On Lyrics, a Basic Primer
#1
On Lyrics:
Part 1. A Basic Primer on the Writing and Evaluation of Lyrics

This primer treats the technicals of lyrics. I will follow up with a subsequent note on theory. Understanding the contents below is necessary to understanding that note on theory.

I. Overview

Lyrics and poetry differ three ways. In order of importance, these are

(1) Poetry is written for a reader; Lyrics are written for a composer.

(2) Poetry's meter is determined by stressed and unstressed syllables; The meter of lyrics is determined by beats.

(3) Poetry and lyrics have disparate forms, as catalogued and defined below.

II. Lyrics are Written for a Composer.

Said differently, a lyricist IS NOT a composer, and lyrics are NOT songs. Lyrics DO NOT have a tune, and the tune is NOT written by the lyricist.

Most lyricists need a go-by tune to aid their writing. But it is irresponsible to publish your lyrics to the composer without a text-only phase of revisions.

If the lyrics can't stand alone, they're merely filler; they're worthless. Period.

A good tune is like scented toilet paper. Get it?

Editors. That means any included audio is unimportant for all but one reason, discussed under part III, below.

III. Lyrical Meter is Imposed by Beats

If each syllable takes the same count of beats as every other, no audio needs to be included. Otherwise, an audio track is mandatory.

Editors. This audio is useful only for assessing beat conformity, and no favor should be granted for a good tune. Indeed, the lyric critique will benefit most from a dull melody.

IV. Lyrics Follow Only One of a Few Well-Defined Structures.

A. Lexicon

Verse: the music repeats, the words don't.
Chorus: the music and lyrics repeat.
Bridge: the music and lyrics occur once.

Note that chorus lyrics often vary, but are seldom completely novel.

B. Structures

There are only a handful of structures that lyrics may fit. That structure is indicated to the composer by editorial tags, as follows.

(NOTE: terms such as verse-chorus are properly joined with an en-dash.)

A. Through-Composed

Through-composed songs do not have repeated musical phrases for each musical segment. (Note that some sources misapply the term "stanza" to these segments.)

Through-composed lyrics are indicated by [Verse 1], [Verse 2], [Verse 3], and so on.

The array of sub-structures in this class are beyond the scope of this primer. Any song-type that is not through-composed is "strophic."

B. Verse-Types

In a verse-type song, also called a simple song, each song section has identical or nearly identical musical phrasing.

Ex. "Amazing Grace"

Verse-type songs are flagged [Verse], [Verse], [Verse], etc. Note the absence of numerals.

A verse-type song with a bridge is known as a verse-bridge.

Ex. "Purple Haze"

C. Chorus-Types

Chorus-type songs are indicated by the editorial flags [Verse] and [Chorus].

A simple verse-chorus type employs the same music for the verse and chorus.

A contrasting verse-chorus type employs different music for each.

A bridge-type song contains a bridge, and can be simple or contrasting.

D. Conclusion

The above material must be understood in order to grasp the companion note on theory. That note showcases the purposes of the forms above, which are likely to appear obvious to most readers.

The note on theory becomes complex very quickly, so keep the simple definitions above close at hand.

On Lyrics, Part 2: Theory

This companion to the Lyrics Primer follows the pattern started there. It talks about the composer, then the beat, then structures. But the structures section here is quite long, and necessarily so, as you'll see.

I. The Lyricist's Job

A. The Work Flow

Let's take the most common scenario. The lyricist is also the composer and singer.

Your workflow should be as follows.

1. Be a lyricist. Come up with a clean, serviceable tune. Keep it simple and uncomplicated. Write lyrics to it. Sing through them a few times. Record a sing-through. Edit the words themselves until they're really good and fit the metrical pattern you've established.

2. Be a composer. Fit the lyrics to a tune. Refine that tune.

3. Rewrite the lyrics to fit the tune. Continue refinement.

B. The Work Product

The ideal lyrical output is a set of words with lush verses, simple thematic choruses, and high-contrast bridges. Note, of course, all three segment-types need not be used.

II. Beat Engineering

All verses should match the beat structure of the first verse. This rule can be excepted for effect.

