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The Top Ten FAQs On The Business Of Songwriting: #3
By Mary Dawson
QUESTION 3: I have written lots of poems...where can I sell them?
Or how can I turn them into songs?
For many months now, we have been counting down the most frequently
asked questions from aspiring songwriters on the business of music.
This month's question -- and variations of it -- come into the
inbox of my email service almost every day and reveal one of the
most common misconceptions in the music industry -- the mistaken
belief that poetry and lyrics are synonymous.
While it is certainly true that poetry and lyric writing are similar
art forms involving the skillful and artistic use of words, it is
also very true that lyric writing is quite a different craft than
writing poetry. Let's take a look at a few of the differences and
as we do so, try to analyze your own writings. Are you more of a
poet or a lyricist?
These are only a few of many differences between poetry and lyrics.
Hopefully, you have been able to identify some of your writing as
one or the other. If you have diagnosed yourself as a poet, but
would like to become more of a lyricist, I would suggest that you
begin with some reading on the subject of lyric writing. My favorite
books are by Sheila Davis who is recognized throughout the music
industry as one of the best teachers of lyric writing in the
business. Her basic textbook, The Craft of Lyric Writing, will
teach you the fundamentals of song form, rhyme crafting and the
importance of figurative language. Her workbook,
Successful Lyric Writing, is an actual lyric writing course that
you can work through as you learn.
- Poetry has a Visual Dimension/Lyrics are Primarily Audio
Most of us are visual learners. In fact, when we finally understand
something, we even say, "Oh! I see!" As writers, we hope to make
use of the visual dimension of learning to communicate our message
to the world.
Because poems are usually read silently from a book or page of
poetry, the reader has the distinct advantage of having immediate
visual contact with the composition on the page. If an abstract
word appears in the poem, the reader can go back and re-read it
again to ponder and contemplate its meaning. Occasionally, a poet
or a speaker will recite a poem aloud to a group of people
eliminating the visual dimension, but even in such rare cases,
the poem has usually been read before by the audience who are fans
of the poet's work.
Lyrics, on the other hand, are very seldom seen at all. They are
primarily absorbed through the ear as the song goes by on the radio
or on a recording. Especially at the first hearing, listeners are
not focused on each word as they would be if they were reading a
poem. In fact, the lyrics of songs must actually cut through a host
of ambient noises, such as traffic sounds, kids in the back seat
of the car, appliances in the kitchen and other distractions to
hook listeners and make them connect with the song.
Good lyricists, however, know how important visual reinforcement is
in the process of communication. So even though there are no written
words for the listener to see, the lyricist will try to create an
image with words inside the listener's mind. By using clear,
understandable, descriptive words that are easily caught through
the ear, the lyricist can tell a story or paint visual images in
the listener's imagination that are as powerful as actually seeing
a picture or the written word itself.
To illustrate this point let's compare a poem on the subject of
autumn with a lyric on the same subject. First, the poem...it's a
lovely composition I found several years ago called "The Cannibals
of Autumn". Unfortunately, I don't know the author. Here's a
portion of one of one verse:
- Neither time's worn edges, nor violent windows
- (climbed by trickling leaves)
- recall a race that possessed no contour apart from the landscape,
- but just as we, if we lived roofless,
- would be oppressed by an orchard darkness
- upon ourselves and our appliances
- And the strangled wisteria,
- Vagrant at the back door, autumn after autumn
- As we grow suspicious, cling to our reflections
- like lizards of prayer
Autumn is a mysterious and dark time of year and to me, these words
beautifully capture the mystique and mood of the season -- though I
must admit, that even after dozens of readings, I don't quite
understand the poem completely. Now, let's compare the poem we
just read with the following lyric:
- Geese are flying south to spend the winter
- The kitchen smells of pumpkin pie and spice
- It's that magic time of year
- When days dawn crisp and clear
- And the harvest moon sails through the frosty skies
Thankful, Words and Music: Mary Dawson and Bruce Greer
©1992/CQK Music (ASCAP)
All Rights Reserved, Used by Permission
I hope you can see the difference in the two compositions.
