7

Not sure how to jazz this question up other than to say that I've tried putting my poems to music and found it to be somewhat challenging.

Question is then: what's the difference between the skillsets needed to write poetry and song-lyrics?

It'd be nice to get actionable points so that I can practice writing some song-lyrics instead of trying to port my poems across.

  • You're writing in English, I assume? – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 20 '18 at 15:39
  • @Galastel - yes - exclusively in English. ;) – robertcday Jun 20 '18 at 15:42
  • It can be down to your particular strengths. Do you think you are as good as a composer as a poet? – Alexander Jun 20 '18 at 17:31
  • I've never tried writing lyrics, @Alex and even though I've written poems, I've never known how (in terms of never having been taught). So yes, I'm probably as good at one as at the other, which is to say: no good at all. :) – robertcday Jun 20 '18 at 17:57
  • @Alexander Perhaps I've missed something, but I believe this question is about being a lyricist, not a composer. – Tin Man Jun 20 '18 at 20:58
9

I can think of two large differences: prosody, and the more ephemeral nature of music that is listened to versus poetry that is read.

Prosody

Both poetry and lyrics can have meter or not, but with lyrics, the meter always matters. When setting words to music, it will make the words seem "off" or "amateurish" if the meter of the words is not somewhat (or completely) aligned with the meter of the music. (See also this answer on Music.SE)

Generally, all music has a meter that is fixed and repeated. The vast majority of pop and rock songs have a duple meter, which means that each metrical unit is presented in groups of two, four, eight, sixteen, etc. The most popular meter in pop and rock by far is "4/4" time, which we can consider to be four beats grouped together (I don't want to get too distracted by music theory on this Stack).

Those four beats repeat, and each beat lasts for the same amount of time. In each group of four beats, the first one is strong, the second weak, the third slightly less strong than the first, and the fourth is the weakest of all four.

All English prose and poetry has strong and weak syllables. When you set poetry to music, if you set a weak syllable against a strong beat in the musical meter, it will sound strange. If you do that once or maybe twice per stanza (or verse or chorus), you might get away with it and it will even highlight those words in a subtle way. If you are willy-nilly placing verbal emphasis in random places against the musical meter, the whole song will sound strange and even off-putting.

Likewise with other kinds of musical meter - there are duple meters with other numbers of beats than four, like 3/4 and 5/4 time, and there are triple meters (called "compound time" by musicians). Setting words to music is a significant part of the songwriting process.

Prosody, part 2

At this point I will reveal some of my ignorance of poetry, because the following will be about lyrics and might apply to poetry as well, I'm not sure.

In music, what would be called a stanza in written poetry has to be heard. The way we communicate line groupings in music is with rhyme and pauses, because the listener can't see how it's written down. One effect of this is that the way the stanzas are set to music controls how the listener hears them, and even emphasizes certain lines and words.

As we tend to hear duple groups by default, the most basic and popular stanza is four lines. If you write a four line stanza and then a three line stanza, and you give each line the same amount of time in the music, your audience will be waiting with eager anticipation for that eighth line (the missing fourth line of the second stanza). If you want to get the listener to really be paying attention when you go to the chorus, leave out the last line of the verse. Listeners will be emotionally dying to hear the thought completed. Rhyme scheme also enforces the feeling of line groupings, and uncompleted rhymes will have the listener begging for resolution.

On the other end of the spectrum, making the last line of the verse extra long or adding a fifth line will really highlight those "overhanging" words. Your listeners will be thinking about those words when the chorus starts, and won't notice exactly what you sing/say at the beginning of the chorus. Extra words will be more likely remembered by listeners, so put your best words there.

There are so many more little details of prosody when it comes to setting words to music, but I think that is a good introduction to get you started.

Repetition

When reading poetry on a page, the reader can go back and re-read the last line they read as many times as they want before continuing. Or they can re-read the previous stanza. They can read the poem backwards if they want. They can read down the first word of each line. With music, there's no choice. They will hear the words in exactly the order you say them. Anything they missed will have to wait for the next time they listen to the song, unless you sing it again!

Certainly there is repetition in written poetry, but repetition takes on additional importance in music, because everything goes by so quickly, compared to written poetry.

