You work hard to make
your lyrics clear, and rich with images.
They convey a message or story that is universal and heard in many other
songs. Yet somehow, they still
don’t measure up to other songs that are considered great. What's missing?
Great lyrics not only are
clear and relevant, they also tickle the ear, the way bubbles in champagne
tickle the palate. They have sonic
activity. Sonic activity is the sum of all
the points in a song (called "ping-points") that use the physical
sound of the words, independent of meaning, to grab the ear. The primary ways of doing
(a) Perfect Rhyme (two strings of sound in one or multiple
words with exactly the same
accents and sounds, except for the initial sound e.g.,
up; coincide/go inside) Perfect rhyme produces the strongest
"ping" of any literary technique. Fresh, innovative rhymes jump out even more than the
tired overused ones like love/above, heart/apart, life/knife,
seem/dream, etc) NOTE: Multi-syllable rhymes should have the
same accent pattern to work as effective pings. (e.g. the
word "happily" flows
as HAP-pi-ly; The most effective rhyme will be
with the accented syllable "HAP", e.g. "RAP to me" not the
last syllable e.g. "that will
(b) Assonance (same vowel sound between two different
consonants, e.g. sign/time;
etc.) NOTE: Assonance is not rhyme. It is sometimes called near-rhyme or
slant rhyme, but it is NOT the same as a perfect rhyme, as it does not produce
the same degree of 'ping'.
(c) Alliteration – words with the same initial sound e.g. "big bouncing ball"; "
fresh fried fritters"; " silent searching souls"; etc. The repeated consonant sound does not always need to
be at the front of the word:
"complete unconditional hectic chaos";
"SnaKe SKin inKS"
A repeating consonant
sound creates a very strong ping.
(d) Para-Rhyme -
Same consonants at either end, with a different vowel in between:
Hip-Hop; pit/pat/pot/putt; bitter/butter/better/batter; etc. Again. like assonance, a very strong ping.
(e) Lexical Repetition -
This is a repeating of the same sound, word or phrase multiple times.
"I love you in the
morning/I love you in the night/I love you when I'm sleeping/So why are you
uptight?" If used well,
it can enhance the ping experience:
"I was at the bottom of the bottom when the bottom fell
used excessively and without clear reason, it dulls the senses. It dulls the senses. It dulls the senses. Oh yeah baby, it dulls the senses.
(f) Sonic Reversal
- Same sounds, reversed
(same SOUND, not same LETTERS). e.g.,
"at the TOP of the
POT, and the TIP of the PIT" ;
(g) Chiasmus – Reversing the order of key words in a sentence.
e.g. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for
your country"; "Never
let a kiss fool you or a fool kiss you". Chiasmus is considered one of the most effective
devices in persuasive speaking and oratory.
So, armed with these
devices for injecting sparkling bubbles into your lyrics, you can see why some
songs tickle the ear while others fall flat, even if they are about the same
thing. Sonic activity is not
something that a listener is always aware of. It works under the surface to make the song hit with more
impact and penetrate deeper into the listener's vault of good feelings.
Great songwriters write
with sonic activity – some do it instinctively without conscious effort, and
some very consciously choose and shape their words and sounds.
Everyone knows these
lines from Journey's "Don't Stop Believing"
Just a city boy, born
and raised in south Detroit
He takes the midnight
train goin' anywhere…
Why does he live in
Detroit as opposed to New York,
L.A., or Racine (all of which have the right
accent pattern)? It's so that the "oy" of "boy"
can mate with the "oi" "Detroit" and give your ear a ping,
followed up with the alliterative pair take / train. Of
course he could also live in LaCroix , Des Moines or Hanoi, all sonically equivalent, but not quite
the same image as urban Detroit.
Sonically active lyrics
are nothing new. It's been going on since Gilbert and Sullivan and before.
( "I am the very
model of a modern major general…). Look
at any of the Gilbert and Sullivan scores and you'll see masterful use of all
the above techniques. That's
one of the reasons their work has survived for more than a century.
