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[Songwriting Advice] Size Matters: A Study in Prosody

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Fri, Mar 01, 2019 @07:00 AM

[Songwriting Advice] Size Matters: A Study in Prosody

by Pat Pattison

 LanaDelRay

Lana Del Ray’s single, Ride, creates a picturesque and surreal journey down an open road, leading us through a landscape that fuses relationships, mental turmoil and escape. The song is about motion, about the instability of a physical circumstance and mental state that causes her to lean into the future, to slide away from the confines of her past. Or something like that.

Anyway, it currently has over 62 million views on youtube, so lotsa folks like it.

Here are the first four sections:

(Insert Ride (unedited) here)

 

I've been out on that open road

You can be my full time daddy,

White and gold

Singing blues has been getting old

You can be my full time baby,

Hot or cold

 

Don't break me down

I've been travelin' too long

I've been trying too hard

With one pretty song

 

I hear the birds on the summer breeze,

I drive fast, I am alone in midnight

Been tryin' hard not to get into trouble,

But I, I've got a war in my mind

 

So, I just ride,

Just ride,

I just ride,

Just ride

 

Again, the song is all about moving. Yet, at the end of the last section, I didn’t feel the urge to move. I should have, but I didn’t. Why not?

First, let’s take a minute to talk about the concept of Prosody.

 

Prosody

Aristotle said that every great work of art contains the same feature – unity. Everything in the work belongs –supports every other element. Another word for unity is prosody – the “appropriate relationship between elements, whatever they may be.” Some examples of prosody in songs might be:

Prosody between words and music: a minor key could create, a feeling of sadness to support or even create sadness in an idea.

Prosody between syllables and notes: appropriate relationship between stressed syllables and stressed notes – a really big deal in songwriting. When they are lined up properly, the shape of the melody matches the natural shape of the language.

Prosody between rhythm and meaning: obvious examples like

 

“you gotta stop!.......(pause).................look and listen.”

 

Or writing a song about galloping horses in a triplet feel.

 

The elements of the song must all join together to support the central intent, idea and emotion of the work. Everything fits. Prosody is the appropriate relationship between elements.

Stable vs. Unstable

Stable vs. unstable is an effective window into prosody – a practical tool for creating prosody because it covers every aspect of a song: from the idea, to the melody, the rhythm, the chords, the lyric structure --everything. It governs the choices you make. Ask yourself, is the emotion in this section stable or unstable? Once you answer that question, you have a standard for making all your other choices.

 

Number of Lines

Every section you’ll ever write – verses, choruses, pre-choruses, bridges—will have (here it comes, get ready) some number of lines or other! OK, not much of a revelation. Even more specifically, every section you’ll ever write will have either an even number of lines, or an odd number of lines. Wow. Even more of an, um, revelation…

Now let’s talk a bit about an odd number of lines. An odd number of lines feels, er, odd -- off balance, unresolved, incomplete UNSTABLE. Let’s say you’re writing a verse where the idea is something like: “Baby, since you left me I’ve been feeling lost, odd -- off balance, unresolved, incomplete, UNSTABLE. Just theoretically, do you think this verse would be better with an even number of lines or an odd number of lines? Right. An odd number of lines.

This changes everything. You’ve recognized, maybe for the first time, that there can be a relationship between what you say and how many lines you use to say it. You’re feeling UNSTABLE, and the odd or UNSTABLE number of lines supports that feeling. Prosody. Your structure (in this case, your number of lines) can support meaning.

An even number of lines tends to feel, well, even -- solid, resolved, balanced, STABLE. Let’s say that your message is something like: “Baby, you’re the answer to all my prayers. I’ll be with you forever. I’m your rock. You can count on me.” How many lines should you use? Odd or even? Right. Even. You want a solid feeling in the structure to support the emotion you’re trying to communicate. “I mean it. You can trust me.” Prosody.

On the other hand, an odd number of lines feels, er, odd. Like it’s missing something. It creates a feeling of leaning forward. It feels unstable.

With this in mind, let’s take another look at these sections of Ride:

(Insert Ride (unedited) here)

 

I've been out on that open road

You can be my full time daddy,

White and gold

Singing blues has been getting old

You can be my full time baby,

Hot or cold

 

Don't break me down

I've been travelin' too long

I've been trying too hard

With one pretty song

 

I hear the birds on the summer breeze,

I drive fast, I am alone in midnight

Been tryin' hard not to get into trouble,

But I, I've got a war in my mind

 

So, I just ride,

Just ride,

I just ride,

Just ride

 

All four sections have an even number of lines. At least in this regard, all four feel stable. They don’t move. Let me repeat that: they don’t move.

