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Building The Perfect Beast: Form Follows Function
by Pat Pattison

"OhMyGod Artie, stop!" yells Herbie. Artie’s ‘69 VW microbus wobbles over to the side of the road, next to a creame and baby blue Maserati convertible parked in the lot. "Boy, I’d like to drive that beauty. Looks like it really flies." Whew," whistles Artie " Look at it, low, wide wheel base, scooped front, rear foil. Definitely built for speed." A physicist or aeronautical engineer could give a more precise description, but Artie and Herbie have it nailed anyway. As much as they love Artie’s Microbus, they know it won’t win any races, because it isn’t built for speed. But that Maserati sure could. Intuitively, they apply the principle, form follows function. If you asked them the right questions, they’d be able to describe the two ways this principle works:

1. When you look at an individual car, you can figure out figure out its what it's built to do (function) by its design (form). Conversely, when you build a car, you figure out its design by what you want it to do. If you want a race car, build it heavy, wide and lower in front than in back so the wind will press it towards the track. If you want an economy car, build it light and shape it to cut wind resistance. This is called the principle of prosody.

2. When you look at two cars, you see whether they’re different or the same. When they're the same design, they should have the same function. When they have different designs , they should have different functions. This is the principle of contrast.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about cars, rhyme schemes, architecture, or lyrics.

1. Prosody (prahz - a - dee)

Prosody means that elements are working together for a common purpose, for example, when we line up words and notes -- matching stressed notes appropriately with stressed syllables. We could work with shape and weight in designing racing cars. We could create a relationship between rhythm and meaning by writing about galloping horses in a clippity-clop rhythm.

The Assyrian came dówn like a wólf on a fóld
And their cóhorts were gléaming in sílver and góld
- Byron -

We could also write about difficult deeds by using strings of stressed syllables to slow the rhythm down:

When Ajáx stríves sóme róck’s vást wéight to thrów
The líne tóo lábors, and the wórds móve slów
- Pope -

As a writer, you'll usually look from a car designer’s perspective -- from function to form. You’ll know what you want to say, so you have to design form to support your ideas.

You have tools to design your vehicle’s shape, primarily phrase lengths, rhythms and rhymes For example, say there’s a place in your verse where things get pretty active or intense. You might try putting rhymes (both phrase-end and internal rhyme) close together, and try to using short phrases. Like this:

A.

You can't play ping pong with my heart
You dominate the table
My nerves are shot, you've won the set
Your curves have got me in a sweat
My vision's blurred, can't see the net
I'm feeling most unstable

a
b
c
c
c

b

Built for speed. Consecutive rhymes "set/net/sweat" slam the ideas home. The internal rhymes "nerves/curves/blurred" and "shot/got" put us in overdrive. The acceleration creates prosody: the mutual support of structure and meaning --form follows function.

What would the ride feel like if we toned down the rhyme action?

B.

You can't play ping pong with my heart
You dominate the table
My nerves are shot, I’ve come apart
You wink and smile, still feeling playful
Weak and numb, I the mark
I'm feeling most unstable

a
b
a
b
a
b

Out pops the rear parachute. Prosody evaporates, or at least diminishes, when the rhymes are spread out into a regular pattern. But the short phrases in lines 3, 4 and 5 still press on the accelerator. If we lengthen some of the shorter phrases, we let off the gas even more.

C.

You can't play ping pong with my heart
You dominate the table
My nerves are shot, you’ve won the point
Your slams have put me in a sweat
My vision's weak, can’t see the ball
I'm feeling most unstable

a
b
x
x
x
b

Now the structure acts more like a slow moving a ‘68 VW microbus, while the meaning still dreams of checkered flags on the Grand Prix Circuit. Bad combination.

We might as well destroy Prosody completely while we’re at it. This time, you do it. Rewrite below so lines 3 and 5 contain one long phrase each, instead of two shorter ones.Be careful not to rhyme.

C.

You can't play ping pong with my heart
You dominate the table
________________________________
Your slams have put me in a sweat
________________________________
I'm feeling most unstable

a
b
x
x
x
b

Compare your result to the original and you will see what an important role structure can play in support of meaning. If you’re careful how you build your form, you can make it work for you. Tend to Prosody of form and function and your structure will become a powerful and expressive ally rather than an obstacle standing between you and what you really meant to say.

