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Q&A's: Lyrics Vs. Poetry?

Hi! I am a lyricist from Bakersfield, California. I recently graduted from college with my BA in English. Although I still have a lot to learn, I think I have a good grasp on the craft and art of lyric writing. If you take a poetry class, you'll hear the professor claim that song lyrics ARE poetry. From the academic view, that claim is valid; however, from the music business point of view, that claim is false.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I am interested in learning about when and why people began distinguishing between poetry and lyrics. I asked a music professor my father knows and he said that the distinction came in the Middle Ages. Can you refer any articles and books to me?

-- Sandy

I can't think of any articles or books off the top of my head, but you've posed some very interesting questions.

Well, if you're taking a poetry class, the teacher is probably a poet and not a songwriter but it really does depends where you look. The academic viewpoint tends to focus on 'high art' music (in my experience anyway)- and in that case, song lyrics are much more poetic than in the popular music world. But even in classical music, for example opera, lyrics are not treated like true poetry. To demonstrate my point, when Verdi set Macbeth as an opera, he and his librettist Piave changed the text significantly in order to make it suitable to opera. They cut hundreds of lines, used far less words, changed certain words to make them more singable, and of course also had to translate the entire Shakespeare text into Italian! In setting lyrics to music, a host of problems occur- the words have to suit the melody rhythmically, the vowels have to be suitable for the singers, and the work has to be 'chopped' into the right schemes (recitative, arias etc) and the right part of the text has to arrive at the same time as the musical climax etc. This does not mean that poetry and lyrics cannot be similar, but it shows that the music form tends to control the outcome of the text (of course, there will always be exceptions). Eg. a long poem may be far too long for an aria and will have to be altered.

In popular music, I believe poetry is a separate art form to lyric writing. Poetic devices such as assonance, alliteration, metaphors etc. are used, but whereas poetry is a stand-alone art, in songwriting, lyrics are only one factor in the song- the melody (just as important as the lyric, if not more so), the harmonic choices, the rhythm and texture are all part of the art. Also, in pop songs, the lyric matter is often simpler and a little more obvious than poetry, as the listener has to be able to discern some sort of meaning on first listen (which is difficult when the lyric is sung, and when the voice is further obscured by music)- but having said that, some songwriters choose to use a very obtuse angle for their writing and don't care about whether or not the listener 'gets' the exact meaning- they may be more interested in the mood created by the words (REM are a good example). To cut a long story short- First, don't expect to be able to use a piece of poetry as a lyric- if you do, you'll probably have to do some serious editing. Secondly, look at the style of the music you're writing- If you're writing for a rock band, poetic lyrics may sound trite and unsuitable, but may be more suited to another style. It also depends on what your poetry is like- some poets write in a sparse modern style, perfect for pop. But if you write romantic poetry like Keats or Tennyson, prepare to do some simplification.

Anyway, keep reading up and learning about the differences between the two styles, then trust your own judgement. Just because someone tells you that they think poetry isn't anything like lyrics doesn't mean you can't use poetry for your lyrics.

Finally, concerning what the professor said about the distinction between poetry and lyrics occurring in the middle ages- he/she is right. The middle ages were a pivotal time for music. Before the 12th century, most western music (that we know today) had sacred texts, but secular texts started appearing in France around the 12th century (the Troubadours in southern France were one school responsible). First, mainly love poetry (courtly love themes) was used and the songs were simple monophonic lines (that means only one line, no accompaniment) but as time went on, political issues, satire and other issues were sung- and the words started becoming very relevant and less poetic, more like they are today. Some of the medieval songs are amazing- they actually contain cryptic messages, information about the performance and lots of other interesting stuff (imagine a song where two singers sing different melodies in different languages, at the same time!)- later, the music of the 14th century became so complex, that any outside poetry or lyrics couldn't be used, and the composer had to start writing his\her own- leading us towards today's singer\songwriter (in a roundabout and simplified example).

Anyhoo, that'll do from me. I hope I answered the question! If you have any more questions or comments, don't hesitate to write. And don't forget to tune in for my next article at the Muse's Muse (maybe I should do it on the difference between lyrics and poetry?).


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