Though the song is all about moving, all four sections stop. All four sections balance. That may not be an issue in the first section, where she’s stating facts. No drama, no motion, just facts.

 

I've been out on that open road

You can be my full time daddy,

White and gold

Singing blues has been getting old

You can be my full time baby,

Hot or cold

 

The even-numbered six-line section supports the facts nicely. Even the second section, where she’s giving commands, seems appropriate for an even number of lines:

 

Don't break me down

I've been travelin' too long

I've been trying too hard

With one pretty song

 

But it seems to me that sections three and four might profit from some instability, especially the title lines, the emotional centerpiece of the whole song:

 

So, I just ride,

Just ride,

I just ride,

Just ride

 

I’m an obsessive tinkerer, so I wondered what this might sound as a three lines section. It’s easy enough to toss the song into Garageband and do a little chopping, so I did. Here’s what it sounds like, omitting the third line:

(Insert Ride Edit 1 Chorus here)

So, I just ride,

Just ride,

Just ride

 

Nice. Can you feel the motion? The longing? The instability? Yup, the number of lines actually creates a feeling all by itself. It comments on the words like a film score comments on the images on the screen. It tells you how to feel about what you’re hearing, simply by applying the concept of Prosody, in this case, working with the number of lines in the section. The section moves forward, supporting the idea, Ride.

Listen to it in the context of all four sections.

(Insert Ride Edit 1 Complete here)

Still, the third section feels like it balances and stops motion with its even number of lines, making the last section have to do all the emotional work. What if the third section,

 

I hear the birds on the summer breeze,

I drive fast, I am alone in midnight

Been tryin' hard not to get into trouble,

But I, I've got a war in my mind

 

could push forward too? After all, it’s drenched with longing:

 

Back to Garageband for another edit, deleting the third line. Listen:

(Insert Ride Edit 2 Pre-Chorus here)

 

I hear the birds on the summer breeze,

I drive fast, I am alone in midnight

But I, I've got a war in my mind

 

Now, combined with the unstable fourth section, you can feel even more motion:

I hear the birds on the summer breeze,

I drive fast, I am alone in midnight

But I, I've got a war in my mind

 

So, I just ride,

Just ride,

Just ride

Now all four sections create prosody – their structures support their meaning, and, in the process, create a nice contrast between stable and unstable sections, making the third and fourth section’s forward motion seem even more dramatic:

(Insert Ride Edit 2 Complete here)

 

I've been out on that open road

You can be my full time daddy,

White and gold

Singing blues has been getting old

You can be my full time baby,

Hot or cold

 

Don't break me down

I've been travelin' too long

I've been trying too hard

With one pretty song

 

I hear the birds on the summer breeze,

I drive fast, I am alone in midnight

But I, I've got a war in my mind

 

So, I just ride,

Just ride,

Just ride

 

The structure of each section helps support the idea, using number of lines to make them move or stop.

Number of lines: one of the many tools affecting how your song creates an extra level of feeling. Don’t be afraid to use it.

Take a look at a few more applications of the use of an odd number of lines. Here are the first verses and chorus to Yes’s 1983 hit, Owner of a Lonely Heart:

(Insert Owner of a Lonely Heart (unedited) here)

 

Move yourself,

you always live your life

Never thinking of the future

Prove yourself

You are the move you make

Take your chances win or loser

 

See yourself,

you are the steps you take

You and you and that's the only way

Shake, shake yourself

You are every move you make

So the story goes

 

Owner of a lonely heart

Owner of a lonely heart

Owner of a broken heart

Owner of a lonely heart

 

If I had a lonely heart, I’d feel a sense of longing, of something missing. Try this:

(Insert Owner of a Lonely Heart Edit here)

 

Move yourself,

you always live your life

Never thinking of the future

Prove yourself

You are the move you make

Take your chances win or loser

 

See yourself,

you are the steps you take

You and you and that's the only way

Shake, shake yourself

You are every move you make

So the story goes

 

Owner of a lonely heart

Owner of a broken heart

Owner of a lonely heart

 

Now you can feel it. The odd number of lines makes a huge difference.