At first, the fact that lyrical meter is imposed by beats may seem like a free ticket. And it is. Once. After that, whatever structure you've laid down, you're stuck with it.

I know an example would be helpful here, but it would be too word-intensive.

III. The Good Part: Structural Logic.

As an editorial aside, this section is what all the reading was for. This is the part where you can start to separate yourself from untrained hacks

I'm leaving through-composition alone, because it's its own little monster. This section deals with strophic forms (also called verse-repeating).

As one final predicate, note that there are only two kinds of lyrical content. Most lyrics attempt to express a universal truth; a minority are merely atmospheric. "Merely atmospheric" lyrics can be extraordinary. The "merely" refers to their lack of any overt effort to express something falsifiable, and not to their relative value.

A. Mechanics

One of the principle luxuries of lyrics is that the chorus can express meaning overtly. Verse poets do not have a mechanism designed principly for that purpose.

This section details how the song parts work together.

Verses are wheels. They carry the majority of the semantic load. Choruses are destinations. They coalesce the meaning developed in the verse into simple expressive statements. Bridges are . . . bridges They provide a high-contrast counterpoint to the chorus and verse.

What's important to understand is that each of these three foundational elements interact to create semantic dynamics.

(There is one further set of elements: intro's, segues, outros, etc. They should be flagged with brackets as shown in the appendix, but are beyond the scope of this note.)

B. Dynamic Structures

(For brevity, I'm only walking through one structure. By request, I'll go through any others asked for.)

12-Bar Blues is a very basic structure (Example: Elvis' "Hound Dog"). Counterintuitively, 12-Bar Blues IS NOT a sound that comes from the composer. It is a sound THAT COMES FROM THE LYRICIST. And yet, it's not a tune. Remember: lyrics ARE NOT tunes.

Confused? Cool. Because this is the good part:

12-Bar Blues is a lyrical dynamic that necessitates a certain compositional execution. Said differently, it is the presentation of ideas in a dynamic structure that forces the composer to make certain moves. (Conversely, and I admit this grudgingly, a composer writing 12-bar could force the lyricist to arrange ideas in a certain way.)

Specifically, 12-bar blues is two repeating tension lines followed by a resolving line. If the lyricist writes that structure, then the composer is obliged to follow suit.

Is this line 12-bar?: "I'm asleep on a bed this morning while I should be at work / I'm asleep on a bed this morning while I should be at work / You're awake on a plane and the sky is purple."

No. The third line doesn't resolve anything. Therefore, the composer would need to use chords that don't resolve.

What about this: "I can't sleep in this bed. / I can't sleep in this bed / as long as you're away."? No. The resolution is insufficiently tied to the repeaters.

Lastly, try: "I can't sleep in this bed. / I can't sleep in this bed / as long as you're not sleeping next to me."

Yes.

What about the fact that it doesn't fill out the meter? That would be handled by instrumentals. If the composer wrote in any format besides 12-bar blues, the meaning of the lyrics would be obscured.

C. A Final Note: On Titling

In chorus-type songs, it is common to use the title as the chorus. (Example: Kings of Leon's "[This] Sex [is] on Fire"). This particularized feature opens a window on the lyricist-composer relationship. A knowledgeable composer would know that the following is a 12-Bar Blues song and would instantly know how it should be executed:

----
"As Long As You're Not Sleeping Next To Me"

I can't sleep in this bed [x 2]
----

The composer would understand the song to be

----
"As Long As You're Not Sleeping Next To Me"

[Verse]
I can't sleep in this bed,
I can't sleep in this bed,

[Chorus]
As long as you're not sleeping next to me.
----

If, instead, the lyrics read,

----
"Golda's Lament"

[Verse]
I can't sleep in this bed [x 2]

[Chorus]
as long as you're not sleeping next to me.
----

the composer would rightly ask, "Where's the rest? What style is this?"

If the lyricist's intent were to write a 12-Bar song, a subtitle would be mandatory, as in, "Golda's Lament (As Long As You're Not Sleeping Next To Me)".