While the abstract and esoteric vocabulary used in "The Cannibals
of Autumn" creates a wonderful ambiance for a lovely poem, it
is much too obscure to be an effective lyric. The lyric, on
the other hand, from my song, "Thankful," uses simple sensory
images that engage the listener's mind and personal memories
of autumn to create visual contact through the imagination:
- Sight - The images of flying geese and the harvest moon
- Smell - Pumpkin pie and spice coming from the kitchen
- Touch - Crisp, clear days and frosty night skies
- Poems can be free-flowing / Lyrics are defined by
form and meter
Poetry is almost unlimited in its format and style. It can be
rhymed or unrhymed. It can have standard formats -- such as iambic
pentameter, triolet, or englyns -- or it can be written as free
verse. Free verse contains lines of irregular meter defined by
thought and rhythm rather than by syllabic count. So the poet may
choose any number of rhymes or rhythms -- or none at all.
In contrast, lyrics are a much more structured art form. Consider
the following characteristics of lyrics and how they contrast with
what we have just learned about poetry.
- Lyrics are meant to be coupled with the measured rhythm of
music and therefore must be constrained to follow the count of
each measure of melody. Lyricists must also consider that "someone
has to sing this song" and think about the flow of the lyric from
the singer's viewpoint. Some words should be held for several counts
while others will fall on each beat or half-beat of music. This
requires that a lyricist must have or must develop a sense of
musical timing and sensitivity to the way the words will be
delivered through the music.
- Lyrics almost always have a definite rhyme scheme and
meter which are consistent in parallel sections of the song.
For example, if lines 2 and 4 rhyme in the first verse of a song,
then lines 2 and 4 should also rhyme in the second verse. Parallel
lines should also have identical rhythm and cadence. This uniformity
is necessary so that the music can be repeated in parallel verses
and express the words of each verse equally well. (This is why you
often see songwriters in the process of composition who have a
rather glazed expression on their faces as they drum out a rhythm
with their fingers. They want the number and the accents of
syllables to be the same in parallel lines.)
The ultimate objective is to create a good prosody -- which is the
marriage between the words and the music. The cadence and flow of
the lyric should be so perfectly "married" to the music that when
the song is sung, it sounds like a natural and spontaneous expression
of the singer's heart.
As hit songwriter Jimmy Webb puts it so eloquently:
A song is a magical marriage between a lyric (some words) and a
melody (some notes). It is not a poem. It is not music. It gray
area of synthesis between language, rhythm, and sound that some
of the most acute of all sensors of human emotion lie.
Jimmy Webb, Tunesmith
Take another look at the poem and the lyric above. In "The Cannibals
of Autumn" the lines are of different lengths and rhythms while in
the lyric called "Thankful," the lines are much more uniform and
the stressed syllables are consistent to create a definite cadence.
- Poetry can be of almost any length / Lyrics must be concise
The poet also has much more freedom when it comes to the length
of his/her composition. Epic poems, for example, can go on forever
and the poet can take all the time he/she needs to describe the
characters and the setting of the poem. A poet has the same luxury
as a still-life painter in describing and focusing on very small
details to create one image. In fact, the poet can even use
difficult words to create "concealed images" that only hint at
an underlying message the poet wishes to convey.
The lyricist, however, has a completely different task. Because
most commercial songs played on the radio are only about three
minutes in length, every word counts. Every word must be chosen
carefully to enhance the core idea of the song that is summarized
in the hook or title. There can be no "filler words" or "concealed
images" in a lyric that is meant to catch a busy listener by the
ears. While the poet can take all the time and vocabulary necessary
to describe one small detail, the lyricist must use the fewest
words possible to create a whole scene.
I would also suggest that you carefully study great lyrics of hit
songs -- lyrics by writers like Oscar Hammerstein, Hal David, Don
Henley, Sting etc. Actually sit down and write the lyrics out by
hand. Notice where the rhymes fall, how many stressed syllables
there are per line and how consistent the rhymes and rhythms are
from verse to verse. Now try writing your own lyric to the same
pattern. It won't be long before you have tweaked your poetic
gifts into those of the lyric writer.
Great lyric writers make beautiful melodies into songs that are
sung for generations. There's a great story about Oscar Hammerstein's
widow who once overheard some people at a dinner party raving about
Jerome Kern's "Old Man River". Mrs. Hammerstein
interjected, "I'm sorry, but Jerome Kern wrote
'da da da-da.'" My husband wrote 'Old
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs
and poems with
her father, through her twelve years as an overseas
missionary, to her present,
career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker,
has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to
She is the President of
CQK Records &
Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and
produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a
variety of audiences,
She is the host of "I Write the Songs,"
a nationally syndicated radio talk show,
especially created to
inspire and instruct the more than 40 million aspiring
songwriters in the U.S.
Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer
and teacher of songwriting in her popular Living Room Seminars.
She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal
®. You can visit her website at:
www.cqkmusic.com. You can reach Mary