John Mayer did it right the first time in his Grammy-winning “Your Body is a Wonderland.” His three-line chorus creates a sense of longing, a desire for more:

(Insert Your Body Is A Wonderland unedited here)

 

We got the afternoon

You got this room for two

One thing I've left to do

Discover me

Discovering you

 

One mile to every inch of

Your skin like porcelain

One pair of candy lips and

Your bubblegum tongue

 

Cause if you want love

We'll make it

Swim in a deep sea

Of blankets

Take all your big plans

And break 'em

This is bound to be awhile

 

Your body is a wonderland

Your body is a wonder (I'll use my hands)

Your body is a wonderland

 

Without the sense of longing created by the odd number of lines, I doubt the song would have been John’s first Grammy. Judge for yourself. Listen to my Garageband edit, where I inserted an extra line into the chorus:

(Insert Wonderland Edit here)

 

We got the afternoon

You got this room for two

One thing I've left to do

Discover me

Discovering you

 

One mile to every inch of

Your skin like porcelain

One pair of candy lips and

Your bubblegum tongue

 

Cause if you want love

We'll make it

Swim in a deep sea

Of blankets

Take all your big plans

And break 'em

This is bound to be awhile

 

Your body is a wonderland

Your body is a wonderland

Your body is a wonder (I'll use my hands)

Your body is a wonderland

 

The even number of lines in the chorus stops motion and erases the sense of longing completely.

The Beatles supported the surrealism of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds effectively with this three-line chorus:

(Insert Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds unedited here)

 

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly

A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

 

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

Towering over your head

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes

And she's gone

 

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

 

Again, I’ve inserted an extra line in the chorus. Listen to the song now as it grinds to a dull halt with my Garageband-balanced chorus:

(Insert Lucy (edit) here)

 

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly

A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

 

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

Towering over your head

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes

And she's gone

 

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

 

It changes the feeling of the song completely.

Every section you write WILL have some number of lines, either odd or even. Ask yourself the simple question, “How do I feel in this section, stable or unstable?” Your number of lines, one of the many structural tools in your tool-belt, can help you gain even more emotion by supporting and enhancing your intent.

Prosody. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s simply having tools in your tool-belt and knowing how to use them. Prosody gives you an efficient window into effective composition.

Size matters.

 

 

 

Pat Pattison is a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry. In addition to his four books, Songwriting Without Boundaries (Writer’s Digest Books), Writing Better Lyrics (Writer’s Digest Books), The Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure (Berklee Press), and The Essential Guide to Rhyming (Berklee Press), Pat has developed five online courses for Berklee Online: three on lyric writing, one on poetry, and one on creative writing, all available through online.berklee.edu. His filmed series of lectures for Coursera.org has over 1,600,000 students enrolled to date. Pat has written over fifty articles for various magazines and blogs and has chapters in both The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (University Press of Mississippi) and the Handbook on Creative Writing (Edinburgh University Press). He
continues to present songwriting clinics across the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Pat’s students include multiple Grammy-winner Gillian Welch, John Mayer, AND Tom Hambridge, Karmin, American Authors, Liz Longley, Greg Becker, Charlie Worsham, and many more.

To enter the 24th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: https://www.songwriting.net

 
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Tags: songwriter, song writer, song write, Song writing, Songwriting, Prosody, Berklee, songwrite, Recording, lyric writing, song demo, Pat Pattison, demo recording, Catchy Rhythm, music writing, Instrumental Lick, Lana Del Ray, ride

Songwriting Tip: Polishing the Silver Bowl

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Thu, Jan 17, 2013 @02:56 PM

Polishing the Silver Bowl

By Pat Pattison

SilverBowl 

I found a silver punch bowl in my cellar. I vaguely remembered it being a gift (from one of my weddings). It was completely covered with tarnish (an interesting symbol), and, since I was Feng Shui-ing, the required move was to toss it. As I was about to, I was interrupted by the little Midwestern voice inside my head: “IT’S SILVER!! You can’t throw it away!”

I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring that Midwestern voice, or at least sidestepping it. I tried, but as I was about to slip the bowl into the trash bag, it got louder, sounding a lot like my mom: “Nooooo! It’s SIIILVER!” “OK,” I bargained, “if I have any silver polish under the kitchen sink (where all that stuff languishes), I’ll shine up the bowl to see if it’s worth keeping.” Why would I have silver polish? I figured it was an easy escape from The Voice.

Who knew? To my surprise, I did have a jar of silver polish under the sink, (apparently another remnant from one of my weddings). Alas, let the cleaning begin.

I covered the bowl with the grey goop and, as per instruction, allowed it to dry. Wiping it off (with a clean cloth—another surprise under the sink), I discovered that, once the tarnish was rubbed away, the bowl was pretty snazzy. “I’m gonna keep this,” I said, as The Voice basked in the warm glow of its little victory.

