Friday, February 24, 2012

Writing song lyrics versus lyrical poems

Poets who enjoy writing poems with rhyme and rhythm may be wondering about the differences between songwriting and writing rhythmic poems with musicality. As a writer whose poetry “training” began with a childhood desire to memorize hymns and lyrics to popular songs, I wanted to know how a musically-inclined group of writers might compare these two genres, and so I asked: What differences do you find between writing song lyrics and rhythmic poems?

Joe Givens
Well, I write lyrics, songs, and poems. The main thing to watch out for is sounding natural and smooth when creating a song. You need something the listener can relate to without being too stiff and formal – also something that paints the words, that is, evokes personal feelings and emotions in the heart and soul. Poetry is similar, of course, but it can be much wordier and “flowerier,” and tend toward the high-brow, rather than the general public. To put it another way, a songwriter must reach the audience at their emotional and intellectual level, not necessarily your own!

UK Musician
Yes, I've dabbled in both genres for years. For me it comes down to the “sound” of the word when sung. Words are peculiar animals that have different lives when spoken or sung. Quite often, for me, the sound of the word when sung can take precedence over its meaning. That's not to say your song lyrics should be nonsense; just be mindful of the power a well-sounding syllable has and how it sits with the singer.

Joe Givens
Exactly! That is why most would write "I found out," and the singer would usually sing it "Ah foun dout."

The Poetry Editor
Funny! And good to know – thanks. That reminds me too, that one songwriter mentioned the importance of avoiding multisyllabic words in either genre. Such words make rhyming difficult unless you’re writing humorous verse, but, for song lyrics, polysyllables are usually a mouthful to sing! So, as a poet, rather than a songwriter, I’m beginning to wonder if the differences in these genres are minimal.

Taylor Sappe
There really is no difference. Songs are poems set to music. However, when most people hear the term "songwriting," the first thing that comes to mind is commercial songwriting, where everything needs to fit into a formulated structure or song form and usually has a steady meter with a lot of repetition (a hook.) However, songs written for the non-commercial market (or no market) do not follow the same formula as a commercial song. It may have constantly changing meter and tempo, no hook, not much repetition, or no repetition. Therefore, any poetry can be set to music, although it may not have mass appeal. Think of it as the difference between writing a good poem and a limerick. They are both poems, but one has mass appeal and the other doesn't.

The Poetry Editor
Poems and other genres from children’s adventure stories to business letters also need a “hook” to get the attention of the reader and/or listener right away, and refrains pop up, not only in songs, but in children’s picture books and in poems where a phrase wants repeating, but what about the bridge that’s unique to songwriting? What exactly does that mean?

Taylor Sappe
A bridge is a section of song that is usually played only once. It is used to connect a chorus back to a verse or another chorus after taking you somewhere outside of the main musical content and sometimes lyrically off topic, weaving your way back to the main topic and content. It is a great place to create a high point (climax), which happens only once in a song.

Not every song will have a bridge, but adding one can add excitement to the song if handled properly. Some typical commercial structures would be AABA, ABBA, ABABC with A being the verse, B being the chorus, C being the bridge. Just as rhyme scheme can be done in any order using the same labeling method, song form can be arranged in any order of A, B and C, and sometimes even D.

Add more sections to a song and it starts moving away from being commercial. The more memorable it is, the more commercial it is, but too many sections make a song hard to remember.

The Poetry Editor
Interesting! This makes me think of the flow of stream-of-conscientiousness or a poetic aside, whether a Shakespearean soliloquy or a tangent briefly pursued in a contemporary poem before returning to the main theme or subject.

Harris Tobias
To me, writing a poem is a much more serious endeavor than a song. A song frees me to be silly and corny and fun. That's not to say that a poem cannot be all that, but I like to think that poems are more concentrated, more dense and deeper than a song. A good song requires a clever rhyme and a bouncy melody, but a poem...well, that requires a finer skill.

The Poetry Editor
You might take some flak for that from your songwriting peers, but we poets thank you! And thank you all for your permission to quote such interesting and informative responses.

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Poets and Songwriters who want more information about writing, revising, and placing song lyrics will find traditional publishing markets in this annually updated guide published for many years by Writers' Digest books:



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© 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.

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