First published in Victory Review, March 2001
I've found, both in my own songwriting and in working with my songwriting students, that music often comes much more easily than lyrics. Bits of melody pop into my mind all the time, and I can sometimes hear complete arrangements, like I'm listening to a radio in my head. The thing is, these newborn "songs" usually don't have any lyrics, and it's often difficult to find the right words, that tell the right story and fit the melody perfectly.
One time-honored method that songwriters use to begin putting words to a finished piece of music is to write a "dummy lyric." A dummy lyric is a temporary lyric (often silly, even nonsensical) that allows you to outline a song's lyrical structure — the rhythms, the rhyme scheme, etc. It's not really a first draft of the song because you're not bothering with what the words "say" yet, just with mapping out how the final lyric might be structured.
Many famous songs had such humble beginnings. Few songwriters haven't heard of Paul McCartney's well-known dummy lyric for "Yesterday," which began, "Scrambled eggs...." (and continued with a less-well-known second line having something to do with "like your legs"). Another example is Ira Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" lyric. The finished song goes, "I got rhythm/I got music/I got my man/Who could ask for anything more?" But the dummy lyric went, "Roly-poly/eating solely/ravioli/better watch your diet or bust!"
How you develop your dummy lyric into a finished lyric is entirely up to you, and you can change it to reflect your evolving vision of the song. For example, McCartney's final version of "Yesterday" followed the rhyme scheme of his dummy lyric, but Gershwin decided to jettison the insistent, rapid-fire rhymes in his dummy lyric in favor of a looser, more open feel in the finished song.
Dummy lyrics are most suited to mapping a song's grosser lyrical structures — the rhythms of the lines, the rhyme scheme, where the hook appears, which elements are repeated and where, etc. It's a useful model, but its uses are limited. Sometimes we encounter problems that are best approached using a different kind of model.
One such problem is familiar to us all: you have a song that's well on its way toward being completed, but there are certain passages where you can't seem to get the right "ring" from the words. They fit the melody and say what you want to say, and yet they still sound wrong somehow. At times like this, I find it helpful to temporarily forget about the meaning of the words and focus just on the sound. I dig down into the phonetic structures of the words, into the very vowels and consonants they're made out of, and create a model that captures the musical character I want them to have. I call this model a "phonetic lyric."
With a phonetic lyric, I'm going for "singability," for a combination of sounds that's enjoyable to sing and falls nicely on the ear. And I'm also going for a subtle but no less important fit between the melody and the vocal sounds that make up the lyrics. I want the words to be as musical as the music itself.
Next time you find yourself banging your head on a passage in a song, see if focusing on the sound of the words instead of the sense helps to get you unstuck. Sing the melody to yourself, and see what vocal sounds it inspires. Try different combinations of vowels and consonants and listen for those that have a nice ring to them, that seem especially suited to the melody, that seem somehow more "alive" to your ear. In this exercise, pay more attention to how the words sound than to what they say.
You may find yourself singing nonsense phrases and gibberish instead of actual words. That's fine. In fact, it's a good thing, because it means that you're letting go of preconceived notions and experiencing your melody as pure sound and feeling. Let yourself be drawn naturally to the sounds that feel good to sing and express the true nature of the melody.
As your phonetic lyric becomes clearer, try using "real" words and phrases that mimic it. For example, if your phonetic lyric has an open "oh" sound somewhere, see if there are any oh-sounding words that feel right in that spot. If there's a specific string of syllables in your phonetic lyric, see if there are word combinations containing that string. For example, if your phonetic lyric goes, "ee-no-wah," see what words contain those sounds — "we know why," "see no-one," etc. Later, you can see which of them are relevant to your song. You can also try near matches ("in a while," "be my wife," etc.).
When I use phonetic lyrics, I usually get very definite intuitive cues as to what feels right. These cues are remarkably consistent for a given song, and when I follow them closely, I almost always find my way to a pleasing lyric. Of course, you want your song to say something meaningful as well, and you have to strike a balance between the sound and the sense. But I'm amazed at how often satisfying the one seems to satisfy the other as well. It sometimes feels as though the song I'm writing is already finished, and I'm just trying to listen closely enough to hear what the words are. At other times, it's like I'm decrypting a coded message, or translating the song from another language.
As a matter of fact, listening to songs sung in languages that you don;t understand is an excellent way to strengthen your ear for musical phonetics. Your right brain can enjoy all the beauty of the vocal sounds without your left brain latching onto what they mean. Each language has its own phonetic repertoire and characteristic sound, be it flowing or percussive, velvety or brittle, barrel-chested or nasal. Ride the contours of the singer's voice and follow the interplay of the phonetic themes and variations, the calls and responses, the ebb and flow that make a lyric sing well, that give each song its unique identity.
One of the reasons that writing phonetically can be so liberating is that it focuses solely on the musical dimension of language. This can shake up old habits that keep you from seeing the full range of alternatives available to you as a songwriter. And it puts the sound before the sense for a change, forcing the issue of singability, which many songwriters overlook because they don't think of themselves as singers and don't write from their voices.
Of course, writing phonetically isn't the only way to develop a deeper feeling for the musicality of language. And it will be little help to you if you don't have an equally developed ability to get your point across. But these techniques do have their place, and they make useful additions to your songwriter's toolbox. By treating words and sounds as musical building blocks rather than "ideas," they encourage playfulness, curiosity, and awareness — all of which come in handy when you're feeling stuck. If you try these techniques, let me know how they work for you. Happy songwriting!
© Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.
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