I am a writer, poet , and songwriter and having practiced these arts most of my life I have gotten a few insights as to what works in each. It is my hope that if the reader is a songwriter what i have written will be of help – if you are not perhaps you may gain a finer appreciation of songwriting and what is good in a song.
This piece was first published in Lit.org 'Majestic'.
I have had several conversations this week with poets and songwriters about the relationship between poetry and lyric writing. Poets expounded that the art of poetry has a deeper and more defining aspect, while lyric writing is common and shallow. Lyric writers say that the abstract and esoteric nature of poetry is inaccessible, while lyric writing accesses a universal meaning and need, whether it is an aria, or a version of Louie Louie. After listening to, and speaking many well considered, and erudite notions, I put aside my too often eristic tendencies and retired to my chair, in front of my computer, to ponder all that has been offered with such earnestness and passion. I even went so far as to Google the issue, an act leaving me more confused, past my own time worn and well considered opinions – as well as any nonsensical notions I have picked up along the way.
There is no doubt, to me, that music, or the human appreciation for music, is in some way hardwired in us, at the least it is an appreciation developed early in human history. But then so is ‘language’, and the use of language, as a means to tell a story, or convey an abstract concept, the latter, in human prehistory, often the purlieu of the early religious and well suited in those ethereal explorations. The combining of word, and music, is an ancient endeavor, and a natural one. The powerful feeling and sensations that can be invoked with the marrying of music and lyric is, in the truest sense, magical. One can wonder why there is contention at all between the two art forms.
As I have addressed in previous articles, we know that Greek recitations often included music, or rhythmic accompaniment. Music evolved into a very sophisticated form when more and more instruments were invented – out of necessity, so that a common written form would allow for combined performance. That notation system, we enjoy today, gives our voices acknowledgment as the first, and primary, instrument.
Is it in us, as humans, to be creative, hard-wired as I stated? If it is, any number of creative barkings, and thump-drummings, can and will occur. And they most certainly have. Every creative act of humans has the potential for developing into finer and finer manifestations. The barkings of early humans is now speech – a thing that can be refined as gold in ore, or as rough and rude as with primordial attempts. Music can be the hitting of a stick on a hollow tree stump, or the bowed brilliance of a Stradivarius by a Masters hand.
What am I getting at? You may ask.
I am getting at the fact that all art is progression, an a cumulative expression of the human psyche. So when we sit down to write, whether poetry or lyrics, do we do it with no knowledge of what came before? Do we defend our ‘Art’ with venomous rage, and refuse any critique? Or do we learn a little of what has already been done, from others, and in our own exploration, and see how our work fits into the human artistic tapestry? New things do come into the world and are worthy of attention; usually those things own a kinship with what has come before, and stand on the shoulders of other artistic craftsman. Am I saying that any ‘unique’ interpreter should throw out what they have done? No I am not – but take the time to see if, and how, that work fits in the artistic matrix. That ‘matrix’ is what is built into us all. We look at new things through that filter, and make the decision to ‘like’ or’ not like’ based upon those preset conceptions. The true Artist is one that knows, whether through study and trial, or by some directed self-awareness, the ‘matrix’ – and knows how to create something different, and new, that will find a place within the existing fabric. This is the reason art created with feces is just something made from feces – Journal writing is, and will remain, Journal writing, no matter the passionate and honest intentions of the creator.
There you have it, the rantings of a near lunatic, sitting at Tea (coffee), on ‘Art’. I will of course offer an example of how this bit of scribbling has practical merit. Poetry has forms, and one should learn those forms. Songwriting has forms , and one should learn the forms.
Why? The brand new stream of consciousness Spoken Word poet asks. Because, my fearless friend, it will make your work better. More people will respond favorably to your performances, and when you write it down it will be read as you, as the writer, intends.
