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Do It Yourself

Write Now

LAST MONTH, WE carried on our investigation into the way a lyric can dictate the rhythmical format of a song. We looked at 'The Locomotion' and 'Let It Be', and decided that the length of the vocal line had a lot to do with how the song was phrased. Most conventional songs seem to slip into 2/4/8/12/16-bar routines.

Rhythm can work on a larger sale, though. Obviously, if you say the word "locomotion" it splits into four syllables, so it's not unreasonable to expect it to occupy four musical sounds because of that. Think of this line in the song:

"Do the locomotion with me"

I've shown the number of syllables with the _ mark. But that's not the end of the argument as far as the song goes - we've proved in the first two articles of this series, that all songs work over a basic pulse which is accented regularly (into bars), with strong accents representing the beginning of each bar. These eight syllables actually happen over a couple of bars. So how does the larger framework of a verse or chorus happen? Let's look at another old Beatles classic - this time a song that recently topped the charts in the hands of Wet Wet Wet.

Again, I've shown the pulse on the song as a repeating 1 2 3 4, and so on. The verse could easily be a poem, but the "Oh" and "mm" openings to each line of the chorus give this away as a song lyric; they're really just a vocal "filler" to satisfy the rhythmic pulse of the music. Similarly, there are two "fill out" bars at the end of the chorus. When you add all that together, both verse and chorus consist of eight bars each.

But there's a distinct difference between the lyrics of the verse and chorus. Look them over and see if you an spot the differences. You could summarise these as follows:

1 The verse has rhyming lines (lines 1 and 3, and 2 and 4 rhyme).

2 The chorus has a repeating lyric line, give or take some minor adjustments.

3 The pause in the lyric idea in the verse only really happens at the end of the 4th bar (after "me"), and then again at the end of the 8th bar (on "key"); so we could call these four-bar phrases.

4 In the chorus, the repeating "hook" line, which is also the title of the song, happens over a repeating two-bar pattern.

In nearly all "pop" songs, you'll find that the lengths of the lyric phrasing change for different parts of the song. So even though the verse and chorus happen over the same number of bars in this tune, the content of the lyrics means that the musical effect is different for each section. For example, in "With a little help" the repeating lyric of each line of the chorus is treated to a repeating melody line, whereas the rhyming lyric idea of the verse is repeated musically. That means two musical ideas in the verse (four bars each), and three musical ideas, plus a two-bar fill-out, in the chorus (two bars each). All of these musical ideas could have been motivated by the lyric, and probably were.

Most artists and writers (Rick Astley and Cliff Richard spring to mind as exceptions) strive to be "original" and "different", so the difficulty arises as to whether you use clichés in lyrics or harmony or structure or whatever. "With a Little Help" is a very successful song, yet it uses 2/4 and 8 bar structures, it has simple rhyming lines, and its harmonic content contains any number of clichés. What this song teaches us is that being original doesn't necessarily mean you have to re-invent the wheel - you can use familiar ways of approaching songwriting.

Before we introduce musical dimensions to songwriting skills, you should be clear about the way the lyrics encourage a song to be written in a certain way. From the smallest consideration (the number of syllables in a word) to the largest (the number of lines in a verse/chorus or middle 8 section), you can begin to apply a bar count to the demands of the lyric. I've shown one or two examples in these first three articles; the thing to do now is pick up a dozen or so of your favourite tracks, take down the lyrics from the record, and then try and work out the structural answers in the same way as I did, starting with short phrases and building up to whole sections.

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Key Lines

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Stick Trix

Phaze 1 - Copyright: Phaze 1 Publishing


Phaze 1 - Jan 1989

Do It Yourself

Feature by Jenni Cooper

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