Feet, Form, and Phonics
The Poetry of Songwriting
Poetry and lyrics have existed alongside each other since 330 BCE. Aristotle describes lyric as a component of tragedy that employs harmony and rhythm. He contrasts lyric with poetic verse, defining the latter as that which uses meter but does not employ music. An exhaustive detailing of the history of lyric and poetry could fill volumes, but the modern distinctions between the two are primarily literary. A poem stands alone without the symbolic reinforcement of music. In doing so, it must convey emotion through language. On the other hand, lyrics allow more ambiguity because music can convey emotional context.
This distinction is always tenuous to some degree. Plenty of poems have been set to music, and there are even songs whose lyrics can be read as poetry. At the root of these two forms is the mimetic urge explored by Aristotle in The Poetics. Simply put, humans are the animal that is inclined most to imitation. If we run with this idea, we can make a case for poetry as the imitation of music and music as the imitation of the voice and soundscapes we find ourselves in. In this way, the two perpetually imitate each other.
Nevertheless, the greatest lyricists strive toward poetic merit. The element shared by poetry and lyric is prosody. In my newsletter about analytical listening, I mentioned prosody as the element that binds words to music ---- how the words describe music and vice versa. As applied to the written word, prosody strictly entails rhythm, stress, and intonation. This includes meter, form, and aspects of phonology that give way to literary devices such as assonance, alliteration, and consonance. Applying the tools of literary analysis to song lyrics can reveal elements that would otherwise be obscure.
The use of metrical conventions in poetry can help a songwriter produce verse that is conducive to music. One of the most common issues I encounter with new lyricists is their text's lack of discernible rhythm. This isn't impossible to work with, but it can make setting lyrics to music more challenging. This is especially true for those who wish to write lyrics but do not play an instrument or compose music.
Poetic forms can provide exciting opportunities for the songwriter tired of standard pop music structures. The challenge of setting a sonnet to music may not produce a hit single, but it may be enough to get you on to the next idea. Writing a song to a haiku may yield interesting results if you're strapped for lyrical ideas and want to explore saying more with less.
Regardless of how you apply meter or form, the aspects of intonation that poetic analysis can reveal are always enlightening to a lyricist. Rhyme is a controversial convention, but learning how to arrange vowel sounds and syllables within a line will keep your lyrics from sounding like trite nursery rhymes. That said, classic nursery rhymes are some of the most demanding tests of elocution that can train you to hear everyday speech in new melodic ways.
The literary approach to meter, form, and intonation is often overlooked in songwriting discussions. In this newsletter, I want to explore how we can bring tools like scansion and poetic analysis to the songwriting realm. In doing so, we'll be able to look at poems and songs similarly and gain an appreciation for the use of language as its own musical instrument. If you find writing lyrics intimidating, these tools can help you start playing games with the language and use the sound of language as its own means of expression.
Meter refers to the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. It imbues verse with rhythm and music. Similar to music, the most immediate way that poetry conveys meaning is through its rhythm. Rhythm enables you, the songwriter, to set a text to music convincingly.
The term meter is derived from the Greek word metron, meaning "to measure." In his book Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Paul Fussell details four conventions for counting meter: The syllabic, the accentual, the accentual-syllabic, and the quantitative. These metric conventions vary in their use and influence and, at times, are contingent upon the unique phonetic qualities of a language. The syllabic counts only the number of syllables in a line (think haiku); the accentual only counts the number of accents in a line. When we put the two together, we achieve an accentual-syllabic convention that is especially well suited to English because it is an accented language. This is the convention we use when we study Shakespeare. Finally, the quantitative metric convention relies on alternating long and short feet instead of stress or syllable. Fussell explains that characteristics of the English language are less conducive to this type of verse. Much of what we will be analyzing and are accustomed to is accentual-syllabic.
