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SHAKESPEARE WAS NO JOHNNY MERCER
Why Poetry and Lyrics Are Different
2000 by Arnold J. Olenick, ASCAP

VERSE

I'm a songwriter, not a composer or lyricist, but a combination of the two. I'm able to count the number of famous songwriters who did both on the fingers of one hand. (I'm thinking of the Great American Songbook--Sinatra's music,-- not Rock, Pop, etc. The examples I give will be based on those songs, because they're the ones I know best.)

Lyricists are not as well known as their composers. As a guy who writes both his own words and music, I can tell you, like most songwriters who write both, that writing the melody is easy. The lyrics come hard, for all the reasons I'll explain. I can knock out a decent tune, complete with chords, often in a matter of hours or a couple of days. I write poetry and lots of prose articles and even four published books, but I sweat the lyrics, sometimes for weeks, until I get them just right. Yet, few songs are big hits without strong lyrics. In most contemporary songs, the tunes are much simpler than the words. To quote the great Beethoven, "I write with difficulty that you may listen with ease."

You probably know the story about Oscar Hammerstein's widow who heard someone at a dinner raving about "Jerome Kern's Old Man River.'" She interrupted with, "Mr. Kern wrote da da da-da"; my husband wrote Old Man River'!"

CHORUS: THE DIFFERENCES

Poems come in two flavors: rhymed and unrhymed verse, also different standard and nonstandard formats, e.g., sonnets, iambic pentameter, etc. Generally speaking, lyrics are rhymed verse, though there have been exceptions. It takes a daring or well- established lyricist to do without rhymes of any kind. One example that comes to mind is "Moonlight in Vermont."

Rhymes for a song lyric can be perfect, or approximate: the latter are sometimes called false rhymes, because they come close and sound similar, but are not true rhymes. Examples: towns and rounds are false rhymes; sounds and pounds are true ones. I just heard a song that rhymed "skin" with "again", which annoyed me as it might you.

It is sometimes permissible to have the rhyme fall on the second or third syllable of a word, instead of the last. A truly sophisticated lyricist like Alan Jay Lerner was able to find a rhyme on five-syllables in "My Fair Lady": "Oh the towering feeling" and "the overpowering feeling".

SPECIAL PROBLEMS OF SONG LYRICS

It's very important to consider the singer's problems. Examples are:

  • Vowels are far easier to sing--and hold--than consonants. Sibilants are a special problem (s, sh, z, j, ch, etc.) especially when they fall at the end of a word.
  • Words chosen should include, and wherever possible end with sounds that open the mouth, not close it.
  • Accented syllables should fall on the accented notes of the song.
  • Long-held notes must be followed by a rest long enough to give the singer time to catch her/his breath. (This is the composer's problem,)
  • A string of fast, short words or syllables must also leave breathing space.
  • Some word sounds are hard to sing at the upper or lower end of a song's musical range.

Blending words and music is a truly collaborative effort. Maybe Gilbert could just mail his lyrics for Sullivan to set to music, but that's rare. There needs to be a give- and-take, with each member of the team able to take into account the other's problems, putting ego and pride of authorship aside. A lot of polishing--fine tuning, if you'll forgive the pun--is usually necessary for both words and music.

If the tune is written first, one device is for the composer to use a dummy or "scratch" lyric as a guide for the lyricist. A few such lyrics have ended up as the ones that were finally used. I believe that was true of "Tea for Two". Sometimes the lyric is dreamed up first and the lyricist may make up a dummy tune to guide the composer.

HOW TO FIND RHYMES

Going through the alphabet for words that may rhyme, exactly or closely enough (see par. 2 under "Differences" above) is usually the way you start. Write down all possible rhyming words you can think of. This often results, however, in only one-syllable words, whereas there may be better two or more syllable words that rhyme.

There's nothing like a good rhyming dictionary, once you master its use. You may come up with words of two or more syllables that rhyme, words you never thought of. I'll supply the titles of some at the end of the article. A good library should have one or more of them. You can also find rhyming dictionaries on the Internet.

