Understanding And Writing Lyrics: Metre and Rhyme
Technique : Miscellaneous
In this month’s installment, how you can use the sounds and rhythms of words to make your song lyrics more memorable.
A good pop record is made by its hooks, and there are several different kinds of hook. First of all, there’s the melody itself, especially in the chorus. Secondly, there are prominent features of the arrangement — neat bass lines, guitar riffs, keyboard licks, and so on. Thirdly, there are what we might call ‘production hooks’: interesting and distinctive effects that help to make a record stand out, not because of any musical content, but simply because of the way it sounds. In the first part of this series, I pointed out that the lyrics to pop songs can and should be hooks in their own right. However, this month I’ll be considering in detail what makes a line or phrase into a lyrical hook. I’m going to focus on the basic structural building blocks of verse: words, their arrangement into sentences, and the arrangement of sentences into sections such as verses and choruses. What makes one string of words a good, catchy, memorable, moving pop lyric, and another string of words clumsy, contrived, or banal?
There are two basic issues to consider when it comes to arranging words to form verse: how the resulting phrases sound when spoken or sung, and what they mean. As we saw last month, the fact that they mean anything at all implies that they are being delivered by a narrator, whether that person is the singer or songwriter, or another real or fictional person, or even an animal or an inanimate object. We also explored the differences you can make to the meaning of songs through your choice of narrator and mode of narration. In future, I’ll be returning to the issue of meaning on a smaller scale, to look at how you can choose the most effective words to say what you want to say. For the time being, however, I’m going to ignore questions of meaning to concentrate on the sound of words — the sequence of noises that can be created by putting words together in the right order, and their importance in creating hooks and setting the mood of a song.
One of the most basic things that separates most poetry and song lyrics from prose is that they have a rhythmical structure. English words are made up of individual sonic units called syllables. When those words are spoken or sung, the syllables fall naturally into patterns where some are accented or stressed and some are not. The word ‘punnet’, for example, contains two syllables, of which the first is accented in normal speech and the second is not.
Metre is the arrangement of syllables into a rhythmic pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Usually, some or all of the lines in a song will share a similar pattern, which will itself be made up through the repetition of more basic patterns known as ‘feet’. These are the smallest ‘building blocks’ or units of rhythm within a line. The line ‘Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace’ from The Beatles’s ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, for instance, employs a kind of foot consisting of a single stressed syllable (‘Des-’, ‘has’, bar-’) followed by a single unstressed one (‘-mond’, ‘a’, ‘-row’). The verses of their ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, by contrast, have a foot consisting of one stressed followed by two unstressed syllables: ‘Picture yourself on a boat on a river…’
Feet are arranged into the lines of a song or verse, usually in a repeating structure. The above-mentioned line from ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, for example, contains five two-syllable feet plus an additional stressed syllable (the word ‘place’); more complex lines might contain two or more different types of foot. The arrangement of feet into lines is partly responsible for the feel of a song. Continuous unvarying repetition of a simple foot, as in ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, is straightforward and direct, and can help to give a kind of singalong feel, but it can also sound facile and childish if overdone. More complex verbal rhythms can add interest and be diverting, but it can also be harder to find meaningful words that actually fit the structure without appearing contrived.
In verse designed to be sung or spoken, including pop lyrics, the ‘natural’ pattern of stresses within sentences is often over-ridden to some extent by a pattern imposed by the rhythm of the song or speech. There is, in this case, a sort of overarching metre, and some of the lines will fit this more straightforwardly than others. The pattern may, for instance, be set up by the first line, which sets a template that other lines are moulded to fit around.
It is often the case that as long as the stressed syllables of a line can be made to fall into the right pattern, different numbers of unstressed syllables between them can be made to sound equally good. Consider, for instance, Elvis Presley’s ‘Jailhouse Rock’: sometimes three unstressed syllables are squeezed inbetween stresses, as in ‘The prison band was there and they began’, and sometimes only one, as in ‘…knocked out jail birds sing’. The only strict pattern is that the stressed syllables fall on the beat: both lines fit the metre of the song, and the variety helps to make the vocal rhythm a bit more interesting.
