How do you write matching verses and why it's so hard ( if it even is )?

26 posts / 0 new
Last post

In his book "Tunesmith" Jimmy Webb says that Joni Mitchell's conversational style of writing song was one of the reasons the art of writing matching verses was forgotten. I'd say that traditional folk music, in general, is more loose with matching and rhymes than for example the classic American Song Book tradition on Irvin Berlin, Cole Porter and Gershwins. The modern pop dance music is also not so much matching oriented.

We all know that when lyrics have clear and precise rhythm in the lines and when the verses match to a tee it sounds really nice, it's easier to put into music, it's easy to sing and memorize both for the singer and for the audience.

If you sing your own lyrics, and the lines are uneven and syllable count differs a lot between verses, you're the one who has to figure out how to sing it and how to make the melody fit the words. That's ok. It can add a certain character to your song.

If you're a lyrics-only writer I would think that writing lyrics that are very easy to put into music would be one of the first goals. When words really sing from the page they very often will soon be sung in a demo. You'd get more collabs.

So, when you're writing matching verses, what is your favorite techniques? Please share. We would love to know. I know I do.

And if you don't write matching verses and/or you think it's hard, what is your biggest obstacles? What exactly makes you give up even when you know that it's not - in a way - "finished"?

i spent my early days studyng the confucian odes for content and learning and practicing the forms. one of the best things to do when you dont have any ideas ,is to practice the many forms of formal poetry. seed and nurture the rhythms and rhymes insde you until your body pulsates with the time changes of poetry . read alexander pope endlessly to instill iambic pentameter into your brain waves, as the years pass you will create new forms with solid structures so dont worry about the trouble with classicism, to see how the transforation happens read sylvia plaths dull volume of formal poetry, the colossus, then her vital volume of modern poetry. ariel, she could never have written the latter without first having developed the techniques neccessary to the former....so study the odes and practice the forms, matching verses will be as easy as swallowing identical spoonfuls of ice cream

personally i find the natural stresses of words more important than direct exact matches, i sometimes scupper myself - as you know Klaus Smile but on the whole i prefer a natural rhythm than a maybe clumsy (wrong stresses) syllable match.

"Normal" songwriting? I blame WS Gilbert and a love of older ballads, Kipling's younger verse (eg in the Jungle Books) and 19thC poets too, for I write with close attention to scansion and clear rhymes. And such lyrics almost set themselves, i.e. I sit at a piano and say the words and the hands and hindbrain seem to do the rest. And that's why to snap myself out of tedium I sometimes pick up others' strange arhythmic unrhymed and unmetricated, but appealing, lyrics, and run a more conversational style when setting them. But that's a lot harder.

What I find even harder, though, is to set lyrics to existing music. The example here is a strongly rhythmic, dramatic and emotion-laden epic scene from Ngurunderi. No rhyme, the scansion appears shot, but it fits the music perfectly, and performs the necessary dramatic stuff too. And it took days to get right. I suspect the repetitions--intended for tin-eared audiences to wean them from the surtitles and make them watch the action and listen instead--is what holds it all together. But the effect with the music is to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Horses for courses? Are they even lyrics?? [©2017 TJ Fatchen All Rights Reserved, i have to put that in!]

"I bid you, rise!
I bid you, rise!
I bid you...rise!

Rise!
Western Wind!
Rise!
And drive the western sea!

Rise, you south Wind!
Drive the South Sea
And sunder the Land of Spirits!

Rise, you roaring swells!
Fall upon the lowlands!

Rise, you Northern Wind!
Join the surge and tide!"

It's probably one of the simplest things to do, but it really helps to get you thinking in terms of syllable count and stressing syllables - go to https://www.oedilf.com/db/Lim.php
and try your hand at helping to complete their dictionary, in limerick form. I had a blast, and learned quite a bit in the process.

