Have you ever wondered if the position of your lyrical phrase within your music affected the message you were trying to get through to your audience?
I'd argue that it does for multiple reasons, but right now I want to show you why it matters for the purpose of highlighting specific words within your lyrical phrases. What I am talking about? Okay, okay, be patient... I'll show you.
There's a great example of what I'm talking about in the song "These Days" by Foo Fighters. But before I get into that, we need to back up and talk about our everyday speech patterns and how they relate to music.
The Spoken Word
In every day speech, some words and syllables are accented, and others are not. For example, look at the phrase "One of these days." It's a phrase we've heard many times before, so we're familiar with its sonic shape. If you listen carefully, you'll notice the words "one" and "days" are stressed more than the words "of" and "these." I'll notate this by capitalizing the stressed words: ONE of these DAYS. Do you hear it? The combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in this phrase help to create its natural shape. If we stressed words that don't want to be stressed, we'd get: One OF THESE days. Sounds like William Shatner saying it, doesn't it? It's not how we're used to hearing it.
...And in Music
That's cool, but what does this have to do with music? Well, when we sing lyrics, we also accent certain words, but the position of the words in the measure has everything to do with which words get accented, and which words don't. Each measure of a song has beats within its measure that are stronger than other beats. For example, in 4/4 time, the first beat of the measure is the strongest, the third beat is the second strongest, the second beat is the third strongest and the fourth beat of the measure is the weakest. Without getting too complicated, all we need to take away from this right now, is that the first beat of the measure is the strongest. So, if we place a word on the first beat of the measure, it'll tend to sound more accented than a beat that is on the second, third or fourth beat.
As songwriters, it's important for us to align the accented words of our lyrical phrases with the accented words in the spoken version of the phrases we choose. Remember that singing is just an exaggerated form of speech, so in order for our lyrics to really resonate with our listeners and sound natural, we need our vocal phrases to have the same sonic shape as the spoken version of our phases.
Applying These Concepts to "These Days" by Foo Fighters
Back to our Foo Fighters song. If you'd like to follow along, please check out the song on YouTube:
At the beginning of the song, the first line we hear lead singer, Dave Grohl, sing is "One of these days." He repeats this phrase a few times throughout the verse in the exact same manner. When he sings this phrase in the verse, it sounds good. It sounds natural. The way we would speak it. "ONE of these DAYS." Why is that? Check it out.... If you count along with the song, you'll notice the words "one" and "days" fall on the first beat of two consecutive measures. So the visual version would look something like this:
Go back and listen to the first line of the song. Notice how the words that should be the strongest in the phrase (based on how we say it), are on beat number one. The result? The phrase resonates with us the way it should. Cool.
As a comparison, let's fast forward to the chorus. Go to about a minute and thirty-five seconds into the song and take another listen to when he sings the same exact lyrical phrase, "One of the days," in the chorus. Go check it out.
Oops! What happened now? Suddenly, the phrase sounds like this: "one of THESE days."
Or, in the song
In the chorus, they've changed up the sonic shape of the phrase. Now the emphasis is on the word "these," which goes against what we're used to hearing in spoken language. That's why something sounds off and not as natural as it did before. The word "these" lands square on beat one (the only word in the phrase that does) and sucks up all the spotlight. But is it supposed to? Let's check our original spoken word version: "ONE of these DAYS." Nope it wasn't supposed to. So THAT'S why something sounds off...or at the very least, different than it did in the verse.
One thing I love about this song as a study of this topic, is that it uses the phrase "One of these days" in both ways, so we can get a side by side comparison within the song. You can clearly hear how the positioning of your words matters when you write your lyrics to music. Do it right, the way Foo Fighters did in the verse, and it sounds natural. Do it not-as-right (this is art after all, and there is technically no "wrong"), the way Foo did in the chorus, and it doesn't sound as natural anymore.
Try it out
Ultimately your phrases should sound the way they do in speech... natural. You don't have to calculate and break down your own songs as thoroughly as I've done here with "These Days," but keep an open ear as you write. Apply this concept in your own writing. Experiment with it, and see what kind of results you get. A little knowledge and a lot of experimentation go a long way in writing music.
In a follow up article, I'll continue commenting on this song, in reference to its title and how it applies to what we've talked about here.
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About Anthony Ceseri
Anthony Ceseri is a songwriter and performer who has traveled the country in pursuit of the best songwriting advice and information available. From classes and workshops at Berklee College of Music in Boston, to Taxi's Road Rally in Los Angeles, Anthony has learned from the most well-respected professional songwriters, producers and performers in the industry.
Realizing this kind of information isn't readily available to most songwriters, Anthony founded www.SuccessForYourSongs.com as a way to funnel the very best advice to songwriters and performers all around the world.
Anthony's writings appear as examples in the book Songwriting Without Boundaries: Lyric Writing Exercises For Finding Your Voice by Pat Pattison, an acclaimed lyric writing professor at Berklee College of Music.
For more information, please visit successforyoursongs.com
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