Conversely, many sentences are sufficiently flexible that they can be spoken or sung with two or more different patterns of stressed syllables, to fit different metres, and will still sound reasonably natural. Consider, for instance, the first four words of ‘Do Right Woman’, ‘Take me to heart’. In that song, the word ‘heart’ is stretched out to form two syllables, the first of which is stressed along with the word ‘take’: ‘Take me to hea-rt’. This fits well with the tune and its six/eight time signature, but one could fit the same line equally well to several different patterns of stresses. With the right tune it could, for instance, be sung as ‘Take me to heart,’ or ‘Take me to heart’. (Note that the changed stresses in the last version suggest a slightly different meaning, as in ‘take me to heart, not her!’)
The craft of writing lyrics involves matching the natural patterns of stresses within sentences to the patterns imposed by the rhythm of a tune. Interesting and sometimes effective results can be obtained by writing words with a natural pattern of stresses that bears no relation to the rhythm of the music — listen to almost anything by the Manic Street Preachers, for example — but more often than not a poor fit will just sound clumsy.
At the other extreme, however, it’s important not to construct clumsy or unnatural sentences simply in order to create a sequence of words with the appropriate number of syllables or the correct stress pattern to suit a tune. A personal bugbear is lines that are padded out to the required length by having the word ‘it’ spuriously inserted to add an extra unstressed syllable, as in ‘The clock it was ticking’. Similar pitfalls include reversing the order of parts of a sentence to fit a metre, even though no-one would actually ever use the words in that order, as in ‘To the bottle I’ve been turning’, and adding entire clauses to a sentence in order to pad it out, even though they are completely unnecessary. The Rolling Stones’ ‘As Tears Go By’, for instance, includes the line ‘It is the evening of the day’ — but what else would it be the evening of? The most notorious example of spurious lyrical padding has to be Paul McCartney’s ‘Live And Let Die’, with its oft-quoted line ‘In this ever-changing world in which we live in’ (though McCartney apologists argue that he meant to sing the marginally better ‘…in which we’re living’).
Lines themselves are arranged into groups known in poetry as stanzas. In pop lyrics, stanzas are usually individual sections such as verses, choruses, middle eights, and bridges. The range of structures used in pop songs is generally narrower than that available to poets. Indeed, much modern poetry is written as so-called ‘free verse’ which, although it usually has rhythmic elements, does not have a consistent repeating structure at all. Pop songs, however, tend to have relatively simple melodies in which two or three metric structures are repeated. Often, some or all of the lines within a stanza will have similar metric structures — ie. the same number and pattern of feet. To return to ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, for example, the third line, ‘Desmond says to Molly, “Girl I like your face”‘, has the same number of syllables, with the same stresses, as the first. (Incidentally, I’m not using this song as an example because it has good lyrics, just because everyone knows it…)
Contrasts and similarities between the metric structure of the different stanzas can make a big difference to the feel of a song. For instance, if the verses, bridges and choruses of a song all have the same metre, or if there are only verses and no other stanzas (as in Tom Hall’s ‘Harper Valley PTA’), it will be harder to create any sense of development through the song. Perhaps for this reason, this sort of very basic structure often works best in songs with a strong message or story, where progression through the song is provided by the meaning of the words rather than by changes in their rhythmic pattern.
By contrast, a sudden or complete change in the pattern of syllables or structure of lines can delineate a particular section of a song very sharply. To take ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ again, the relaxed stress pattern of the verse (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed) gives way to a more forceful pattern (one stressed, one unstressed) in the chorus, corresponding with a switch from three/four to four/four time. And where the pattern in the verses is continuous and repetitive, creating a lulling, hypnotic feeling, the pattern in the chorus is more disjointed: the repetition established on ‘Lucy In The Sk-y’ is broken by the next few syllables, which have a completely different pattern of stresses. All of this makes the chorus stand out from the rest of the song, a difference which is reinforced by the musical arrangement. A lot of pop songs use this sort of contrast in metrical structures — where verses have longer lines with less pronounced or fewer stresses, and choruses have snappier or more forceful structures to make them sound ‘big’ and catchy.
