The Top Ten FAQs On The Business Of Songwriting #3

by Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2002
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?
  1. 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

  2. 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
      Hyperion, 1998


      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.

  3. 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.


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.

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 Man River!'"

Enough said!

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. 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 by email.



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