Setting Lyrics

When setting lyrics, consider the accent patterns of the lyrics as you might say them in everyday speech.

This site is divided into chapters about different songwriting elements, but in practice, those elements shouldn’t be completely separate. The melody you write has a strong impact on the chords you choose, and vice versa. Your most inspired bursts of creativity with those elements may occur when you come up with a chord progression and a melody at virtually the same time.

Similarly, some of your best lyrics may come to you right when you’ve come up with an important melody and chord progression. When you have a melody and chord progression you like, play them, or listen to recordings of them, over and over. Imagine what words might sound best over them. Come up with a bunch of possibilities and write them down. Don’t worry about whether they make sense; you can sort that out later (or not). Once you’ve done that – perhaps in one session, or perhaps many times over a period of days – you may end up with a better sense of where your song’s lyrics should go.

Your songwriting process might be somewhat different than what I’ve described above. That’s fine. Some songwriters begin with lyrics as their inspiration, for example, and work on the music later. What’s important is that your thinking and your process are based on the idea that music and lyrics are interrelated. If your approach to lyrics is disconnected from your approach to music, you may wind up trying to jam together puzzle pieces that don’t connect. Here’s what I mean.

Why Is “Friday” So Bad?

 “Friday” is a 2011 single by Rebecca Black, a California teenager whose mother paid a company called Ark Music Factory $4,000 to make her a pop song and accompanying video. The video went viral, and Black’s dream of becoming a pop star became a reality, though not in the way she intended.  The song was widely ridiculed, and its YouTube uploads received millions upon millions of dislikes.

Getting that many people to hate your song is difficult. If “Friday” truly were abjectly awful, it probably wouldn’t have been so popular. The song has an extremely catchy chorus (with a I-vi-IV-V chord progression), and … well, actually, that’s about all it has going for it. But if you’re writing a pop song and you’re only going to get one thing right, it ought to be a catchy chorus.

On the whole, though, “Friday” is amusingly terrible, in part because of Black’s voice and in part because of the video. In one verse, Black describes her friends pulling up to her bus stop to offer her a ride to school. She hems and haws about where she’ll sit — “Gotta make my mind up / Which seat can I take?” Then, in the video, we see her sitting in the back middle seat. Who chooses to sit in that seat? Nobody, that’s who.

But what really sends the song over the edge is the way songwriters Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson set lyrics to music. Consider the following lyrics:

Gotta have cereal.

Today is Friday.

If you’ve heard the song before, pretend you haven’t, and say those lyrics out loud, as if you were saying them in conversation with a friend. (We’ll leave aside the questions of whether you’d actually say “Gotta have my bowl. Gotta have cereal,” to your friend, or whether you’d remind her that Friday follows Thursday.) They probably sound a little like this:

GOTta have CEReal.

ToDAY is FRIday.

Now consider the way Black says these lines in “Friday.”

GOTta HAVE cereAL.

TOday i-is FRIday.

Say these out loud. They sound ridiculous, like Siri mangling the pronunciation of your friend’s address. That’s because the singing doesn’t respect the patterns of the language (and because all the Auto-Tuning makes Black sound like an android to begin with). When you write lyrics, you generally want to place accented syllables on beats, especially important beats. Here’s an example of how that might work.

How To Set Text: Theme From “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air”

It should not surprise us that Will Smith does a much better job setting text in the “Fresh Prince” theme than Jey and Wilson did on “Friday.” Hip-hop depends much more heavily than other pop genres on setting lyrics in a way that seems natural, since rapping imitates human speech. Also, hip-hop lyrics are less beholden to the contours of melodies than lyrics in other genres, so rappers have greater flexibility to move syllables around.

Here are the first four lines from the “Fresh Prince” theme, with the key syllables capitalized.