In her book Rules for the Dance, Mary Oliver gives intuitive guidance for composing metrical poems in the accentual-syllabic framework. Metrical poems consider three components: pattern, line length, and rhyme. The pattern is the nucleus of our poetic line, and we often refer to it as a foot. The iamb is a popular metric pattern consisting of a light stress followed by an accent. You can feel this when you say the word "before." Notice how the volume increases slightly on the second syllable. This iamb constitutes a foot, and when you string five of these iambs together, you create a line in iambic pentameter. If this sounds familiar, you probably learned this in high school.
Iambic pentameter is one of the most common line-length conventions in English poetry. The pattern is the iamb, and pentameter refers to the line length of five feet. It's like a time signature for the line. We designate five feet in a line and define the iamb as a foot. REM's refrain, "it's the end of the world as we know it," is in a loose iambic pentameter. In songwriting, we don't have to worry about strictly observing the stress patterns, but knowing them can help inspire a lyric or analyze one we love.
There are loads of different metrical patterns and line length terms. The technique used in analyzing poetic meter is called scansion. The curve placed over an unstressed syllable is called a breve, while the accent mark over the stressed syllables is called a macron. I've arranged the most common metrical patterns in a couple of images below; feel free to save these images for reference while you read the lyrics to your favorite songs.
Table of Metric Patterns
Table of Line Lengths
Meter is the fundamental building block of poetry and the anchor for translating a line of text into music. By playing with meter, you can establish tacit expectations in your listener that you can later subvert for novelty. The repetition of a specific meter can be its own symbol for malaise in one verse of a song, paving the way for a change of meter in a chorus that symbolizes newfound energy. The use of meters like iambic pentameter closely matches the average human lung capacity, which makes it ideal for comfortable singing. You can use shorter or longer meters to imply excitement or anxiety. Use meter to build more meaning and intention into your lines.
The arrangement of metrical lines of verse gives way to form. The pop song has become an institution unto itself, with The Beatles setting the stage for the most common formulation. Most often, when we think of a pop song, we think of a verse, followed by a chorus, then a second verse, followed by a middle eight, followed by a verse, followed by a chorus, and then an outro. Many pop songs since Beatlemania have adhered to some iteration of this formula. While conventions are helpful for the budding artist, they can become restrictive and uninspired. Looking to poetic form can inspire and even bring more variety to pop constructions.
While the following example didn't yield a radio hit, Erik Didrikson made waves with his Tumblr Pop Sonnets. The project is bold and hilarious. Didrikson reimagined popular songs as Shakespearian sonnets to comedic effect. The variation of sonnet form used by Shakespeare is known for its constraint. That Shakespeare could transcend the limitations of the form enough to compose 154 sonnets that have stood the test of time would prove his genius independent of his plays. The form consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of a, b, a, b, c, d, c, d, e, f, e, f, g, g. Below I've provided an example from Didrikson's tumbler, along with scansion lines and a map of the rhyme scheme.
Didrikson's Never Gonna Give You Up
Reading Pop Sonnets could be illuminating all on its own because you actually get to see the song's emotional thrust when taken out of context of the music. There are some songs whose music obscures heavier emotional content with upbeat melodies and rhythms. Writing your own sonnet can be a fun experiment in working within the strict limitations of a form. Adhering to the strict rules of the sonnet is like running with weights. Writing a regular pop song is easier when the weights come off. Your sonnet may contain your next song's imagery, rhythm, or theme. Often it only takes one idea to inspire an entire composition, so treat this as an oblique strategy when ideas are running low.
A haiku is a syllabic form that consists of three lines and seventeen syllables. The first and last lines comprise five syllables, while the middle line features seven. This type of construction is excellent for distilling a concept or idea to its essence. This sparse form opens up opportunities for spacious arrangements and atmospheric ambient soundscapes. Composing Haikus with emphasis on vowel syllables opens space for melismatic opportunities not naturally afforded by the English language. It's a form whose simplicity makes it ideal for experimentation. Note that the example below actually bucks the conventional haiku structure by using 4 syllables in the first line.
