How to write a song part 1 – songs and poetry

I thought it might be nice to write a series of blogs about my way of songwriting. You don’t need to play an instrument to join in with this, but it certainly helps.

As the title says, this first post is about the differences between songwriting and poetry writing. Why start here? Well, I think some people write poetry and then try to pumusic.jpegt music to their words and don’t understand why it won’t work. I guess I’ll say something controversial here – as a general rule poems are not songs. What!! No they’re not, they’re poems. Now that’s not saying that some song lyrics cannot read as poetry, or that some songwriters indeed have the hearts of poets. And I know that a few musicians have put famous poems to music (Loreena MacKennett comes to mind) – but there are always exceptions. On the whole they differ. As I said, this is a general rule.

The main things about a song lyric is that is must have a rhythm and meter – usually one that stays consistent – that can be sung emotionally as a tune. It can, indeed it must, vary between the various parts of the song (verse, bridge, climb, chorus etc – I’ll go into these on another post), but these individual parts should match in rhythm and meter. Also, its got to rhyme (again, I’ll go into different rhyming techniques on another post).

Now a poem can have a regular meter –

Dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah

Dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah

Dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah

Dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah etc.

And that is fine to speak out loud, but a bitch to sing with any kind of emotion. A lyric must also flow musically. How do we do that? I’ll start that bit next time…

5 responses to “How to write a song part 1 – songs and poetry”

  1. I think that is indeed a controversial statement. Your contrast between song and poetry seems to be based on a very specific and conventional definition of what a “song” is (meanwhile, several exceptions leap immediately to my mind, including The Weakerthans “Without Mythologies,” which does not rhyme and lacks those basic structural parts of a song such as verse, bridge, chorus, etc., yet most definitely uses music and the aesthetic auditory experience to convey emotion and meaning). Indeed, so many exceptions to both rules leap to mind–even in potentia, such as many very “lyrical” and ballad-like poems–that I really don’t see the use of making that particular distinction. It seems a distinction based mostly on consensus of modern examples, rather than a definition in reference to the inherent nature of song and poetry.

    What I mean by a definition based on “inherent nature” is one that looks at the process and function of song versus poetry, rather than a definition that tries to deal solely with the final product of that process and functioning. For instance, the process of writing a poem may involve working with the visual impact of line and stanza breaks on a page, as well as the imaginative-visual effect of concrete imagery and striking language. On the other hand, since music is mostly heard rather than read, the visual structure of a song is not as important as the auditory structure, the use of similar or contrasting sounds, the rhythm of words, etc. A song can rely on its music and melody to heighten the richness of words, whereas a poem may rely more on juxtaposition and metaphor to accomplish the same. But since poetry at its best also evolves out of sound and the musicality of words, putting them to heightened aesthetic use, there is no real, definitive line between the two. Rather than two distinct art objects with occasional exceptions to the “general rule,” I think it’s more of a spectrum or overlapping spheres. Spoken-word poetry, for instance, as well as rap music, tend towards the middle ground of that spectrum. The fact that most examples tend towards one end or another doesn’t necessarily mean this is their inherent nature–both are forms of art, and art itself is about experimentation, exploration and breaking new ground, isn’t it?

  2. Fantastic! And in essence I would agree with much of what you say in a broader sense. I think it’s best summed up by another Bard, Robin Williamson who said, “Poems should read well, songs should sing well.” It might be a very simplistic way of looking at things, but in my world of folk music, it works well. The post is simply to explain how I write my own songs – I did say that at the beginning of the post.

    I’m not into restricting art, or labeling it either, but I have had many people talk to me about this over the years, many people who are just starting out as songwriters, and one of the problems some new songwriters have is stepping from free-form poetry, into lyric writing that has to fit with a particular tune they’ve written. Then it becomes a different skill. That’s the skill I’m aiming at addressing in these posts.

    Thank you for the comment Ali.

  3. 🙂 I actually ended up talking with a friend of mine, who’s also a musician, about this post and my response to it. When I’d finished telling him, he just gave me that look. You know that look, the one that makes you ask, “What?” He said, “Ali–there’s a big difference between writing about aesthetic music theory, and just writing a simple how-to for beginners wanting the basics to song-writing.” So, I hope I didn’t come off as overbearing. 😉 You can be sure I’ll be reading along with the series; as a poet, I feel way under-qualified and uninformed about the process of writing music. It’s always good to learn something new!

  4. I’d agree with you Damh, speaking as someone who has written poems for many years, and only started writing songs in 2007, so I have some experience in both.

    The first song I wrote, “Deirdre’s Lament” started life as a poem, but I immediately recognised its potential as a song and it wasn’t long before I set it to music – but at that point I had so little confidence in what I was doing that I took it for granted that I would have to borrow a melody from an already established song, which I did – with some tweaking.

    But I do wonder if this is a modern phenomenon, that only comes about with the plethora of free verse – because the majority of poetry in the past had, if not rhyme, then pretty strict metrical qualities, which would have made it easier and more common to set to music – I’m thinking Burns here in particular.

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