Sonic activity is the
thing that enables a writer to write a song about nothing deep or special, with
no lofty message or meaning, and still have something that gets into the
collective consciousness of a generation.
Just because a song is
about something simple does not mean that the lyrical craftsmanship has to be
simple. An example from the 2011
I reflect on my
Then I ask the
What direction should
I don't know.
You've got lexical
repetition (reflect/reflection); perfect rhyme, (reflection/direction);
(' question' pinging
with both, reflection and direction); and another simple rhyme as a touch of garnish (go/know)
Even simpler, the 1962
Leiber and Stoller song "Ruby" was a hit for both the Drifters and
Everyone was singing Ruby,Ruby Ruby, Ruby will you be mine? Why is her name "Ruby" ? So that you have the ping of RUBY will
YOU BE mine" It just doesn’t
work if you said "Gertrude, will you be mine?" Same meaning, same accents, but no
ping. Later in the song,
even this filler line, which
carries no meaning, works because of the high sonic activity: Ruby Ruby Ruby baby
What's at work in these
seemingly simple lines from the Cummings/Winter song "Rain Dance" recorded by the Guess Who:
Christopher was askin'
Can your telescope
tell me where the sun's gone?
I'm still sittin with my next door neighbor sayin"
Where'd you get the gun, John?
Why does it tickle the
Christopher was asking
a ( -opher….-omer )
Can your telescopetellme where the sun’s
gone ? b c-d
(your …sun’s gone)
with my next door neighbor sayin
b e (door….sayin’)
you get the gun John ? "
c-d (…. gun John)
third line alone contains triple alliteration on
"s"; assonance and a
sonic reversal on
still/sit; alliteration on
"n"; a perfect rhyme back
to the previous line with
your/door; and a perfect
internal rhyme with
another example showing effective use of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme from
the bridge of "If My Mary Were Here" by Harry Chapin, enhancing lyrics which are simple and filled
I could whistle up
an old tune babe that your memory
just might recall (a) recall
Rustle up some reminisce, ‘bout the good old days and all (a) all
If I were seekin’ someone
else, I could find
a place to hide (b) place to hide
But I’m just pleading like a pauper babe, (c)
And it leaves
no place for pride… (b) place for pride
Sonic activity often does its best work while hiding, subtly embedded in the lines so that you
don't readily see it, but you certainly feel the 'pings' when they hit
you. Consider the opening lines from
Welcome to my quiet
Well, come on in,
leave your cares at the door…
Seems simple, but look
QUiet Little Life
WELL COME Leave Cares
Take these lines from
"Put on a Happy Face"
from the musical "Bye Bye Birdie"
Take of that gloomy
mask of tragedy, it's not your style
You'll look so good,
you'll be glad you decided to smile
So we see style/smile.
That doesn't seem like enough to make these lines jump out the way they
do. The big 'ping' comes from the
exceptional hidden rhyme:
All it takes to sprinkle
effective sonic activity through your songs is :
(a) to be aware that you
can and (b) to push yourself to get as much 'ping' into each line as you can withoutsacrificing meaning or making it seem forced.
Take this line:
There's a lot of good
holiday food in their freezer.
It has a natural rhythmic
flow; It sits easily in 4
beats; It is clear and
specific; It conveys information.
It has the alliteration of food/freezer
By those measures, it is
an adequate line. However, it
still comes across as dull and flat.
No sparkle. It's like reading
a government report on regulating cabbage. The key question to ask yourself: Can I say this exact same thing in a
more sonically active way?
Their freezer is
filled with a fine festive feast…
Everything is exactly the
same as above, except now you have the spicy zing of five-fold alliteration on
the "f". Fantastic
five-fold phonetic fun!
How about this line:
Her needle and thread
bound together the sail for his ship.
Clear, specific, flowing,
and you've got the two
"s" sounds of sail and
ship, so you're happy. Still, ask yourself, can
you do better? Of course!
She sat and sewed the
sails that swept him out to sea…
Now you've got a six-fold
repetition of the sibilant sound of
"s" like the hiss of surf on the deck of a ship. Much more sparkle.