The Principle of Contrast

Herbie and Artie know the difference between their Microbus and the creame and baby blue Maserati. No big mystery -- they’re built different. This is another way to look at form follows function. Simple logic: things that look the same should do the same thing. Things that look different should do different things. A Microbus is not a Maserati.

Verses in a song should all have the same function -- they develop the plot, characters, or situations of the song. That's why they're all called verses. Because the verses all have the same function, they should all have the same form. Easy, huh?

Or this: when you move from a verse to another function, for example, to a chorus function (commentary, summary), the form should change: the rhyme scheme, phrase lengths, number of phrases, or rhythms of phrases. Maybe all four.

Form follows function is the real rationale behind what often look like silly rules:

Rule 136: All verses should have the same rhyme scheme!
Rule 219: Change the rhyme scheme when you get to the Chorus

Look at this Verse and its Chorus:

SOUTHERN COMFORT

Spanish moss hanging low
Swaying from the trees
Honeysuckle, sweet magnolia
Riding on the breeze
Southern evenings, southern stars
Used to bring me peace
But now they only make me cry
They only make me realize
Verse 1
There's no SOUTHERN COMFORT
Unless you're in my arms
You're the only cure
For this aching in my heart
I've searched everywhere
Tried the bedrooms, tried the bars
But there's no SOUTHERN COMFORT
Unless you're in my arms
Chorus

Each section contains, roughly, the same number of phrases. No contrast there.

The verse rhymes its alternate lines, except at the end, where it accelerates with a couplet. The Chorus rhymes every other line too, without the couplet acceleration at the end.

low
trees
magnolia
breeze
stars
peace
cry
realize

x
a
x
a
x
a
b
b

Verse
comfort
arms
cure
heart
where
bars
comfort
arms
x
a
x
a
x
a
x
a
Chorus

Still not much contrast between the sections.

The verse contains two complete sections of Common Meter rhythm. The only variation is the extra stressed syllable in the last line.

# stresses
Spánish móss hánging lów
Swáying fróm the treés
Hóneysúckle, sweét magnólia
Ríding ón the breéze
Soúthern évenings, soúthern stárs
úsed to bríng me peáce
But nów they ónly máke me cry
They ónly máke me réalizé

4
3
4
3
4
3
4
4

That’s a lot of Common Meter, but there’s more. Look at the Chorus.

# stresses
There's nó Soúthern Cómfort
Unléss you're ín my árms
Yoúre the ónly cúre
For this áching ín my heárt
I've seárched éverywhére
Triéd the bédrooms, triéd the bárs
But there's nó Soúthern Cómfort
Unléss you're ín my árms

3+
3
3
3
3
4
3+
3

Although most of the phrases have three stresses, the section is still basic Common Meter:

1. The balancing phrases are 3 stresses, the signature length of Common Meter.
2. The opening phrase ends weak, implying another stress. When you want two sections to contrast, the first phrase of the second section must make a difference immediately. If you don’t make a difference there, don’t bother.
3. The two 3 stress phrases with extra weak syllables are in the same positions as 4 stress phrases in Common Meter, leaving only 2 contrasting phrases in the entire Chorus. And they’re the same length as half the lines in the verse.

Essentially, by the time we finish the Chorus, we have been through four Common Meter systems. That’s a lot. Imagine the boredom by the time you finish four more:

Tried my best to ease the hurt
Leave the pain behind
Evenings sitting on the porch
You're always on my mind
SOUTHERN COMFORT after dark
Helps me face the night
But there's nothing to look forward to
'Cept looking back to loving you
Verse 2
There's no SOUTHERN COMFORT
Unless you're in my arms
You're the only cure
For this aching in my heart
I've searched everywhere
Tried the bedrooms, tried the bars
But there's no SOUTHERN COMFORT
Unless you're in my arms
Chorus

Ho hum structure. If the lyric’s meaning were more interesting, there might be some hope, but it’s not that interesting. Even if the meaning shone in 11 shades of Microbus dayglow, the structure still should help it, not hurt it.

The Bridge finally delivers a contrast, but by then everyone has wandered off for a hot dog. It’s too late.