Obviously, choruses are repeated words and music in a song. Usually, the chorus has most of the most important words in a song, and repeating them helps make sure that the listener understands those words when the song is over. Usually we hope listeners will want to listen to a whole song and also listen to it again, so we might put the lyrics in the chorus that we think will "hook" the listener into giving the rest of the song a chance and also make them miss the song later on and want to listen again. Obviously there are musical hooks as well, but lyrical hooks are at least as important.

Even outside of choruses, repetition is huge in music. Music itself is repetition. Three notes together don't mean much until you play the same three note pattern again - perhaps slightly altered. Lyrical repetition inside verses or bridges makes the poetry more musical. For example, it's near-universal in early 20th century Mississippi delta 12 bar blues that the first line of each verse is repeated again with different chords underneath it before the third line is given at the end of the verse.

Further Study

  • Songwriting: Writing the lyrics (Coursera course from Berkelee College of Music)
  • Study rap if you want to really focus on lyrical and musical meter lining up. If you don't like rap music in general, you might find the cast recording of Hamilton to be a good study of rap lyricism with more historical verbal content.
  • Cats (the musical) is poetry set to music. Comparing the original T.S. Eliot book with the setting of the words in the musical would be very instructive.

Case Study: "Mary Had A Little Lamb"

A simple case study. Here's the poem:

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go

As I'm sure you already know, this is changed to make it "more musical" (sorry I don't have a precise definition of that phrase) when it is sung:

Mary had a little lamb (beat)
Little lamb (beat) Little lamb (beat)
Mary had a little lamb its
Fleece was white as snow (beat) (beat) (beat)

Everywhere that Mary went (beat)
Mary went (beat) Mary went (beat)
Everywhere that Mary went the
Lamb was sure to go (beat) (beat) (beat)

Bold syllables are on the musically strong downbeats, and regular syllables are on the musically weak upbeats.

Notice the differences: The lyrical form has gaps to allow the music to "come around again" so that the next strong syllable falls on a strong beat. Repetition is used so the melody can be varied while the words repeat to address the balance between making the lyrics interesting and the melody interesting. The repetition fills time, but also enhances the "musicality" of the words.

Notice particularly that every line has eight beats in the musical version. Since each line of the poem is seven syllables both starting and ending with a strong syllable, an eighth weak beat is added to the end of each line in the lyrical version, with three beats added to the ends of the couplets to let the music fully "come around again" for the next couplet. This reflects how we would pause after each line when reading the poem aloud. The word "and" could optionally be added at the last weak beat at the end of the fourth line of the lyrical version. My recollection is that it's omitted.

Also note how the poem, lyrics, and music are all relatively simple. The poem is essentially trochaic, which along with iambic are the two simplest meters. Contrast with a limerick, which mixes duple and triple metrical feet within a single line.

2

One major difference in skill sets between writing poetry and writing lyrics is that writing lyrics requires skill in playing your chosen musical instrument, while writing poetry merely requires use of a pen or a keyboard.

When I am writing songs, I either start with an improvised progression of chords, or an improvised sung melody. Being comfortable with my instrument allows me to play around with different chord progressions, voicings, rhythms, and instrumental fills in a fluid manner, which eases the process of making the lyrics play nice with the music.

I would suggest starting out by writing songs that use a very simple 2 or 3 chord progression paired with off-the-cuff lyrics about whatever you can see from where you're practicing. Once you can reliably come up with a short little ditty about your cat or your neighbors across the street, you should have the technical fluency necessary to make coming up with "purposeful" songs a fruitful, rather than frustrating, activity.

2

Two differences in skill-sets that come to mind are:

In poetry, the poetry is existing on its own. With lyrics, you are working with someone else who is handling the music part, so you have to work together with others to jointly create a song. That's definitely a skill that some have and others do not.

Also, we sing words differently than we say them. Some words don't "sound" correct when singing, and others sound brilliant. For example, the word "squirrel" is very hard to sing. All the vowel sounds are closed off. Singers actually add vowels that aren't in the word when spoken. Also, singers "hold" a vowel sound for much longer than you would when speaking them in poetry, so the timing is different. Understanding these and many other ways the words change when sung is part of the skill set you need to choose which words to use and when to use them. While the order of words does matter, if you are working with good people, they can adjust the music to fit good lyrics, so understanding how to match the notes to the words is almost their problem, not yours (but you can certainly help make their job easier and adjust your lyrics when they are clashing with the music).

