Stephen Sondheim, one of our great present day lyricists, likes to say that lyric writing is puzzle solving. The puzzle is how are ya’ gonna get all them words to fit together into that pretty little melody and still make sense. I’ve now spent almost a half-century trying to solve these puzzles, and though I’ve certainly gotten better at it, it’s still a laborious but fascinating process.
However, as I’ve been improving in the craft, I’ve watched the noble art of the craft plummet into the depths of despair. Perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic here, but often, when I’m reading or hearing many of today’s lyrics, I find myself groaning over the cheesiness of the content and the hollow and paltry result of the lack of craft.
OK, you say, give it to us, Pete. Do your thing.
So glad you asked…
I come from the world of the theater where rhymes had to rhyme (“shoe” does not rhyme with “blues” nor does “time” rhyme with “fine”) and if your rhymes ‘cheated’, you would be severely reprimanded by the critics. I studied under the tutelage of Alan Lerner, one of our masters, (Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Camelot) and he wrote perfect lyrics that rhymed, scanned to perfection and are still today treasures of the American Songbook (If Ever I Would Leave You, The Heather On The Hill, I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face, and on and on). He would work, not hours, but weeks on one song lyric and, when presented, it would be a flawless piece of masterwork.
He turned me on to the one and only professional’s rhyming dictionary – the only one I’ve ever used and still highly recommend – The Clement Wood Rhyming Dictionary. None others come close. I keep one in each room of my apartment and hardly ever leave home without it. With it, the world of rhymes is literally at your fingertips and every possibility is represented within its pages. Short of the Bible, it’s my favorite book.
Rap music today has simply slaughtered the craft of rhyming. I am in no way against Rap music. It is a completely legitimate style of music representing the urban culture of today, but in it, most rappers rhyme with no regard to craft using any word in the vicinity of the vowel sound. For instance not only can ‘street’ rhyme with ‘beep’, but it can also rhyme with ‘ease’ or even with ‘help’ because ‘help’ has an ‘e’ in it.
To my ear that’s a point off – any of those kind of false rhymes. Ultimately they disappoint the listener’s ear and prove unsatisfactory. The trouble is that we now have a couple of generations so used to bad or cheated rhymes that they don’t even know what to listen for in the first place. And so it strikes me that the powerful tonality of rhyming is in jeopardy of being lost for generations. The result of this ignorance of style is that bad rhyming has now spread into pop music and even the theater where it is unfortunately now accepted and used often without criticism.
Call me ancient and stuffy, but it’s said that the decline of a civilization is often first seen in the decline of its language. Look around you, America, it’s like happnin’, you like know what I mean?
I’m a total hard-ass with my students when it comes to perfect rhyming. Cheat once and you get a point off. Get 5 points off and you have a mediocre song. Get 10 points off and you better start over and get to work.
Scanning and Jamming
I spoke to a ‘professional’ lyricist the other day and mentioned that in her second verse her lyrics did not scan. She said back to me, “What’s scan?” I stood dumbfounded. This is like saying to a musician, “ You’ve got a mistake in the third measure” and them saying back to you, “What’s a measure?”
The most powerful tool in popular music is repetition. It’s how we learn a song and it’s why good songs are ‘sticky’ or considered to be memorable melodies – because they scan – each time you hear the hook it’s the same notes in the same rhythms scanning (repeating) perfectly. Each time you hear the verse, the melody is exactly the same even though the words are different. Change a word or jam two words into the line where there should only be one, jam two or three syllables in where there should only be one and you lose the scan, you lose the repetition of the melody and confuse the ear of the listener.
So much of the music I hear today is ruined by lazy lyricists jamming words into melodies and fouling up the repetitions so that the listener’s ear is confused and the otherwise good melodies are ruined. In perfect scanning the repeated melodies are perfectly repeated even though the words change keeping the integrity of the music. Even the accents of the words – 1st syllable/2nd syllable, etc are honored in the repetition. So much of what I hear today is junked up by amateur approaches where scanning is ignored and melodies are slaughtered.
On top of that riffing and licks are also confusing the listener’s ears all in the name of two generations of vocalists trying to be as brilliant as Mariah Carey. I like Mariah Carey, but she singlehandedly destroyed melody for a couple of generations as vocal wannabe copiers trying to sing like her and forcing a twist and turn onto every note – a severe defect that I call being “lick happy” — turned melodies into a series of riffs. Oh, get me my soapbox. I’m feelin’ a rant comin’ on!
Enough. I hope you get the point. Bottom line: Proper scanning is crucial to repetition. Repetition is crucial to commercial music. Without each, music is just not memorable and becomes lost in the wash of mediocrity taking over our industry.
Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Lerner, Lennon & McCartney, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter – all followed the great traditions of true rhyming and perfect scanning. It’s why their songs are still sung, played and remembered today. These are the masters. Don’t let their discoveries and work slide away in the dissolving of our language into mediocrity.
And then there’s the content… How many more “I want you, I need you, I love you” songs must we wade through? Don’t we, as a people, have anything better to think and sing about? When’s the last time you heard a great song with a new fresh lyric that wasn’t a retread of teenage discovery? Certainly love is a most powerful subject to write about, but can’t we yet find something new and interesting to write about that has a new twist, a new insight?
Every time a new animated film comes out I groan at the feeble attempts of the omnipresent love song in the score. They all sound as if they were written by a room full of people trying to write a hit instead of a one talented pro coming up with an original idea.
R&B music, long the bastion of solid lyrical writing especially in the Motown era, has now sunk to pandering the teenage mind consumed with sexual encounter. I listen to some of these blatant sexual references and wonder if any of the writers of today ever listened to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” or “Baby It’s Cold Outside” or “My Funny Valentine” or even “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. Here were songs that smoldered in their sensuality without clobbering you over the head with blatancy.
Art evokes. Commercialism steamrolls. I’d rather a song tickle my fancy than slap my face. I prefer discovering a rich dramatic moment rather than being deafened by the obvious. Give me a song that stimulates my brain and softens my heart and I’ll carry that song with me in the back of my mind for the rest of my life. After all, isn’t that why we write ‘em?
Every age has its mediocrity. “Flat-Foot Floosey With A Floy Floy” had its moment in the sun in the 30s but not many of us go around singing it today. But decades are not remembered for their mediocrity. They are remembered for their ground-breaking flashes of brilliance. What will this music generation sing to their kids? “I Want Your Sex”?
My generation sings John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze” and Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and The Beatles’ “Let It Be”. I could go on… and I will – Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September”, Billy Joel’s…
Even More Inspiration
Tags: composer, Inspirational, Inspirational Music, Inspirational Music Artist, inspirational music composer, Inspirational Song, lyricist, lyrics, Music, Personal Thoughts, song lyrics, song writing, The beatles, Writing