Why? The brand new songwriters ask, as they pluck happily on a guitar, or tickle the ivories, over the song that, to them, sounds exactly like a Lady GaGa song, and will surly make them rich, as soon as they share it with the first music pro they meet. Because, if you know song structure, and form, you will have an arsenal of tools to be able to write quality lyrics to the next hundred songs, where one might turn out be that hit.
I have spent a great deal of time on poetry as of late – so – let’s spend some time with the songwriters.
I have talked about the ‘verse/verse/chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus’ song structure. This is kinda the norm, these days, for contemporary songs, but it isn’t the only way. I’m going to go around the barn, once again, and suggest some songwriting methods that you probably won’t find anywhere else. Lyric writing ‘is’ poetry! In the sense that it stands on it’s own until music is added. So let’s look at some Poetic Forms that are relevant to lyric writing. Here are four familiar poetic forms that work well for songwriting structure and if creatively tweaked a bit can produce some interesting results.
1. Ballads: These were often written as Broadsheets, were most always ‘tales’ and often written by poets and sung to existing melodies throughout England and Ireland. Northern and west European ballads were most often written in quatrains (four-line stanzas) of alternating lines of iambic, tetrameter, and iambic trimeter. Usually, only the second and fourth line of a quatrain are rhymed.
Here is an example of one ‘o me own:
The black steed rode ahead the storm
His rider clothed in dread
He carried dire thoughts in his mind
Behind, the angry dead
Can you hear the storm there wailing?
It calls out every name
The black rider is there leading
He is delivering the blame
2. Couplet– usually consists of two lines that rhyme and have the same meter.
Here is one ‘o my blues song that uses this form aa bb cc. the meter is skewed in the last couplet to accommodate the refrain:
I ain’t had no luck
Drive a pick up truck
My mood ain’t sunny
I ain’t got no money
I’ll do any thing in this big wide world Sue
To get me up close to you
3. Sonnets: This form usually is written in a 14 lines with an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme with 10 syllables per line in iambic pentameter. For this song we can break them into 4 stanzas aabb ccdd eeff and a chorus of two lines gg. I have bent the rules making this 13 syllables per line – so that it sings well.
Early disappointing but a hero in his mind
Traveled in dark places staying with the thieving kind
Wild storms broke the sun deadly shadows across the moon
Holds up the well of heal then sleeps off the drink till noon
It was sadly wrought the gentry two were badly met
They held their purses hard – John Penny’s gun did the rest
Grim bell resonates – John Penny for the gibbet soon
Gold and copper counts, John Penny in a dreary room
A crossed mate played the Judas- gave up his hide and seek
Jon Penny slipped the noose and preyed further on the weak
Like a rider on the wind with hell hounds on his heels
Fiercely snapping crying vengeance no judge to make a deal
Highwaymen are lonely and most then are surely doomed
Jon Penny riding like a shadow across the moon
4. Free Verse: This form uses both rhyme and cadence/meter where the poet has the freedom to create a feeling or mood. This is the foundation and legitimacy for Spoken Word, although that legitimacy comes from past poets, who knew and understood other poetic form, before venturing into free verse.
Anyway, whether poetry, or songwriting take the time to learn the forms – It don’t hurt to know!
Here is a song lyric that uses free verse in its structure.
She the kind of girl who’s true and formed
Free versed and cursed
With a quirky grace
She the kind of girl with much inside
Weird dark and light
On an angels face
She’s a temptress
And a circus clown
Back flips and lips
Not afraid to fall
Lost gypsy’s dream
I’ve lost my will
Dreams come true
T.S. Eliot wrote, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.”
Every poetic form gives the songwriter a platform a foundation to write upon. I hope that I have shown that by knowing poetic form you can tweak it and make your songwriting stronger and maybe just a little easier.
Ken Lehnig(c)2012 version All Rights Reserved
If you like dark, weird, and decidedly off poetry, and short stories you will love –
Ken's Newest Book. 'SOZZEL the JONGLEUR 3 STRANGE REFLECTIONS'