Over the twentieth century, the use of rhyme in poetry became the exception rather than the rule. However, it’s an unusual pop song, even now, that doesn’t have a firm rhyming scheme. Rhyme could be defined as the deliberate placement of similar sounds within a verse to create a pleasing sonic effect.
Strictly speaking, a rhyme occurs when the last stressed vowels of two words or phrases, and any unstressed syllables that follow them, sound the same, but they are preceded in each case by different consonant sounds. Thus, ‘cat’ and ‘mat’ rhyme, as do ‘matting’ and ‘batting’. However, ‘batting’ does not rhyme with itself (because the consonant before the common vowel is the same), and nor does ‘matting’ rhyme with ‘baton’ (because, although the last stressed vowel is the same, the following unstressed vowel is different). Where no unstressed syllables follow the stressed vowel, as in ‘cat’ and ‘mat’, a rhyme is called ‘masculine’; ‘matting’ and ‘batting’, by contrast, are ‘feminine’ rhymes.
These kinds of rhymes are called ‘perfect’, and are sometimes thought to be the be-all and end-all of rhyme. However, the concept of rhyme also encompasses a number of other effects besides so-called ‘perfect’ rhymes. These are often ignored by pop lyricists, but can be just as effective in creating ‘hooky’ lyrics.
One such effect is ‘near’ or ‘half’ rhyme. This is similar to perfect rhyme, except that it uses similar rather than identical vowel sounds, as in ‘home’ and ‘room’, or ‘cover’ and ‘mover’. Half-rhyme is rarely used in pop songs, but it can have a powerful effect. Half-rhymes are disconcerting and stand out in pop music, because perfect rhymes are so prevalent that the listener unconsciously expects to hear them. The best example of half-rhyme I know of is the jarring first couplet of the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’, ‘I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist’. In this sneering punk rant, the use of a deliberate half-rhyme suggests contempt for the lyrical conventions of ‘nice’ pop music.
Another rhyme effect is assonance or ‘vowel rhyme’ — the use of similar vowel sounds but different end consonants, as in ‘make’ and ‘fate’. This is often used in pop songs as a next-best solution where the songwriter has clearly got stuck at some point in a song that otherwise uses perfect rhymes throughout (for instance, the juxtaposition of ‘last’ and ‘grass’ in the first verse of The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’), but can also be used as a deliberate lyrical device in its own right. There are some contexts, particularly in very sad or personal songs, where perfect rhymes can seem overstated, trite or contrived, and subtle assonances work rather better.
A rhyming scheme is the systematic organisation of rhymes within the stanzas of a poem or song. Rhymes usually, though not always, occur at the ends of lines, so we can say in general that two lines of a verse either rhyme with each other or they don’t. Rhyme schemes are standardly described by assigning letters of the alphabet, starting with ‘a’, to individual pairs or groups of rhyming lines, and using the letters ‘x’ and ‘y’ to indicate lines that have no rhyming counterpart. So, for instance, the first verse of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ has a rhyme scheme of abab, indicating that the first line and the third line rhyme, as do the second and fourth.
Setting The Tone
In both poetry and song lyrics, the types of rhyme that are used usually depend on the tone of the verse. The greater the degree of obvious contrivance, the harder it is to sound as though you’re being serious, and comic verse is often more effective if it wears its cleverness (or lack of it!) on its sleeve. Multisyllabic feminine rhymes, therefore, tend to be used for comic effect. ‘Serious’ and moving verses, on the other hand, generally work only if the rhymes are fairly transparent and natural-sounding. This is also true of internal rhyme: obvious and contrived alliteration or assonance fits better with comic moods, and while internal rhyme is also a vital component of more serious verse, it needs to be handled more subtly.
