Meter and Lyrics

Are songwriters thinking poetry when they write the lyrics to songs? Well, yes, in the sense that they have many of the same goals as poets: to come up with words that sound great out loud, tell a story or convey an emotional state, and leave something memorable with the listener.

But in other regards, perhaps not so much. Because lyrics are intended to be sung, not recited or read silently, everything depends on how they sound and how they fit to the song’s music. Only poets can get away with writing things that are difficult, if not impossible, to read aloud.

Song lyrics also tend to be simpler and less abstract than a lot of poetry. Stephen Sondheim said as much in an interview a few years ago:

I’d learned from Oscar Hammerstein, my mentor, that the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself. Poetry makes, generally, very poor lyrics unless you’re dealing with a certain kind of show. It’s too allusive, that’s not what you want.

Rhyme is a feature of most song lyrics, but what about the meter that usually accompanied rhyme in traditional poetry? Like rhyme, meter also works as a sonic device that affects how a line sounds, not only to the outer ear when read aloud, but also to our silent reading’s inner ear.

Earlier articles here pointed out lines by Bob Dylan and others that could be read as iambic. But it’s hard to find many songs that use regular meter throughout. Instead, it appears as though songwriters often use meter more like a garnish: to change up the feel of the lyrics or for emphasis.

For example, in the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” John Lennon wrote this line as part of the final verse:

      Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

Read that aloud a couple times and appreciate how great it sounds even without singing it.

Was the meter deliberate, or was this line just a fortuitous accident of English speech, which often falls naturally into iambic runs?

If this were the only example available, it might be an accident. But consider this line from a half century later, by a completely different songwriter, Olivia Rodrigo, from her song “good 4 u”:

      You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do

Again, read this aloud. Doesn’t the meter add to the emphatic nature of this statement?

Two other things are worth noting about these lines. First, look at how few words of more than one syllable are used. With Lennon’s line, it’s two; with Rodrigo’s, it’s only one.

And second, both lines alliterate Ns and Hs. Together, meter, simple words, and alliteration all contribute to the lines’ appeal and their stickiness in the head.

But what kind of meter? I would scan Lennon’s line as iambic with initial truncation. But why iambic and not trochaic? Probably because the preceding lines are generally iambic. Whereas I would scan Rodrigo’s line as trochaic, probably because the mostly free-verse preceding lines haven’t established any pattern and so this line is all we have to go on.

Patterns matter. With a poem in meter, it usually takes a line or two to figure out the governing meter. But once you’ve established that, you know a lot more about how to make the poem sound when reading it aloud.

Here’s an example where working out the meter helps you hear the lyrics even without hearing them sung. This is from the song “Why” by The Linda Lindas:

      I just shout and never sing
      No one likes it anyway
      So I just drown out everything
      But it will not go away

So is this iambic tetrameter with initial truncation in lines 1, 2 and 4? Or is it trochaic tetrameter with final truncation in those lines? Well, line 3 is regular iambic tetrameter so I would go with the former. In either case, the heaviest stresses in line 4, for example, will then be on “But,” “will,” “go,” and the second syllable of “away.” And sure enough, that’s how it’s sung.

Rhyme and meter come naturally to most people. Here teenagers have come up with lyrics in iambic meter, using the familiar abab rhyme scheme. No surprise, right?

Experienced songwriters know how and when to use meter in their lyrics. Here’s the first two lines from Dolly Parton’s famous song, “The Bargain Store”:

      My life is likened to a bargain store
      And I may have just what you’re looking for

That’s rhymed iambic pentameter. Although Parton doesn’t stay in that meter throughout the song, the use of it here with the alliterative and slightly old-fashioned-sounding “likened” gives the song a great start.

A more complicated example is the first lines of Leonard Cohen’s much-covered “Hallelujah”:

      Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
      That David played, and it pleased the Lord
      But you don’t really care for music, do you?

This is iambic meter, but with substitution of an anapestic foot in the first foot of the first line (“Now I’ve heard”) and in the third foot of the second line (“and it pleased”), giving both lines a satisfying naturalness of expression. The first two lines are tetrameter; the third line is pentameter with a so-called feminine ending.

One thing to keep in mind is that song lyrics can almost be considered provisional. Not all singers will follow the original lyrics exactly. For example, in Brandi Carlile’s “Hallelujah,” she sings the first line like this:

      I’ve heard that there’s a secret chord

This is a regular iambic line, and it feels a little different than the original, perhaps also because it’s now in present tense rather than past.

© 10 Franks 2022

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