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A Study on Lyrics, Rhythm & Phrasing

April 18, 2012
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by:  Debra Alexander

One of the best ways to learn how to set lyrics is by writing your own over the tried and true melody of a classic song. (There is a reason why that song has lasted, and why it got popular in the first place.) You can study the lyrics originally written for it to see how the accented and unaccented syllables are placed in each phrase, and how these patterns are echoed throughout the piece from section to section.

Consider the first two verses of the classic folk song, “Clementine,” (perhaps by Percy Montrose; maybe by Barker Bradford—read all about it and see multiple verses here).

In a cavern, in a canyon,

Excavating for a mine,

Lived a miner, forty-niner,

And his daughter, Clementine.

Light she was and like a fairy,

And her shoes were number nine;

Herring boxes without topses,

Sandals were for Clementine.

Break down each word that contains more than a single syllable, and check the dictionary to see where the accented syllables are:

CA-vern

CAN-yon

EX-ca-Va-ting

MIN-er

For-ty-NIN-er

DAUGH-ter

Words that have more than two syllables sometimes have more than one stress. I have indicated a primary stress with all caps, and a secondary stress with one initial capital letter. Read more about primary and secondary stress here. Note that a stressed syllable is generally spoken somewhat higher in pitch. Use that fact to make your melodies stronger!

“Clementine” is in 3/4 time—you can waltz to it. If you hum the melody, you can feel how the accent is on beat one of each group of three beats. The song begins with a pick-up measure, using a dotted eighth note and a sixteenth note for the words, “In a.” The dotted eighth note has more ‘weight’ than the sixteenth note; when you say (or sing) the words “in a” you put more emphasis on the first word, and hold it out just a bit longer. Two quarter notes follow, on the two syllable word ‘cavern.’ We could translate the rhythm of  “In a CA-vern” as “ta ta TUM ta.”

Now. The game is to match, as closely as possible, the stress pattern of each phrase, in each line, from section to section. You can see this in action when you look at standard songs in notation. Each verse sits pretty much beneath the other, with appropriate syllable stresses occurring on the same musical notes of the melody. Know what I mean? It looks tight and right, like the masterful laying of bricks. Solid. Not sloppy. All the edges line up. You may have seen multiple verses lining up under each other in a hymnal. Visualize that.

So, compare line one verse one with line one verse two. There are two phrases of four syllables, with the “ta ta TUM ta” rhythm:

In a CA-vern, in a CAN-yon, and,  Light she was and like a FAIR-y

Note that when you speak the second phrase, you will naturally pause after the word ‘was’—stressing it a bit more than the word “and.” The words “was and” function like a two syllable word with the accent on the first syllable.

Continue working through the song, comparing line two verse one with line two verse two; line three verse one with line three verse two, and line four verse one with line four verse two. Do you notice anything unusual? Accented syllables in a word paired with unaccented notes? Does it serve a purpose, or is it a careless mistake? Do you think you can use this exercise to make your songs tight and right? Tell me about it!

Debra Alexander is a Professional Songwriter, Songwriting Coach, and Songwriting Instructor at Metalworks.

Reposted from Debra’s blog.  Click Here to see original post.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 11, 2012 2:22 am

    That was useful, very useful. Thank you so much!

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