A world of Dew by Kobayashi Issa
Poetic form is a study unto itself, and if you want to know more about it, I recommend the book The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. It contains a historical account of the most influential forms in English poetry and is a small anthology unto itself. Poetic form isn't something that is meant to map directly onto music. Likely, most forms are not accessible enough for pop applications. But the study of form can open doors for experimental compositions or provide you with opportunities to create exercises that act as catalysts for song ideas.
In my newsletter about analytical listening, I described prosody as how music and words listen to and support each other. This is a good definition in the broader context of a musical application. Still, in this article, I'll be using it to refer to managing tone through literary devices. Digging into the aspects of poetry that leverage phonology allowed me to hear everyday speech with new ears, and it will do the same for you. To start our conversation on prosody, we'll revisit the concepts of vowels and consonants.
The letters of the alphabet are divided into two broad classifications: vowels and consonants. Vowels are sounds uttered without the help of any other letter. Consonants, by contrast, are sounds that cannot be perfectly pronounced without the aid of some other vowel. Not all consonants are alike and can be further divided into mutes and semi-vowels. Mutes are consonants that can be sounded but not protracted (for instance, b, p, and t). Semi-vowels, on the other hand, can be protracted or prolonged in a fashion similar to vowels (sounds like f, l, and m). Semi-vowels like l, r, m, and n are referred to as liquid because they can easily flow into other consonants. The category of semi-vowels contains two sub-categories: vocal and aspirated semi-vowels. Vocal semi-vowels are formed by the voice (l, m, v, w), while aspirated semi-vowels have a sound formed by the breath (f, h, s, th, sh). Below I've provided a complete list of these classifications and their constituents.
Table of Phonetics and Orthography
It is optional to memorize the taxonomy of these varieties of vowels and semi-vowels. However, Awareness of these mechanics can expand how you incorporate the English language's sound into your lyric writing process. The distinction between sounds allows you to build symbolic associations that bring depth and dynamics to your use of the language. Perceiving the subtle differences between the letters in the alphabet will give you greater command of literary devices and allow you to play with the language.
Having divided the sounds of the alphabet, we can now employ literary devices that take advantage of the range of sounds we use to communicate. Alliteration is a technique that involves the repetition of the initial sound of a word in a line or lines of verse. You can hear this in Talking Heads' Girlfriend is Better.
Closely related to alliteration is consonance. Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning, middle, or end of closely grouped words. The Beach Boy's Surf's Up features some of the most subtle use of consonance in songwriting. Brian Wilson's collaboration with Van Dyke Parks yielded some of the most linguistically delightful lyrics in The Beach Boys catalog.
Assonance is related to rhyme and refers to the repetition of vowel sounds within words in a line; we also refer to assonance as internal rhyme or near rhyme. Van Dyke Parks plays with this device a lot, and you can hear it in his collaboration with Martin Kibbee on the song Opportunity for Two.
These types of devices can augment the presence of rhyme in a song. In fact, Chaucer introduced the convention of end rhyme to English poetry. Before that, the predominant literary device used in poetry was alliteration. Using these devices will delight your listener even without music.
Striving for poetic integrity in your lyrics is not only admirable but rewarding. Being conscious of how you use meter in your writing will make your job as a composer much easier by laying a rhythmic bedrock for your songs. Exploring poetic form can help you discover new modes of expression as a creative writing exercise. It can also be a way to bring lyrics to compositional forms outside of the traditional pop song. Being mindful of prosody and tonality within your lyrics will afford you more ways to use the sounds of the English language. You won't have to rely solely on rhyme to bring the energy to your lines. As you experiment with these poetic elements, remember that these are not meant to be strict rules. Use these techniques in whatever way facilitates your creativity. The point is to create options for yourself as a songwriter, not boxes to pedantically trap yourself in. If a "rule" works, use it. If you break the "rule," and it sounds rad, it probably is! Run with it!