Leeta is a popular girl,
she don’t let many guys into her world
She knows she's got
the fire, but no guy fills her desire
Now you must be on a
roll, since you have two lines with two internal rhymes:
(girl/world and fire/desire). so
you're happy. Can you do
better? Of course!
Leeta's so elite, she
says 'bout every guy she'll meet
That they just don't
have the heat to hang with her very long…
Why does this version
have so much more sparkle? A
rhyming threesome: elite/meet/heat;
A lexical repetition LEETa / eLITE; And a three-fold-alliteration: heat/hang/her,
with a minor bonus of she/says and that/they .
Lots more sonic activity than the first version.
As a final example of the
sonic tools are used in the hands of a master craftsman, let's look a t a
simple song which says absolutely nothing except "I love you". It's the most common topic for
all songwriters. Most love songs
from inexperienced writers
although sincere and heartfelt, are just too plain to make an
impression. You also see lots of
current popular hits which have no lyrical zing at all – they are popular
solely because of fancy production and good musical grooves. As popular as they are they don't
represent good songwriting -- just
great production and performance.
How much better and long-lasting would they be if all that great
production and performance also had great lyrics?
Randy Edelman is widely
known as a writer of well crafted songs. His hit "Concrete and Clay" is totally simple in its message of
"I love You". Yet it
endures for almost five decades, while so many other love songs remain in
oblivion. What elevates to a
A look a the lyrics below
only seems to reinforce the idea that it is ordinary, with nothing particularly
CONCRETE and CLAY (words and music by Randy Edelman)
to me are sweet as roses in the morning
And you to me are soft as summer rain at dawn,
In love we share that something rare
sidewalks in the street
The concrete and the
clay beneath my feet
Begins to crumble but love will never die
Because we'll see
the mountains tumble before we say goodbye
My love and I will be in love eternally
That's the way,
that's the way it's meant to be
around I see the purple shades of evening
And on the ground the shadows fall
And once again you're in my armsso tenderly
So let's do a full Level
3 analysis and see why this is not just an ordinary love song.
In the song map
below, you can see the massive
amount of sonic activity that is constantly pinging the ear at every
phrase. There is
barely a wasted syllable in the song. It is high level songcraft, applied to a very
simple message, and lives on after more than half a century.
(You can enlarge the view below for greater
can also see this SongMap online)
Map some of your own
songs (the technique of mapping is discussed in detail in Songcrafters' Coloring Book
) and look at the amount of
activity. When you have your song
as "done" as you want it to be in terms of what is says and how it
flows the information to the listener, give it one more pass with an ear toward
sonic activity. Go line by line
and ask "Is there another way I can say this exact same thing while adding
more sparkle to the line?" With that sparkle, you'll turn your song from
grape juice into champagne.
Bill Pere, is a Grammy-nominated
songwriter, named one of the
"Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music
Industry" by Music Connection
Magazine. With more than 30 years
in the music business, as a recording artist, award winning songwriter,
performer, and educator Bill is well known for his superbly crafted lyrics, with lasting impact. Bill has released 16 CD's , and is President of the
Connecticut Songwriters Association.
Bill is an Official Connecticut State Troubadour, and is the Founder and
Executive Director of the LUNCH
Ensemble. Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year, Bill
is a qualified MBTI practitioner, trained by the Association for Psychological
Type. He is a member of CMEA and
MENC, and as Director of the Connecticut
Songwriting Academy, he
helps develop young talent in songwriting, performing, and learning about the music business. Bill's song analyses and critiques are among the best in the
industry. Bill has a graduate
degree in Molecular Biology, an ARC Science teaching certification, and he has
received two awards for Outstanding contribution to Music Education. The New York Times calls Bill "the
link between science and music".
© Copyright 2012 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reproduced in
any way with out permission of the author. For workshops, consultation, performances, or other songwriter services, contact Bill via his web sites, at http://www.billpere.com, http://www.ctsongwriting.com, and http://www.lunchensemble.com