IV. If Needed . . .

I will revise the above in response to feedback and will paste an appendix below with lyrics exemplars and discussion.

Feel free to repost, revise and re-use! No need to credit author!

On Lyrics, Appendix A: An Example

--if this were bona fide crit, I'd dig deeper. But it's not.

--This is an example of what good lyrics crit should look like. The lyrics are from azlyrics.com, and I'm imagining, without basis, that Adele posted the following on pigpen:

----
"Set Fire To The Rain"

I let it fall, my heart,
And as it fell you rose to claim it
It was dark and I was over
Until you kissed my lips and you saved me

My hands, they're strong
But my knees were far too weak,
To stand in your arms
Without falling to your feet

But there's a side to you
That I never knew, never knew.
All the things you'd say
They were never true, never true,
And the games you play
You would always win, always win.

[Chorus:]
But I set fire to the rain,
Watched it pour as I touched your face,
Well, it burned while I cried
'Cause I heard it screaming out your name, your name!

When I lay with you
I could stay there
Close my eyes
Feel you here forever
You and me together
Nothing gets better

'Cause there's a side to you
That I never knew, never knew,
All the things you'd say,
They were never true, never true,
And the games you'd play
You would always win, always win.

[Chorus:]
But I set fire to the rain,
Watched it pour as I touched your face,
Well, it burned while I cried
'Cause I heard it screaming out your name, your name!

I set fire to the rain
And I threw us into the flames
When it fell, something died
'Cause I knew that that was the last time, the last time!

Sometimes I wake up by the door,
That heart you caught must be waiting for you
Even now when we're already over
I can't help myself from looking for you.

[Chorus:]
I set fire to the rain,
Watched it pour as I touched your face,
Well, it burned while I cried
'Cause I heard it screaming out your name, your name

I set fire to the rain,
And I threw us into the flames
When it fell, something died
'Cause I knew that that was the last time, the last time, ohhhh!

Oh noooo
Let it burn, oh
Let it burn
Let it burn
----

The edit might go as follows:

Adele--
General remarks:

First, no colons in your flags. It's [Chorus] not [Chorus:].

Second, mind your punctuation. It's sloppy throughout. I've made corrections where necessary, but it was time that could've been better spent. Note that the corrections are not set off by brackets.

Third, you've got two choruses. Label accordingly as [Chorus 1] and [Chorus 2], as shown below.

"[I] Set Fire To The Rain"

[Verse]
--The lack of an initial flag colors my edit throughout. It makes me think the writing will be sub-pro. You MUST open w a flag!

I let it fall, my heart,
And, as it fell, you rose to claim it.
--a bit too abstract? Try: "I let it fall, my heart / and that's how you were able to claim it," for instance
It was dark, and I was over
--"It"? Super ambiguous. Is that by design?
Until you kissed my lips, and you saved me.

My hands, they're strong,
But my knees were far too weak
To stand in your arms
Without falling to your feet.

But there's a side to you
That I never knew (never knew):
--echoes take parens
All the things you'd say?
They were never true (never true),
And the games you play?
--you or you'd?
You would always win, always win.

[Chorus]
But I set fire to the rain,
Watched it pour as I touched your face.
Well, it burned while I cried
'Cause I heard it screaming out your name (your name)!

[Verse]
--the (former, now corrected) absence of this flag is hard to forgive
When I lay with you
I could stay there
Close my eyes
Feel you here forever
You and me together
Nothing gets better
--this stanza is weak on three accounts. First, it fails to contribute to your narrative or theme. It's like you ctrl+v'd a stanza from a different song. Second, the verb tenses are confusing. The lack of a homed-in-on place causes me to feel confused, and I have trouble engaging. Third, the core strangeness is "what does setting fire to rain" mean?
----let me be direct: the chorus is damn near perfect, but the verses are loose. You can get away with this, but you shouldn't. Give me verses that justify the chorus, or there's a huge MO here.