Its interesting. Ive played syllable counting games when i teach songwriting. Its a bit of a misnomer! Its where you place the stress in words! By changing stress you can change the count. Stress is not even the same by country! I have lived and worked in Australia, NZ England, The US (and many non english speaking places) each of those countries place stress in different parts of words and that changes the count! Even rhyming changes sometimes. Ive studies rhyming schemes and rhyming styles and there are more than 20 of each - some beyond my comprehension - i don't see what some achieve. Every year i spend at least one month trying different ones out as practice, also practicing non exact matches (the brain is amazing on some of these and hears connections that do not seem there on paper). I surprisingly learned a lot by practicing rap music, it opened my ears to different cadence. I used to find freeform writing the hardest but have gotten better with practice. Putting lyrics to written music ( particularly someone else's music ) still remains the hardest for me. I agree with Bill if you want to learn seriously its like most things you need to build foundations first, study classic, poetry and songs get them ingrained in your head! Then you can bounce your own style off!

What an interesting thread. I don't agree with allot of it, I say with full respect for it. I find nearly the opposite appealing, -- this is what makes this very interesting, and *worth reading. I love *really seeing what folks think and about stuff like this, Uno? Wink hahhh

I think I agree with wobbie, but don't know what scupper means. (A water way, drain? Smile -- great word; that's why I make up words then check the etymology later.)

I focus on spoken word rhythm and the chordal modulations that can be engaged around the rhythmic sub-melodies, -- or something fancy-speak like that Wink

Ironically, if I get all of what you speak of, I undo it as a "lyric". If I understand this thesis correctly, but I may not, (and I don't like rules anyway), it can tend to sound cliche-ish/clever ? for some reason, -- to me. I don't knock it, it's just not for me and work against it, -- ironic; again, an interesting thread to read and maybe learn from somehow.

Within "PSA's" and jingle-house copyrighting of long ago, may have influenced this feeling I have. Language, "onlineguage" is sloppy, -- if one may earn a PhD to explain it, how "orderly" and rule bound could it really, functionally be? -- Ruled abstraction in it's own container?

I find unmatched call and response, that matches overall, a sonic tug I find interesting and balanced that way. I find it very interesting to speak e.g. 7 words in a 64th beat, on beat where 2 words fit previously as, hmmm, what's the math here, dotted 8ths with artful silence or an extra phrase of music to balance it out? Smile

Great thread to consider all this!

Interesting. I grew up listening to traditional music and I've always found a lot of it to be fairly strict as far as meter and rhyme scheme. There are some instances where words don't seem to rhyme, but often that's a case of accent. It happens with Shakespeare too. The way we say the words they don't rhyme, but they way they said them, they do.

A few people have already hit the nail on the head though. It all has to do with meter. You really don't want to count syllables when writing a line. First off, it would feel dull and probably awkward to have the same number of syllables in every line. There are lots of websites that go through the basics of poetic meter and it's good to have an idea of what's going on. I can't remember who it was that suggested the books of Mark Forsyth in the "what are you reading" thread, but I picked them up and they're great. Elements of Eloquence has a chapter on meter. But more important than that is just reading a lot of poetry. Shakespeare's sonnets are good for that. Emily Dickinson is good too, and I think Lewis Carol's poetry. Edgar Allan Poe is fun because he plays around with meter much more. He's not strict. That's when it gets interesting... you're following a pattern for a while and then suddenly it just stops. That's a good way to emphasize something.

Rap is really great, and I find it is a wonderful way to play with meter. When you listen to rap, there is REALLY strong meter in it, but it can shift at any moment and if it does it catches your attention. It can be a very powerful tool, but it's like a language to itself. If you're not used to hearing it, it can be really hard to replicate it. So my advice is to listen to and read everything you can that sounds like what you want to sound like. And when you read it... say it out loud if you can.

I just fit the words into the music and change 'em if I need to. I've always been a huge fan of Ian Anderson and love how he can fit any word into any music! "And your wise men don't know how it fee ee ee ee ee ee ee ee eels".

Klaus said : "If you're a lyrics-only writer I would think that writing lyrics that are very easy to put into music would be one of the first goals. When words really sing from the page they very often will soon be sung in a demo. You'd get more collabs."

I think you've got a very good point here. I like trawling through the "lyrics only" pages looking for suitable collabs but more often than not there’s not a lot of rhythm or consistency in the lines and verses. It does make it much harder to come up with melodies and musical ideas when there’s not really a flow or some sort of pattern to latch onto.

I am but a humble amateur at this and I can't read or write music, but I used to be a singer (weird...I know). When I write lyrics, I just try to write them like I'd sing them. I watch syllable counts for sure, but there are times when the counts do not quite line up, but in my head, I know it works.