The same principle generally applies to rhyming schemes: complex, tortured patterns involving lots of rhymes in quick succession, or large numbers of lines that all rhyme with each other, tend to reinforce a comic feel, whereas a serious feel is best suited by a more natural, understated rhyme scheme. Compare, for instance, Ian Dury’s comic ‘Billericay Dickie’, which employs feminine rhymes throughout, and in which each verse contains seven increasingly contrived rhymes for the same girl’s name, with the sad and immensely moving song about his father, ‘My Old Man’, which precedes it on New Boots And Panties. Or, to take another example, consider The Beatles’ ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’: taken at face value, this could be a rather disturbing story about a serial killer, but its complex rhyme scheme, tortured multisyllabic rhymes (‘Edison’ with ‘medicine’, and so forth) and jaunty tune give it more the air of a music-hall comedy or child’s nursery rhyme.
Pop songs almost always follow one of a few fairly simple rhyme schemes, most often with the lines arranged into groups of four: probably the most popular are abab, aabb, and xaxa. However, there is no reason why this has to be the case, and more unusual arrangements of rhymes can be very memorable (see below). Paul McCartney’s gift for employing unconventional rhyming schemes, often juxtaposing long and short lines in clever ways, is evident in songs like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and ‘Yesterday’, and helps to make both the lyrics and the melody memorable.
So far, I’ve considered only the obvious rhymes that link the ends of different lines in a verse. Where techniques such as assonance and half-rhyme come into their own, however, is in setting up sympathetic patterns of sound which don’t refer to other patterns in other lines, but work within a line. Internal rhymes are usually much more subtle than conventional rhymes and are just as important, even though they are often neglected — at least at a conscious level.
A lot of the ‘hookiness’ of a lyrical phrase — the feeling that a particular line just sounds right — is down to the pattern of sounds within that phrase, and how they connect to each other. Two sentences can have the same natural pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, and yet one can sound infinitely better: and this is usually a result of internal rhyme. For instance, in the title phrase of Ian Dury’s classic ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, every stressed vowel sound is a short ‘i’, creating a strong pattern of assonances even within quite a short line. This goes a long way towards making the line memorable and pleasing to the ear. To see just how important this is, compare it with the sound of a similar line which replaces the ‘i’ sounds with an assortment of other vowels, such as ‘hot me with your fathom stuck’ (well, it’s nearly as meaningful as the actual line!).
As well as perfect rhyme, half-rhyme and assonance, internal rhyme can involve a fourth element: alliteration. Alliteration is the counterpart of assonance with respect to consonants. It is the repetition of a stressed consonant sound, as in ‘take a taxi to the town’, and can be a subtle and very effective way to reinforce a melody. Again, Ian Dury often used this to good effect. Listen, for instance, to the pattern of ‘n’ sounds (alliteration) and ‘a’ sounds (assonance) in this line from his ‘Clevor Trever’: ‘Just ‘cos I ain’t never ‘ad no nothing worth ‘aving never ‘ave and never ever.’
A more subtle example comes from Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, which contains the memorable alliterative line ‘They paved paradise, put up a parking lot’. (Pop shields to maximum, Captain…) The melody to which this line is sung is used, more or less, for most of the other lines in the song — but this one stands out as the hook because of its strong internal rhyme. And, of course, there’s Craig David’s recent hit, the chorus of which goes ‘I met this girl on Monday / Took her for a drink on Tuesday / We made love by Wednesday’.
