By John Braheny
Prosody is the agreement of lyric and music. If the lyric has an "up," positive message, it would generally be unwise to use a melody in a minor key. Minor chords are used better in songs of pain, longing, despair, loss, and sadness. Ideally, you want the emotional tone of the music to enhance the message of the lyric. It's possible, however, that your message might be enhanced by doing just the opposite of what feels natural, for effect. A good example is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife." But that should be a conscious choice, not an accident.
If Jim Webb had written the melody to the line, "Up, Up and Away" or Curtis Mayfield to the line "Move On Up" as a series of descending notes, the result would have sounded ludicrous. That's the extreme, but it's a graphic example of the importance of prosody.
Other factors also contribute to good prosody. Watch for combinations of words that could be heard as other words. "What do I know?" "What a Wino" "Let the winds take hold," "Let the wind stay cold," "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" " 'Scuse me while I kiss this guy" (which became the title of a very funny book, "Scuse Me... While I Kiss This Guy: And Other Misheard Lyrics" by Gavin Edwards).
A similar problem exists with adjoining words that end and begin with the same sound. The phrases "teach children" and "strange journey" will give a good singer an anxiety attack unless there's plenty of space in between to allow the tongue to recover. Anyway, I'm sure you get my point. Make certain that what a listener hears is what you want them to hear and that the singer can easily sing what you write.
The best way to make sure your lyrics will sing well is to sing them as you write them. Sing your lyrics at the tempo they'll be performed. Words may look fine on paper or sing easily at a slow tempo but will tie a singer's tongue in knots when you increase the tempo even a little. If the words feel at all awkward in your mouth, or don't sing smoothly, change them. Some words like "long" and "cool" carry their own emotional meanings that feel wrong when sung over short choppy notes. Action words like "jump," "run," "crash," and "flash" may feel out of place in a slow ballad but right at home in a highintensity rocker.
One of the most important tools in the service of prosody is lyric meter. Its skilled use allows you to emphasize natural speech patterns and tie them effectively to the musical pulse and melody. It helps make the words fit comfortably with the music without putting the accents on the wrong syllables or squeezing too many words into too little musical space.
insane, goodby, tonight, for good
healthy, lover, money
going out, making sense, understand
ta ta TUM
I'm okay, you're okay
TUM ta ta
downtown, starship, headlong
believing, concerning, I love it
ta TUM ta
If you were paying attention in English class instead of daydreaming about being a rock star, you would probably already know about what follows. You just didn't think you'd ever need to use it, right?
Why do you need to know about meter? You may not need to remember the names of the patterns, but you should know that they are options to be considered and that they can be used for emotional effect and for variety. Few things are more deadly than an entire lyric in perfect iambic pentameter, and the melodies to those lyrics don't usually save them. When was the last time, by the way, that you heard someone use iambic pentameter in a conversation? So let's go back to English class again.
The groupings of stressed and unstressed syllables and words are called "metric feet." We usually hear them in groups of two or three. Those most commonly used in poetry and lyric are shown in Figure 1.