Another good reason to use such dictionaries is that you often discover rhymes that suggest ways that may change the direction of your lyric and may give you new themes or ideas to work with.

SPECIAL ASPECTS OF LYRICS

Keep in mind and be consistent about who is singing to whom. It's confusing to the listener to shift from "I" to "we" or "he" as the one singing, or from "you" to "she" or "he," for example.

Poetry can use abstract ideas and concepts; music lyrics should be more simple, concrete and down-to-earth. A lyric is best when it tells a story that includes the who, where, what, why and when of the situation. It must get to the point quickly, so the listener knows what's going on and what it's about. Otherwise you may lose him/her. One format recommended for a speech works: "tell em what you're gonna tell em, tell em, then tell em what you told them." The title should drive this. Ideally, it should contain the lyric's main idea, point or message.

Sources of ideas for titles and lyrics. You can get ideas for lyrics, usually by starting with a title. First, as you may know, no one can copyright a song's title, only the lyric itself. That means you need not fear using a title that someone else has used. There are many cases of two or more songs with the same title. That's not to suggest you deliberately copy someone else's title.

If no title occurs to you for a song, a good place to start is with a popular saying or expression. Example: Johnny Burke and Bob Haggart's song "What s New?" Be on the lookout for such leads in everyday speech, ads, etc. If you're ambitious enough, you could look through what is called a dictionary of idioms, slang or sayings. Aside from titles, they can come in handy for other parts of a lyric by giving you a well-known phrase to add color to what you mean. Burke and Haggart followed the title, which starts the lyric by the saying "How is the world treating you?"

The Hook: this is what often makes a successful popular song. It's often the title, sitting on a catchy musical phrase. Sometimes it's not even in the song itself, but in the arrangement, usually an unusual short, repeated phrase or riff. The main thing is, it's usually what someone thinks of when they think of a song.

Give and take between composer and lyricist. Sometimes a line of a lyric can be improved by adding a word, and adding notes to go with it. An example that occurs to me is in Johnny Mercer's classic, "Moon River." One line goes, "I'm crossing you in style some day", which could be improved grammatically by adding a note in front and changing the words to "I'll be crossing you in style some day." Any composer worth her/his salt can come up with a melodic fix.

Finally, study the work of the great lyricists to see how they do it. The best examples that come to mind are Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Larry Hart, Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields, E. Y. Harburg and last but not least, Stephen Sondheim. Their best work isn't usually their showiest or cleverest lyrics, but the ones that don't show off their cleverness. Frank Loesser's special talent was making lyrics sound like ordinary conversation. Example "Guys and Dolls."

So to sum it all up: lyric writing is both an art and a craft. If you write poetry, good poetry, don't expect that it will make a good, or even passable lyric. They're different art forms. As I've tried to show, the lyricist must work under much tighter constraints and requirements than the poet, who can just pour out his/her feelings or ideas. To overlook these is to remain a poet, not a lyricist. If you'd love to write lyrics, recognize what you'll need to learn about doing it, or you'll never make it.

REFERENCE BOOKS

Songwriting in General: Pat & Pete Luboff's Songwriting Wrongs & How to Right Them (1992: Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati), or several others. The ASCAP website lists several.

Rhyming Dictionaries:

Dictionaries of Idioms, etc.:

Internet Sites:

Lyrics of published songs: (for studying great lyricists' work) http://members.tripod.com/~MusicRadioStations/lyrics.htm.

Rhyming dictionary:
http://www.geocities.com/Nashville/8014/geobook.html.


Arnold J. Olenick is an ASCAP songwriter-member, who has been writing the kind of songs Frank Sinatra should have sung since he was 19. He's well along in years, having grown up in the golden era of popular music, when Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Arlen and Rodgers were the names that mattered. But as what's called popular music has changed to Rock, Rap, Hip- Hop, he's been a keeper of the flame. You can hear his songs on his own website at: http://sites.netscape.net/aolenick/homepage.
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