That's all I've got to bring to this party....

I'm a huge believer in the idea that there's no definitive "right" way to do anything, especially in the creative arts. Some lyrics are free-form poems that may or may not rhyme, some are highly structured quartets, and both are valid and pleasurable. My approach is generally to lean towards at least a basic form (AABB, ABAB, ABCB, ABBA, AABBA, stuff like that) in my lyrics and try to branch from there and break rules.

I think @katpiercemusic hits it on the head around meter and rap. I think folk and rock musicians could hugely benefit from studying the way rappers play with meter. It's much closer to old school poetry than some of the more florid "traditional folk" verse. None of my music is even remotely close to rap stylistically, but I learned a lot more about lyrical flow from NWA than CSN.

< tangent > As a relevant aside, Hamilton's use of internal and imperfect rhymes within verse has ruined me... Miranda fits so much lyrical craziness into such little space its absolutely daunting. To pick an example verse from "We Know" : "She courted me / Escorted me to bed and when she had me in a corner / That's when Reynolds extorted me / For a sordid fee / I paid him quarterly / I may have mortally wounded my prospects / But my papers are orderly / As you can see I kept a record of every check in my checkered history / Check it again against your list n' see consistency". The internal rhymes there are just inspiring, and he's doing that in almost every song. Obviously most of us aren't writing musicals here, but I'd aspire to have a verse with that much going on.< / tangent >

I do agree with @the pannacotta army and @Klaus that if you're a lyric-only writer looking for musical collaborators, it's MUCH easier if you've got a defined structure. I love free-form stuff, but it's a lot harder to put a song around it. If you've got defined, repeatable sections with similar meters and a structure with verses, choruses, a bridge, etc., it's much easier to see how it does from paper-to-song. I'll throw out my annual plug for the insanely prolific @kahlo2013 as a platonic example of a lyricist whose work usually translates wonderfully into song. They make it very easy to see how a song could be laid out, and are super-open to changes to fit the songwriter.

This is a fascinating topic, thanks for all your thoughts. Love @billwhite51's advice about poetry and @katpiercemusic on rap - in fact it was Hamilton that got me interested in songwriting in the first place, the wizardry that LMM manages with rhyme and cadence.

I've found that when I write lyrics-first the meter turns out either a bit square or the lines a bit too tongue-twisty, so lately I've been relying more on music-first which leads to more interesting rhythms. But that has its own problems.

I'm a big fan of Pat Pattison's approach to lyric writing, in his online course he goes deep into technical devices such as line length, line number, rhyme schemes etc and how they can serve your purposes - for example having a shorter line at the end of the verse leads to a sense of imbalance and hence momentum, "leaning forward" into the next verse or chorus. I think they're useful concepts for keeping in mind while writing, but more so when editing if something sounds off or boring.

I'm writing this as a lyricist. Thank you @Klaus for raising this !
As someone above said (I think it was @wobbie wobbit ), creating rythm is what matters, not idential syllables.
My song's verse lines do not have identical syllables, and if they do it's purely by chance.
A lyric is not poetry, unless, again, by accident.
When I write a lyric I write something for someone to sing, not read. I sing it in my head, to my own music (which I never share with anyone), until it flows and fits the structure I want and like. Until it feels good.
And yes @3tdoan Pat Pattision is amazing at getting over some basic principles that can hugely, and subliminally, affect how a listener feels when your music is playing, especially from a lyric point of view, but also the music and melody.

I do a lot of syllable counting and metre-work when composing my lyrics. Sometimes I choose not to, for effect, but it sure makes it easier to sing a consistent melody if the stress pattern of the words comes off reasonably consistently throughout!

Can't really add much that hasn't already been said; as a holder of a degree in English Lit and a journal-published poet (they paid me, not I them!) writing lyrics really is a matter of knowing how language works and how to best phrase what you want to say in the format that your scansion and rhythm requires.

This is a sincere question. Folks who are talking about counting syllables... is it really syllables you are counting or beats? It seems very strange to count syllables to me, especially since it's the number of beats in a phrase or line that give most European/American songs their symmetry. For instance, 8 beats is fairly typical for a line of music, but if you count 8 beats out loud, by the 7th beat you're squeezing 2 syllables in one beat. That's how you express rhythm through lyrics. You don't want the same rhythm repeating over and over through the entire song, and I haven't seen that happen very often in the songs I listen to in 50/90.