Working With Rhyme & Metre: A Few Ideas
A point I’ve stressed in this series is that there’s no advantage in setting out to write bland, generic lyrics. Sometimes, you have to rein in your musical imagination, because musical arrangements or compositions can put listeners off by being too different or ‘difficult’; but you can only gain by making your lyrics stand out from the crowd. Last month, we saw how making the right choice of narrative voice and lyrical mode could help you to achieve this. Sometimes, as we saw, you can make your song stand out by narrating it from an unusual point of view, or constructing it as a dramatic address — but only sometimes. The more conventional and familiar voices and modes are familiar for a reason, which is that they are often the best or the only choice for dealing with a given subject. Whether or not your song is set up in an unusual mode and narrative voice, however, you can always ensure that it stands out by distinctive use of rhyme and metre.
Let’s consider for a minute what would not be a memorable use of rhyme and metre. This ‘lowest common denominator’ would be a song or verse in which all the lines were the same length, and had the same number and arrangement of feet. On the rhyme front, it would be a song which used only perfect rhymes, which conformed to a very basic rhyme scheme such as xaxa, and in which no thought was paid to internal rhyme, alliteration or assonance.
If you want to create a lyric that is memorable for its metrical structure and use of rhyme, then, you could start by trying to get away from this template. Let’s suppose that you’ve come up with a hook line for your chorus or for the beginning of your song. When you’re writing the next or the previous line, why not deliberately try to write one that is half as long, or twice as long? If you can come up with a structure based around lines of different lengths, you’ll almost inevitably end up doing things differently in other areas too. Since the lyrical metre will be much less repetitive than that of our ‘lowest common denominator’ song, it’ll be easier to come up with a non-repetitive and therefore distinctive melody. Because the lines are of such different lengths, you may well find that the most natural rhyme scheme is one that juxtaposes a word at the end of a short line with one in the middle of a long line (for instance, ‘You know something I don’t / You do something I won’t forget for a while’), rather than simply rhyming the last word in each line. And if you choose to incorporate one or more long lines, you’ll have more scope for internal rhyme within them.
Choosing to use a less straightforward arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables (feet) can also have similar benefits. Why not use different patterns in consecutive lines, or a varying foot within each line? Opting for a more complex, compound pattern of stresses may well suggest different note patterns for the melody of your song, as well as adding interest in its own right.
Alternatively, you could deliberately write to an unusual rhyme scheme. Try using a scheme where some lines rhyme within individual verses and some rhyme across verses, such as aaab/cccb. Try using a rhyme scheme that includes more or fewer than four lines, such as aabba (the rhyme scheme limericks have), abccab, or aab/ccb. You could even write so-called ‘blank’ verse, which is verse that has the same sort of structure as rhyming verse in which stressed syllables are correlated across lines, but simply doesn’t rhyme (for instance, ‘I ran through the valley / I climbed up the hill / I swam through the river / I walked in the woods’). Again, it’s often the case that working with an unusual rhyming scheme or number of lines has positive effects on other aspects of the songwriting process, forcing you to come up with a distinctive melody and song structure. If you want to reinforce a difference between two sections of a song, say a verse and a chorus, why not try giving them strikingly different metres and rhyming schemes?
Think about the possibilities for incorporating internal rhymes into your lyrics, too. Identify the ‘key’ words in each line, and identify the consonants and vowels that will be stressed when the lines are sung. Are these repeated in other words in the same lines? If not, can you replace those words with others that do contain these letters? If so, can the alliteration or assonance be extended by changing other words? Let’s take the line ‘She went away on Tuesday’ as an example. There’s already an alliteration on the letter ‘w’ in ‘went’ and ‘away’, so we might think about a way to extend this to the end of the line. In this case, it’s easy: we can simply replace ‘Tuesday’ with ‘Wednesday’, and the result sounds considerably better.
From Rhyme To Reason
Having explored the struture of verse and some of the theory which explains why some words sound good together and others don’t, it’s time to turn to the actual meaning of song lyrics. Supposing you’ve decided on the subject of your song, and what point you want to convey about that subject: what techniques are there for converting ideas into words and phrases that get your point across elegantly and effectively? In the fourth and fifth parts of this series, I’ll be exploring some of the different ways in which you can choose the best words to say what you want to say.
cc Published in SOS February