In WEST PhilaDELphia BORN and RAISED
On a PLAYground is WHERE I spent MOST of my DAYS
CHILLing out, MAXing, reLAXing all COOL and all
SHOOTing some B-ball OUTside of the SCHOOL

If we say these words aloud, independent of how they sound in the song, they sound natural. (The phrase “On a playground is where I spent most of my days” is much more awkward than, for example, “I spent most of my days on the playground,” but that’s because of the order of the words, not their accent pattern.) Now listen to the song, and notice how Smith uses the opening word “in” as a pickup, with “West” landing on the first beat. When we say the phrase “in West Philadelphia,” we accent the syllable “West,” not the syllable “in.” So it would be poor form to place “in” on beat one.

There’s a dorky musician party trick (the origins of which are unclear to me) that involves singing a new version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the anthem, the opening syllable is sung “O-oh” – it takes two notes to sing. But what if we only give “Oh” one note, and we move every other syllable up by a note, so that “can,” rather than “say,” winds up on the first downbeat?

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Good luck singing the entire song like this, especially if you’ve been drinking. Whether you can do it or not, you’re going to sound ridiculous. This illustrates why Smith begins the “Fresh Prince” theme with, “Innnn…. WEST.” “West” is the accented syllable, so Smith places it on an accented beat. Here’s the rhythm of the first four lines of the theme.

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We’re interested here in which syllables fall on beats (which are represented by the numbers above the notes), and especially which syllables fall on beat one of each measure. Note that when Smith sings “Philadelphia,” the only syllable he places on a beat is “del,” which is the accented syllable in that word. And in the second line, note how he places the first syllables of “chilling” and “maxing” on beats, but he does not do so with “relaxing,” because “lax” is the accented syllable of that word.

Now let’s look more closely at the first line.

In WEST Phil-a-DEL-phi-a BORN and RAISED

Notice how there are two unaccented syllables after “West” and two more after “del.” We might be able to use that pattern – accented/unaccented/unaccented – to rewrite the rhythms in 3/4, rather than 4/4. So let’s give it a shot.

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Okay, this isn’t bad. We’ve got the accented syllables “West” and “del” on downbeats. Notice, also, the line “Chilling out, maxing, relaxing or cooling.” We place the syllables “chil” and “max” on downbeats because when we say the words “chilling” and “maxing,” we accent their first syllables. We do not do this with the word “relax” – there, we accent the syllable “lax.” So we’ve placed “lax” on the downbeat, not “re.”

More subtly, look at what we’ve done with “where I spent.” The line “On a playground is where I spent most of my days” is a little awkward when we say it out loud – no one would actually talk like that. When I’ve discussed this in class, my students have disagreed about whether to accent “where” or “spent.” Here I’ve picked “where,” but I’ve split the difference between “where” and “spent” by making “where” a relatively short syllable, even though it falls on an accented beat, and “spent” a longer one. Try singing this rhythm out loud – the words should sound natural, almost as if we’re speaking them.

By the way, let’s go ahead and add a melody and chord progression to our new setting of the “Fresh Prince” theme.

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Presto, we’ve turned the “Fresh Prince” theme into a Johnny Cash-style country tune. The progression is a standard IV-I-V-vi in the key of G; if you’re feeling especially frisky, you could try changing the D chord in m. 7 to B7, creating a V7/vi. Note the balance of steps and leaps in the melody, and the way the melody centers around notes from the chords that accompany it.

Setting text to music in a natural-sounding way is an important consideration, but it should, ultimately, be secondary. If you come up with a catchy chorus, and changing the lyrics to fit the music makes the chorus less catchy, then maybe you shouldn’t change it. Plenty of good pop songs have a few awkwardly-placed syllables, and a good singer can often cover for bits of awkwardness here and there.

It’s important to keep accent patterns in mind, though, or else you might end up writing “Friday.” And if you’re the sort of songwriter who begins with lyrics first, thinking about them in terms of their natural accents might help you set them in ways you hadn’t previously imagined.

Songwriting exercise

Consider the following lyric: “On the day I was born, it was raining / On the day I turned nine, it was hot.” Determine which syllables should be accented. Write a rhythm for the lyric, then set it to a melody and add chords.

Next chapter: The Beatles, “Oh! Darling”