A friend who I sometimes co-wrote songs with always commented on my stressing words differently than what she was used to, and expected to hear. We sometimes butted heads over chord choices, melody choices, because of it. I, who was steeped in pop music from the 60's, 80's etc. (though, of course Joni Mitchell was a huge influence) and she, rooted in singer-songwriter and Broadway show tunes. I learned from her, but not sure if she took anything away from working with me. I'm more aware of what sounds natural and conversational in my melodies now than concerns about syllable matches on the beat, or matching exactly, verse to verse.

I don't think it's hard to write matching verses - I just don't get hung up on being exact if I can squeeze in or leave out a syllable here and there

When you're writing your own lyrics and sing them you can use any amount of syllables and stresses that you like. Then you just figure out how the melody can fit the words or vice versa and this can happen quite naturally. In these cases, you sort of find a general form or shape of the melody and write the lyrics to that. That's how people usually hear the music anyway, in shapes and forms, not as syllable counts.

But when you're the musician and you use somebody else's lyrics-only on 50/90, it's a completely different animal.

The syllable count all by itself doesn't tell the whole story either. Lines like these have the same syllable count, five syllables each:

( First line of the first verse: ) I loved you dear-ly

( First line of the second verse: ) You left me a-lone

They don't match because DEAR-ly and a-LONE have the stresses on exactly "opposite" syllables. I've seen this kind of thing here. If musician uses the same melody to both lines he will stress one of these words in a wrong way. Well, that makes the musician and lyricist look bad. We don't want that, no!

You can alter the melody a bit for the second verse line. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it feels like it's impossible. But composing an alternative melody to the second verse line takes effort. Then you also have to remember it when singing the demo. It takes time just to check if the lyrics can be matched somehow. Multiply that all with 50 and I hope you understand why certain musicians just love lyrics from which you can just see at first glance that the verses match.

I know it's not easy, and this whole thing is also a matter of taste and style and personal preferences. In practice, I haven't had too much trouble finding lyrics to put into music this year. And almost all of them have been just bonza.

Nasta Klaus Nasta Smile

One has to work back and forth (assuming one writes words and music) You can have a verse, and as you sing the song, or tweak the lyrics - or the melody, you omit syllables, or add syllables and work out what "scans" (scansion)

Write quickly

Reading this thread has been enlightening. I guess my answer would be that you do whatever feels right to you. When I sing lyrics I've written out loud, I sometimes realise that a line's not going to work and have to rethink it; if you're a lyrics-only writer, make sure to read your lines out loud to make sure they're not going to trip up anyone singing them. Leaving space to breathe tends to be important to singers, for some reason. (Most of the prose writers and novelists I know make a habit of reading what they write out loud to themselves, too - it helps to make things easier for the intended reader.)

@coolparadiso is right about changing the stress on words to make them fit; take a listen to David Bowie singing "Fashion" and you'll hear him give the word "the" three syllables. If Bowie can do that, I reckon you don't need to stress too much about what you're writing!

One other thing: work on your vocabulary. The more words you know, the easier writing becomes.

When I started trying to write songs, I wrote strictly words-first. I would struggle with scansion and would often mark the emphasis I wanted on one verse and refer to the markings as I went through the editing process. Somewhere along the line, I started thinking about song rhythm at the same time I began putting words in place. By having that in my head, I've made the matching much easier.

Then again, this is when I'm writing both words and music. It might be difficult to convey the rhythm in my head to someone else without turning it into music of some kind.

If you can hear it in your head, but you're worried that the person who's doing the music might not pick it up, try saying your lyrics like a poem into a voice recorder and sending it.

I'm a big fan of crapcapella (lo-fi acapella recorded on the device en-hand, such as a phone) as a way to provide a framework for meter and flow.

I also practice improvising new tunes to my lyrics. You can change your relationship with lyrics or melody with practice. Like riding a bike, it can be scary to start.

When I improvise a new tune to existing lyrics, I'm not afraid to wiggle things a little to get it to snap in to place. Improvising means I don't have time to think, let alone worry, so I sing and things come together.

In a very real sense, I don't know how to write songs, I only know how to sing songs. I remember writing poems in school the same way, improvising bits and then cleaning it up.