyrics or fit some lyrics to your melody, pay close attention to the “sound” of the words, not just the sound of your notes!