Sometimes You Gotta Work
In the beginning of formalized songwriting, there was Gregorian Chant. It is chordal, and lovely. It has no discernable words and therefore, no rhyme. It has no meter, no structure, and other than chords, no rules.
In the beginning, there were no newspapers, TVs or internet. There were story tellers. They used rhyme to help them remember the story.
Aha! Rule #1. Let there be rhyme.
And in the beginning, they were hard, or perfect, rhymes. "Light rhymes" with "night" but not with "sigh." "Classical" poetry — the kind I studied in school — has perfect rhymes. Show tunes have perfect rhymes. Early popular songs have perfect rhymes. Cowboy poems, the ones that have survived and have become classics, have perfect rhymes.
Note: Perfect rhymes can use one, two or three syllables of a word. Four, if you know more than one four syllable words.
Eventually we ran out of perfect rhymes for "love," "life" and other popular subjects. So we went to soft, also called near or slant, rhymes to express new ideas about old subjects. Near rhymes are perfectly acceptable in songs, especially curent country music and genres in which the lyrics are not as important as the groove. Free verse? Anything goes.
As time went on, storytellers and musicians discovered rhythm. Rhythm helps musicians who play together actually play together. People can dance to consistent rhythms. OK. Some people can dance to consistent rhythms. Rythm also helps storytellers tell their stories. The words flow more easily.
Oh! Rule #2. Let there by meter. (Except free verse)
Meter? What's that?
Words of multiple syllables have accented syllables. AC - cen - ted SYL -la - bles. Think of them as DOWN beats and up beats. DOWN - up - up. And, when we combine words, we have accented and unaccented syllables. The pattern of words in a line creates a meter. Perfect meter is when the DOWN and up beats are consistent through out the lines. "AC - cen - ted SYL - a - bles" is one meter. "PER - fect ME - ter" and "ta - DAH ta -DAH" are meters. The difference between thelast two examples is whether you start on the DOWN or up beat. Meter can use more than three syllables. "da - da- da- DAH" (Beethoven) or "ta - DAH - do - be -DOO" (Here's Frank) can be used if it is repeated consistenly.
Note: Meter must use the words as they are actually pronounced. Otherwise, you could have the DOWN beat on the wrong "syl - LA -ble."
Songwriters can, and have, relied on the meter of the music to allow them to add an extra syllable (eg. grace note) or drop a syllable (half-note in place of 2 quarter-notes). Sometimes songwriters put up words on the DOWN beat or hold them on longer notes. But don't think that meter doesn't apply to songwriters. The Song School at Planet Bluegrass has had classes in which songwriters can learn rhythm. The instructors tell songwriters to read their lyrics out loud while they walk to the rhythm. Or dance if it's "DAH - da -da," a waltz.
Poets don't have background music. They have no excuses.
The meter pattern ends at the end of the line. It maybe be shorter or longer in subsequent lines, but it must be consistent through an entire verse (song) or stanza (poem).
Verse? Stanza? Rule #3. Let there be structure. (Yeah, yeah. Free verse.)
Music and poems have different structures. Music has verses, choruses, and bridges. Poems have stanzas. Traditionally music has 2- or 4-line verses and 2- or 4-line choruses. Why? Because people danced to it. Early dances require a repeating pattern of 16- or 32-measures. Poems may have any number of lines in a stanza.
Early songs of troubadours (singing storytellers) had an unlimited number of verses. They were called ballads. Modern songs have one or two verses, a chorus, a verse, a bridge, and a chorus. They're called commercial.
Regardless, each verse or stanza must have the same meter pattern and rhyming pattern and be the same length throughout the song or poem. Yes, there are songs that add to the chorus each time so it gets longer each time you sing it. They're called novelties.
Uh oh. Rhyming pattern. What's that? That's where the hard rhymes occur. All lines could end in the same sound, but that gets boring. The first two lines could rhyme, then the next two could use a different rhyme. Or alternating lines could rhyme. Or the first and third lines don't have to rhyme.
Sometimes a word in the middle of a line rhymes with the word at the end. Those times are called internal rhymes. If you use those, you must use them in the same place in each place in each verse or stanza.
Three rules. That's it. rhyme, meter, structure. Four years of college English classes condensed into 3 words.
What's so hard about learning three rules?
I got sloppy as a songwriter. I casually used near rhymes and relied on the music for my meter.
Then I started to write Cowboy poetry. And I had to work at it. I listened to it and it sounded so simple. I knew about meter. I write most of my song lyrics in pretty good meter. You can read my lyrics and know if it's waltz or rock/folk meter. But, I added grace notes, especially at the beginnings of lines. And I changed quarter notes to half notes, and sometimes whole notes. I wrote lyrics that said what I wanted them to say and sounded natural.
Suddenly I had to put my natural-sounding, close-to-perfect-meter, almost-rhyming lovely lyrics into a poem with perfect rhyme and meter. And keep them saying what I want them to say in a natural way.
Hey! That takes work.
Yes, but it's worth it. While looking for a perfect hard rhyme, I came up with words that said what I wanted in a better way, or I came up with imagery that was fresher. "Dan Black was too young to be out working cattle / But did as much work as a man" became "Dan Black was too young to be out working cattle / But worked like a full-size cowhand" to rhyme with "brand." "Full-size cowhand" is a far-more descriptive phrase than "as a man.".
I got back into the habit of hard rhymes and perfect meter and that's made me a better songwriter.
And, like any other skill, after you practice it, hard rhymes and perfect meter start to come naturally. You'll find you can rhyme anything anytime anywhere and even do it in your sleep.
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