Once I’d made the decision to keep it, I looked at the bowl more carefully, noticing the spots I’d missed. I applied more grey goop on the offending areas, waited, then rubbed it off—a bit harder this time. Ah, nice and shiny, both outside and in.

Um, except for the silver leafing all around the rim and on the four curved, leafed legs, still tarnished, with excess polish sticking in all those little crevasses. I tried rubbing with the cloth, but there was no way to get into all those places. I thought, “I’ll use my toothbrush. I can always rinse it off afterwards…”

More polish, and now the scrubbing took longer, not to mention the occasional spray from the toothbrush bristles, requiring goggles. (Silver polish stings the eyes.) The work was more localized and focused, taking longer to cover smaller areas. But finally, after rinsing with warm water, the rim and the legs were sparkling. “Good work,” I cooed to myself.

Oops. For the first time I noticed the thin etched lines swirling both on the interior and the exterior of the bowl. They were still tarnished, not an eyesore, but still not shining like they could. My impulse was to ignore them, but now The Voice reared up again. “Finish what you started. Quit being lazy.” Urrgh!

Q-tips. Again, the work was much more localized and painstaking. Following those swirls wasn’t easy, but after some close attention, a little bad language and a sore wrist, the silver bowl was finished. It glistened. Everything Midwestern in me shone with the glow of a job well done. I filled my gleaming silver bowl with apples and set it in the center of the coffee-table. Voilá!

The moral of this little tale?

It’s not like, when I found the bowl, I immediately saw that the leafing or the etchings were tarnished and needed work. I had plenty to do before I was able to notice those smaller details.

Move from bigger to smaller. Don’t sweat the small stuff until the big stuff is cleaned up.

Intent is the biggest: What’s your song about? Try to say it in one phrase.

Prosody is huge: Is this idea stable or unstable? All your decisions about structure will depend on how you answer this question.

Very, very big: The three questions every song must answer:

1. Who is talking?

2. To whom?

3. Why?

These three questions establish the Point of View of your song: 3rd Person Narrative (he, she, they), 1st Person Narrative (I, we, he, she, they), 2nd Person Narrative (you, he, she, it, they), or Direct Address (I, you). They also ask why you’re saying what you’re saying. What’s the point of the song?

Verse development is big: how can you develop your verse ideas so your chorus (or refrain, in an AABA form) gains more meaning, more emotional weight, each time we hear it.

Song form is middle-sized: Verse/Chorus or Verse/Refrain?

Deciding on things like rhyme scheme, line lengths, number of lines, is small.

Changing a line or a word is really small. Don’t spend too much time up front searching for the perfect word when you’re still working on the bigger decisions. Everything could change.

Don’t sweat the small stuff until the big stuff is cleaned up.

Gather tools. Obsessively. You’ll need them for all the different jobs you have to do. Keep them under your kitchen sink.

Happy polishing.

Pat Pattison, songwriting professor

Pat Pattison is a Professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches Lyric Writing and Poetry. In addition to his four books, Songwriting Without Boundaries, Writing Better Lyrics, The Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure, and The Essential Guide to Rhyming, Pat has developed three online lyric writing courses, one on poetry, and one on creative writing available through Berkleemusic.com. He has written over 50 articles for various magazines and blogs and has also filmed a free 6-week online songwriting course for coursera.org, available March 1st, 2012.  



Pat continues to present songwriting clinics across the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Several of his students have won Grammys, including John Mayer and Gillian Welch.

For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

Tags: songwriter, song writer, song write, Song writing, Chorus, Songwriting, Prosody, Berklee, Polishing songs, Narrative, Verse, compose

Songwriting Tip: The Prosody of Mystery in Mystery Train

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Fri, Feb 17, 2012 @01:00 PM

The Prosody of Mystery in Mystery Train

By Pat Pattison, songwriting professor

 Pat Pattison, songwriting professor

Ok, so who still cares about the young Elvis and his Sun Records recordings? Simple stuff, right? Sure. Scotty Moore and Bill Black are just rock-a-billy hicks thumping away the best they can, them good ol’ southern boys.

 

So why does Elvis’ Mystery Train still feel like a mystery to be unraveled, fresh on every listening? Have you heard it recently? C’mon, download it and check it out. Then come back.

 

So? Did you try to count it out? Go back and simply tap out the downbeats. See how you do. I’ll wait.

