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Tip To Match Line Length In Verses

Tip To Match Line Length In Verses

Line length is a key element of any song. Without knowing how long your lines are, you risk making your verse melody lines different. Since the whole point of verses is to sound melodically the same, this can be a big problem.

You’ve probably had someone tell you at some point that the melodies are different in what should be parallel or “like” lines across two of your verses.

I.e., the line length seems different for the 3rd line of Verse 1 and the 3rd line of Verse 2, when they should really match. As a result, your melody line changes in the 3rd line of Verse 2 – oops.

I recently got back a song evaluation from NSAI, and the reviewer suggested my melodies don’t match because of the meter. Which isn’t exactly true.

My melodies don’t match because the words I’ve chosen have mismatched syllable counts, which I didn’t notice until he pointed it out, which is why evaluations help if you can read them as coaching.

But, it got me thinking.  What if people get so distracted with words like “meter” that they don’t just use a super simple substitute – syllable count – to make their line lengths in songs better?

 

Why Syllable Counts Can Help With Line Length

 

The great news for songwriters is that songs came out of poetry, which had a structure for a reason – memorization. We can use some of poetry’s devices to help make songwriting easier.

Meter is the rhythmic measurement of a line in a song or poem using feet (iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, amphibrach). A melody line is something that lays over your basic chord structure with sung or played notes.

Meter itself is created by the words you use and their stressed or unstressed syllables, which are then grouped up into “feet.”

Put simply, meter is just a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, and the number of times they occur in a line.

Notice how I keep using the word syllables?

 

So How Does Meter Really Work?

 

In English poetry, the most common meter is iambic pentameter. An “iambic” foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Sounds like da Dum and written as ” –  / ” over the words of poetic verse.

Iambic | Pentameter = Foot composed of what kind of stresses | How many feet in the row (pentameter is 5)

 

An example of iambic pentameter you might have heard of from Shakespeare :

(Note how  ” –    / ”  occurs 5 times  in a row)

–        /        –          /         –               /    –        /      –           /

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

 

Pretty clever system!

We need to be able to do the same thing when we write a song, but who has time to figure out whether something is an iambic foot, dactylic or an amphibrach? What? Exactly!

Since feet are composed of syllables, syllable counts can be used as a way to “measure” your lines.

 

Use Syllable Counts To Determine Line Length

 

SHORT CUT: Rather than trying to figure out the actual meter for the line length, just count syllables. If you divide by two you’ll be pretty close to the number of “feet” in the line (just in case you’re ever asked).

Here’s a John Gorka line:

They’re growing houses in the fields between the towns  (12 syllables, so about a six foot line)

Let’s look at my lyrics the evaluator was talking about:

VERSE 1

High top table Luke Loves Amy scratched in the wood.   (12 syllables)
He runs his thumb over the names, wonders if she’s gone for good.  (15 syllables)
He loved how’d they’d two step beneath the spinning fans.  (12 syllables)
How he’d feel holdin’ Amy close each time they’d dance.  (12 syllables)

 

VERSE 2

The music’s slow and neon signs light up the walls.  (12 syllables)
Amy knew she’d find him here, knew she had to risk it all.  (14 syllables)
She pushes between his buddies, wraps her fingers ’round his hand,  (15 syllables)
Looks in his eyes and says let’s have one more dance.  (11 syllables)

 

Looks like the reviewer was right!

I could probably tighten up the verses to match more closely melodically if I spent some time getting the syllable counts a bit closer, especially line 3 of the second verse – that one’s pretty far off the mark.

This is a handy tool to have in your songwriting toolkit, but don’t get too focused with making everything match perfectly. Being in the ball park works – some words just don’t have voiced syllables, so you’ve got a little wiggle room.

And – at the end of the day, prosody matters! Your lyrics should sound melodic.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?  (10 syllables)

sounds much better than . . .

Hey, what’s that light coming through the window?  (10 syllables)

or . . .

Who’s that hot lookin’ girl in the window?  (10 syllables)

 





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