Bar to bar
Face to face
Someone new takes your place
No one’s ever new
I always turn them into you

Then two more lumps of Common Meter for the tombstone

There's no SOUTHERN COMFORT
Unless you're in my arms
You're the only cure
For this aching in my heart
I've searched everywhere
Tried the bedrooms, tried the bars
But there's no SOUTHERN COMFORT
Unless you're in my arms

Instead, design a verse to contrast with the chorus. The rewrite below balances six lines against two rather than dividing the verse into two 4-line sections of Common Meter.

rhyme stress
Spánish móss hánging lów
Bówing ín the wínd
Hóneysúckle ríding ón the bréeze
Sóuthern évenings, sóuthern stárs
Swéet magnólia níghts
Uséd to bring me hármony and péace
Látely théy just máke me cry
They ónly máke me réalíze

x
x
a
x
x
a
b
b

4
3
5
4
3
5
4
4
There's no SOUTHERN COMFORT
Unless you're in my arms
You're the only cure
For this aching in my heart
I've searched everywhere
Tried the bedrooms, tried the bars
But there's no SOUTHERN COMFORT
Unless you're in my arms

Now the verse and chorus look different. Even Artie would notice. Though this lyric could still use major rewriting, at least its structure isn’t stuck in the mud.You might find even better verse structures with unexpected twists to add zip to your song. Like these structures:

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb would go, indeed
He goes wherever Mary leads
He follows with devoted speed

And this little beauty by Jim Rushing (1):

When I left I left walking wounded
I made my escape from the rain
Still a prisoner of hurt
I had months worth of work
Freeing my mind of the pain
I had hours of sitting alone in the dark
Listening to sad songs and coming apart
Lord knows I made crying an art
Weak is a SLOW HEALING HEART

x
a
b
b
a
c
c
c
c

Or this one from Janis Ian and Kye Fleming (2):

Some people’s lives
Run down like clocks
One day they stop
That’s all they’ve got
a
b
b
b

Verse 1

 
Some lives wear out
Like old tennis shoes
No one can use
It’s sad but it’s true
c
d
d
d
Verse 2

Prosody and Contrast

Of course, contrast between sections can also add Prosody:

VERSE If I went into analysis
And took myself apart
And laid me out for both of us to see
You'd go into paralysis
Right there in my arms
Finding out you're not a bit like me

a
b
c
a
b
c

   
CHORUS READY OR NOT
We've got what we've got
Let's give it a shot
READY OR NOT

d
d
d
d

The Chorus really zips along by changing to short phrases and consecutive rhymes. The speed is really a result of contrast: it seems so fast only because the verse has been so leisurely. Both Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s Years work on the same principle. Here’s the first verse and chorus from Years. (3)

# stresses
(w/musical setting)

I went home for Christmas to the house that I grew up in
Going home was something after all those years
I drove up Monterey Street and I felt a little sadness
When I turned left on Laurel and the house appeared
And I snuck up to that rocking chair
where the winter sunlight slanted on the screened in porch
And I looked out past the shade tree
that my laughing daddy planted on the day that I was born

6
5
6
5

9

9

Verse

 
And I let time go by so slow
And I made every moment last
And I thought about YEARS
How they take so long
And they go so fast
3
3
2
2
2

Chorus

The Verse lines are lingering and relaxed just like the daughter. The Chorus shows how fast years go by accelerating the pace with shorter phrases. Not only is there contrast, but the contrast supports the meaning. Even within the chorus, the longer phrases slow time down; shorter phrases step on the accelerator.

And I let time go by so slow
And I made every moment last
And I thought about YEARS
How they take so long
And they go so fast
3
3
2
2
2

Chorus

Beth Nielsen Chapman sets the first two lines into four bars of music. The last three also fits into four bars, but the last line, "And they go so fast" is only one bar, supporting the lyric prosody perfectly. Nice stuff.

Become a designer: fit form to function. When you run with the LA fast-track set, step out with the Maserati. But when you want to join Artie and Herbie for the next Dead concert, go in style in the day-glow Microbus. Stop to consider what you need, and then build it. Have an effective, interesting structure ready for any occasion.

Have some questions for the author? Feel free to drop by his web site.

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