 

It can be a little confusing. Simplify it a bit. Forget the intro and start counting downbeats one beat before Elvis comes in with “train arrive.” It’s a pretty brisk tempo.

 

How many bars do you count before he starts line 2?

 

Right. Ten bars:

 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

| / / / / | / / / / | / / / /| / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

 

Train ar-ri--------------ive sixteen coaches long

 

Then another ten bars:

 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

| / / / / | / / / / | / / / /| / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

 

Train ar-ri--------------ive sixteen coaches long

 

Pretty neat. It throws you off balance, both the ambiguous entry (did you expect it there?) and the unusual ten bar phrase. Maybe, um, mysterious, eh?

 

But made even more mysterious because of the introduction. Now count it. I’ll wait.

 

Yup, six bars, but with a wrinkle. The first downbeat is pretty foggy, with the guitar starting in the half bar and playing its figure on & 3 &, making it even harder to find the downbeat. So it’s an unusual six-bar intro.

 

Then the vocal starts back-heavy (after the downbeat) in bar seven – the actual first bar of the ten-bar verse. Even more mysterious.

 

Only when you get to the “chorus,” the conclusion of the sequence, do you get to a stable 8-bar section, where he slams the door, letting you know what the mystery train has done to him:

 

Well that long black train got my baby and gone

 

Note, however, that the front-heavy (starting on the downbeat) “chorus” picks up in the tenth (weak) bar of the verse “Well that…,” making even the stable 8-bar sequence a tad ambiguous. Then the long/gone rhyme puts the finishing touches on the section.

 

There’s prosody galore in this treatment. The verse is unstable and mysterious – even spooky – while the “chorus” leaves no hope for our hero. It’s a nifty use of a third level of phrasing – how many you have bars in a section.

 

Either Scotty and crew had no idea what they were doing, or they really did. I’d opt for the latter explanation. Even if they didn’t think of it in terms of prosody, you can. And you can use it in your songwriting.

 

Go get ‘em.

 

© 2012 Pat Pattison 

Pat Pattison is a Professor at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Songwriting. For more information on the 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

 

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Prosody, Songwriting Tip, lyric writing, expert

Songwriting & Lyric Writing Tip: Prosody

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Thu, May 05, 2011 @05:07 PM

Prosody

by Pat Pattison

 
Pat Pattison, Songwriting Professor

Songs are your best teachers. I try to learn something from every song I hear. I try to see what's working, and why where the song connects with me where it makes me feel something. Then I look under the hood to see how it was put together, to extract tools that I can pass on to my students. I¹ve found great advice for writing in Aristotle's Poetics, where he says that every great work of art displays the same quality: Unity. Everything works together, everything in the work belongs and serves the purpose of the work.

songwritingpic

Aristotle's may have been the first statement of Prosody: appropriate relationship between elements, whatever they may be: melody and words, chords and message, rhyme scheme and emotion, and many others. This has become the guiding principle in all my writing and teaching. In Leonard Bernstein's brilliant lecture series at Harvard in 1973, "The Unanswered Question," he shows how both music and poetry use the same fundamental principles. True indeed, for all the arts -- they are all fundamentally the same, just having different avenues of expression. Painting is different than song, but at the deepest level, they all use the same principles: tension/resolution, symmetry/asymmetry, etc. This has allowed me to teach poetry to musicians, using a language they know and love to explain how poems work: counter-pointing, rhythm, syncopation; constructing tonic, subdominant or dominant functions at the ends of lines.

They get it instantly, and it allows them to look at the other arts the same way. Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form is a marvelous book, especially chapter three where he talks about poetic use of rhythm, and the emotional effects of various syncopations within a line of metered poetry. The relationship between lyric and melody works in the same way. The combined effect of the three works creates compelling reasons to have a huge toolbox to draw from, and to select and use these tools in support of the central idea of your song: its number of lines, lengths of lines, rhythm and phrasing of lines, rhyme scheme, and rhyme types. The structure you create acts as a film score would adding additional emotion to the message, even controlling how the listener perceives it.

Looking at writing through the eye glasses of Prosody focuses everything. It keeps the message and emotion central, and organizes the elements of structure to support them. I've learned a lot by reading and paying attention tot songs, and I've tried to pass those ideas along in my book Writing Better Lyrics, now in its second edition.

Pat Pattison is a professor at the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, USA. For more information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Prosody, Lyrics, Pat Pattison, Paul Fussell, Berklee College of Music, Harvard, Leonard Bernstein, Songwriting Coach