2

That depends on the poetry genre, the song genre, and the message the writer is trying to give.

Let's look at some examples.

Kesha's This is me. Lyrics:

[Verse 1] I'm not a stranger to the dark "Hide away," they say "Cause we don't want your broken parts" I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars "Run away," they say "No one will love you as you are"

[Pre-Chorus] But I won't let them break me down to dust I know that there's a place for us For we are glorious

[Chorus] When the sharpest words wanna cut me down I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out I am brave, I am bruised I am who I'm meant to be, this is me Look out 'cause here I come And I'm marching on to the beat I drum I'm not scared to be seen I make no apologies, this is me

[Post-Chorus] Oh-oh-oh-oh Oh-oh-oh-oh Oh-oh-oh-oh Oh-oh-oh-oh Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh, oh

So what are we looking at here? Essentially lyrical poetry. Let's take some examples of rhyming.

From Verse 1. 'stranger to the dark', comes back to 'want your broken parts'

There you have lines rhyming. Then you can double down and have internal rhyming.

From Verse 1. 'hide away', and 'they say'.

This is poetry. Rhyming to a rhythm. Nothing more.

Let's look at an example where this isn't the case with songs.

Evenesance's Good enough:

"Good Enough"

Under your spell again I can't say no to you Crave my heart and it's bleeding in your hand I can't say no to you

Shouldn't let you torture me so sweetly Now I can't let go of this dream I can't breathe but I feel

Good enough I feel good enough for you

Drink up sweet decadence I can't say no to you And I've completely lost myself, and I don't mind I can't say no to you

Shouldn't let you conquer me completely Now I can't let go of this dream Can't believe that I feel

Good enough I feel good enough Its been such a long time coming, but I feel good

Notice the lack of rhyming? And yet this is poetry, just more free-form. The thing is, the definition of poetry has changed with time. In Shakespeare's time, there was the more of a rule. See this link for details.

Nowadays? Look at Poetry Slams. It's free-form, sometimes it's lyrical, sometimes it's not. The point is the message, what's being said.

Look at Hip Hop music. Not the crap coming out these days, mind you. Look at the word play of Biggie Smalls, look at the poetic flow of Tupac Shakur.

Music is just the rhythm and flow of poetry. Sometimes the musical backdrop of a song has meaning, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the words are deep and meaningful and poetic, often times it isn't.

But music and poetry are one and the same.

2
  • If you are writing pop music, or songs in other established genres, then your lyrics will need to fit into the structure of a song. For instance, one of the most universal song structures is verse/chorus. The verses tend to be longer, more complex, and have more sophisticated and darker subject matter. They may also be more complex rhythmically. The choruses are shorter, more repetitive and simpler both in form and content. The verses are usually different each time, the chorus is usually repeated exactly, or with minor variations. There may also be a bridge section which typically contrasts both with the verse and the chorus.

  • Most song lyrics rhyme, although not always all the time, and not necessarily perfect rhymes.

  • The rhythm needs to be very close between each verse (stresses in the same relative places), but it doesn't need to be as regular and invariant as something like a sonnet within the verse.

  • Songs are more likely to repeat words or whole phrases than poems. In fact, just taking prose and strategically repeating sections can make it sound like a song.

  • Of course, the crucial difference between poetry and lyrics is that lyrics are sung, and thus are transformed by the melody and the rhythm, which can add or transform meaning, and set mood or convey emotion. Lyrics are often chosen as much for sound as meaning, to a much greater extent than in poetry. You couldn't get away with a whole line of "na na nas" in a poem, for instance, but how many different hit songs does that describe?

  • On a final note, just because you can't set your own poetry to music doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad lyricist. Many great songwriters exclusively do either music or lyrics, and some like to collaborate even if they can do both. There can be a special magic that comes from having a different person marry the music to the words. (There are also lyricists who only write after the music is written, as well as those who only write prior to the music.)

1

I have written both poetry and song lyrics. The lyrics were sung by a popular band on stage, so (I guess) they "worked". There was no discernible difference between writing the two. Both poetry and song lyrics involve a sense of rhythm. If you write without it, no writing works. Not even prose.

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