Audio: lyric (0:09)

Figure: lyric

lyric plays a melody on a double bass. The lyric figure shows the lyrics set to music in the score. The words are taken from a seventeenth-century poem by Andrew Marvell called The Garden.

A singer sings lyrics, words set to music.

Writing lyrics is similar to writing poetry and the same terms are used. A sentence is a line, a pair of sentences constitute a couplet, and a repeated line or couplet make a refrain. lyrics is a couplet.

Songwriting is the process of writing lyrics and putting them to music. It is one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing music. It is also one of the most difficult topics to write about, for three reasons:

  1. Writing lyrics is a personal matter. The content and the message are entirely for the writer to decide.
  2. There is no single method for writing lyrics and putting them to music. In all probability, there never will be one either. In reality, a lot of time is spent trying different permutations, experimenting through trial and error, and offering increasingly expensive gifts to the muse in exchange for the magic password.
  3. Which comes first: the music or the words? This is a chicken and egg question, nobody knows the answer. Or, rather, everyone has an opinion. Some do it one way, some the other.

The approach we adopt is to start with the words, parse them into syllables, figure out the rhythm then assign pitches to the syllables.

The rhythmic unit of lyrics is a syllable or, strictly speaking, a phoneme. Many syllables contain a vowel, and that vowel is usually sandwiched between consonants.

Accent is the primary determinant of rhythm in a song. Most words have an accented syllable. The accented syllable usually falls on the first beat of a bar and has a longer duration than the other syllables.

A dictionary is especially helpful for sorting a word into its constituent syllables and finding the accented syllable. Many dictionaries include the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) spelling and online dictionaries can also demonstrate how the phonemes should be pronounced.

Parsing a word into syllables for singing is always a challenge because two contrasting forces are at work, sound and meaning. It is often the case that vowels carry the sound, and consonants carry the meaning. Take, for example, the first word in lyrics, annihilating. It contains five syllables: an-ni-hil-at-ing. In the spoken word, the second syllable, ni, is accented. In lyrics, the fourth syllable, at, is accented instead, to rhyme with made and shade. One consequence of this triumph of sound over meaning is that the first three syllables, an-ni-hil, form a little sound group of their own but have no meaning.

The rhythm in lyrics is syllabic, meaning each syllable is matched to a note. In contrast, melismatic singing stretches a single syllable over several notes.

Assigning pitches to syllables, the final stage in the process, is largely done by trial and error. The melody in lyrics does have some logic to it, however. It is split into two parts, one for each line in the couplet. A descending melody in a minor mode, D dorian, emphasises the doomy gloomy nature of the words in the first line. The second line is an ascending melody to emphasise the uplifting nature of the words. The last two notes descend a perfect fifth to the tonic in C major to emphasise peace and closure.