'Cause there's a side to you
That I never knew, (never knew)
All the things you'd say?
They were never true (never true).
And the games you'd play?
You would always win (always win).
--again, this borders on atmospheric. If you're going for that cool, push it further with stronger imagery. If not, sharpen your narrative

[Chorus]
--no need to include exactly repeated words

[Chorus]
I set fire to the rain,
And I threw us into the flames.
When it [antecedent?] fell, something died [huh?]
'Cause I knew that that [that what?] was the last time (the last time)!
--???
--the variation here introduces confusion without reward. Why not just go for another repeater?

[Bridge]
--please flag!
Sometimes I wake up by the door,
--what door? No need to introduce a new motif so late into the song
--try: sometimes I wake up like before
That heart you caught must be waiting for you
--???
Even now, when we're already over
I can't help myself from looking for you.
--this is poorly constructed
----try "I can't keep myself . . ."

[Chorus 1]

[Chorus 2]

[Outro]
Oh, noooo
--no need for the multiple o's
Let it burn! Oh!
Let it burn!
Let it burn!

Christopher "crow" Youngblood © 2014
A yak is normal.
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#2
I ran all this by my composer. He agrees.
A yak is normal.
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#3
it seems a pretty good floor plan for song writers. i've placed it in the important thread section of the miscellaneous forum.
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#4
Wow this should be a song . Allot of ppl could relate to it I know I can
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#5
Thanks, billy! Hope it serves well! It took about 40 hours of writing and research, which wasn't nearly enough, but it's as trustworthy as I can make it Smile
A yak is normal.
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#6
Your music lyric primer looks very comprehensive Crow. I tried to right a blues song for National Poetry month this year. I will see it it conforms to your instructions.  Thumbsup
My new watercolor: 'Nightmare After Christmas'/Chris
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#7
(09-11-2014, 06:10 PM)ChristopherSea Wrote:  Your music lyric primer looks very comprehensive Crow. I tried to right a blues song for National Poetry month this year. I will see it it conforms to your instructions.  Thumbsup

Post it!
A yak is normal.
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#8
(09-15-2014, 03:14 PM)crow Wrote:  
(09-11-2014, 06:10 PM)ChristopherSea Wrote:  Your music lyric primer looks very comprehensive Crow. I tried to right a blues song for National Poetry month this year. I will see it it conforms to your instructions.  Thumbsup

Post it!

OK:

Laboratory Blues 


My deadlines are upon me,
but the data's nowhere 'round.
Microscope must be broken,
there's no virus to be found.

Let me tell you woman- 
I got la-bor-a-tory blues.


Forgot Avogadro's number,
unsure of Molarities;
my enzymes are denatured,
so reactions won't proceed.

Come help me lady-
I hate la-bor-a-tory blues.


Broke all my pyrex beakers.
I spilt acid on my pants.
My hair just caught on fire.
All results just happenstance.

Please comfort me lover-
soothe these la-bor-a-tory blues.


Got three female assistants
that won't work under me.
Some lab rats tried to bite me;
there's a rodent mutiny.

Listen to me baby-
can't do la-bor-a-tory blues.

No lie, pretty mama-
must lose la-bor-a-tory blues.
My new watercolor: 'Nightmare After Christmas'/Chris
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#9
how did i miss this?!?!! crow, this is most excellent!! i don't write lyrics, but i have several friends who do and they're always looking at ways to become stronger lyricists. i'll send them a link.

side-note: those Adele lyrics, though they be weak as hell in several spots, are testament to what the power of a good producer and a vocalist who knows how to emote properly can accomplish. the success of that song hangs solely on that chorus and they nailed it.
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#10
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#11
This is full of useful information, and I've read it through a few times, and only take issue with with the 12 bar blues.  This is a basic primer but the 12 bar blues is needlessly confusing.

12 bar refers to the number of bars of music, blues is a variety of common scales, usually with a I, IV, V, chord progression where combined lyrics usually follow the AAB sorta pattern.

As far as lyric theory goes, you can fit truly any amount of wording into any kind of music and  call it a song.  You can fit truly any lyric into 12 bar blues.
Peanut butter honey banana sandwiches
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#12
Thanks for writing and re-bumping this. Will be of much help when analyzing/potd'ing lyrics (and rap is lyrics).
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