Song > Lyric + Melody
by Monty Harper
The nitty-gritty of songwriting
We all know a song is composed of two elements, right? Melody and lyric. Master each and you’ve got this whole songwriting thing licked.
Not so fast, Signor Prestissimo! There’s a third element you may be overlooking. It’s funny how little attention this one tends to receive, considering it’s the defining feature of the art form. Poems have words. Etudes have melodies. Only songs attempt to marry the two together. And that marriage is where the magic happens. We call it “prosody.”
Every chorus, verse, phrase, word, and syllable of every song you write has prosody, whether you are aware of it or not.
If words and music are not matched skillfully, the resulting effects can detract from the song. An exciting lyric set to a tranquil melody may cause the listener to miss the point. A word mispronounced in order to create a rhyme can be as jarring to the ear as an off-key pitch:
If you want to rhyme with ME
Breaking prosody is gutSY
A lyric with perfect prosody will match the accents of its melody in such a way that no word is mispronounced in the singing; no innocent syllable is unjustly forced into an emphasis it doesn’t deserve.
However, prosody is about more than avoiding pronunciation mistakes. As you begin tuning in to prosody, with all its little tricks and traps, you’ll gain access to a whole new set of songwriting tools. Masterful use of prosody can bring more clarity, vibrancy, and playfulness to your writing, all of which are qualities that children’s songs, especially, should exude.
Tom Chapin’s songs rank consistently among the best in the biz. He and his cowriters are masters at using prosody in the service of fun. Here’s the opening line from “Cousins,” by Tom Chapin and John Forster, from the album Mother Earth:
“They pulled into the driveway like a frigate dropping sail”
This is set to a rollicking melody that calls to mind a sea shanty or a pirate adventure. The spot-on match between the spirit of the music and the frigate analogy in the lyric sets the tone; this will be a clever and playful song.
But this wink to the attentive listener isn’t the only justification for Chapin and Forster’s melody. A deeper reason for the energetic iambic rhythm of the music is to help convey the energy of a carload of excited kids. The next line contains a long list of short names:
“And out came Butch and Mike and Bill and Ben and Baby Gail.”
Read these words aloud and you cannot fail to mimic the rhythm of the song’s melody, even if you’ve never heard it. You probably also can’t resist a grin, picturing all those siblings spilling out of a frigate-sized vehicle one after the other, just as the names spill out of the song.
Long lists of short items appear several times throughout the verses to similar effect, such as in this line depicting the boys playing cards:
“You cheat!” “I don’t!” “You do!” “Did not!” “He did!”
The melody facilitates this, and the energy and motion of a roomful of boys comes through loud and clear every time.
Each verse in this song depicts a new scenario in which the boys get themselves into some sort of trouble. Rather than rolling out the ending line at the same rollicking pace as the rest of the verse, Chapin and Forster set each finale apart with a long connecting word:
“Theeeeeen…he disobeyed the doctor and went swimming after lunch.”
This rhythmic structure draws the listener’s attention, then rewards it with the punchline of the verse. If the lyric didn’t pay off after that long drawn out note, the melody would make no sense. The two are working together to help convey meaning and structure within the story.
In the chorus, from the words alone, one might conclude that the singer is in dismay:
Cousins, cousins, here come the boys.
Bedlam, mayhem, noise, noise, noise.
Blow up the air mattresses, hide the breakable toys.
Cousins, cousins, here come the boys.
These boys sound like a lot of trouble. But the melody, a simple triumphant march, makes it clear that this is the good kind of trouble. The third line holds out the word “blow” as the pitch rises to its highest point on the word “up.” If the singer were distraught, he would not pause to playfully reflect the meaning of the word “up” within the music. “Cousins” is a great example of words and music working together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
I always consider prosody from the very beginning of my writing process. I specifically adjust words to better fit with my melodies, and change melodies to better present my words, ideas, and emotions.
Let’s look at a song I recently wrote for a client. This was a theme song for Karston the Texas Blind Salamander. Karston teaches kids about water conservation for the Edwards Aquifer near San Antonio, Texas.
I knew that “salamander,” “Edwards Aquifer,” “Karston,” and “water” would be key words to include. I began by searching for ways to fit these particular words into interesting rhythmic phrases and melodies that would allow me to sing them clearly and pronounce them correctly.
I collected about a dozen short snippets of words and melody over a week or so of initial brainstorming. Then I sorted through my choices, keeping prosody firmly in mind. Some phrases flowed really well but didn’t match the energy we were going for. Others didn’t properly highlight the right ideas.
The phrase “fresh clean water” posed a challenge. This is the product Karston is selling to his audience, and it ought to be prominently featured. However, with no good rhyme to set up the word “water,” most of my options had it buried in the middle of a line. My solution was to try an AAAB rhyme structure, which worked out great.
Here’s what I ended up with for verse one:
1. He’s a salamander from The Edwards Aquifer.
2. His name is Karston; he’s a water connoisseur.
3. He’s counting gallons cause he’s helping to ensure
4. We all have water, fresh clean water.
Attentive readers may note that in order to set up the triple rhyme, I let the “er” in “aquifer” take on a bit of unnatural emphasis. In exchange for this small imperfection I was able to apply other aspects of prosody to make this verse really pop.
I used a catchy syncopated rhythm in lines one, two, and three to support the triple rhyme, emphasize the key words, and convey Karston’s energetic, upbeat attitude.
The first “water” in line four slows to quarter notes. This is followed by a two-beat rest, then four final quarter notes on “fresh clean water.” The contrasts in rhyme and rhythm, the long pause, and the rising melody all serve to showcase Karston’s product like a jewel in a setting of gold.
This effect is largely missing if you just read the words from the page. Once again, lyric plus melody equals more than the sum of the parts.
My daughter turned thirteen this year, so we’ve heard a lot of popular music in our house via YouTube and Pandora. There was a song out there recently called “Me and My Broken Heart” written by Benny Blanco, Ammar Malik, Steve Mac, Wayne Hector, and Rob Thomas, and recorded by the English pop band Rixton.
Something about their hook really drew my attention. Then I realized it was because the writers use a very strange prosody choice. Usually we want to fit the music to the natural flow of the words. Following this rule of thumb, the melody for this title ought to put emphasis on “me,” “broken,” and “heart” like so:
Instead, the writers placed the heaviest emphasis on the lowly conjunction. Additionally, the melody rises on “my” and “ken,” giving nearly equal emphasis to each of the last four syllables:
This implies that the “and” is important. What it says to me is that the singer’s broken heart is always present with him; together they form a unit. The off-kilter rhythm also reflects the singer’s state of mind.
The odd prosody choice adds a bit of meaning to the phrase without adding any words. And it’s unexpected in a good way, which helps make the hook, well…“hooky.” It’s yet another example of words and music combining to become more than the sum of their parts.
Developing an ear for prosody takes time and effort. Next time you hear a song, pay close attention to the interplay between words and music. In what ways do the lyric and melody enhance one another? Do they ever struggle against one another? Why? Apply the awareness you gain to your own songwriting and take another great leap toward excellence.