First published in Victory Review, September 1999.
When I was a kid, there was a rich oral tradition of songs passed along
to us by other kids (never by our parents). You probably know them, too,
classics like "Happy Birthday to you/you live in the zoo/you look
like a monkey/and you smell like one too." Many of these songs are
just old tunes with new words that reverse the intent of the original
song through potty humor or irony. Grown-ups do it too, for example Weird
Al Yankovic's parodies of Top-40 hits, or songs that skewer some
politician or the celebrity du jour to the tune of "God Bless America."
This shameless recycling has always been with us and, in its less satirical
form, has yielded some famous songs, including "The Star Spangled
Banner" (based on the English drinking song, "To Anacreon in
Heaven"), and even "Happy Birthday" itself (based on the
kindergarten ditty, "Good Morning to All").
For those trying to write original work, there's still a lesson
to be learned: form can be a liberating catalyst for songwriting, particulary
with lyrics. When we write, we can use form creatively both to spark our
imaginations and to serve as a container for the ideas that come. Turning
again to "Happy Birthday," think now about the lyrical form
rather than the tune. If you strip the melody away and just say the words
in time, you have what amounts to a rap waltz, with lines and stanzas
of specific lengths, specific rhythms, and a specific rhyme scheme. These
elements are the form, the container into which you can pour an infinite
variety of different lyrics. If you were to change the melody notes, you'd
have a new song.
Though it may seem paradoxical, form is liberating to the mind, and tremendous
creative energy is released when we create within boundaries. It gives
us something to relate to, to work with, to push and pull against. The
reverse is also true, that too little form can be disorienting, both for
the artist and the audience. Even in improvisational music, theater, and
dance, where it might seem that "anything goes," good improvisers
are actually embodying the form as it evolves. The game has "rules,"
however loose or fluid they may be.
Songwriting is improvising, too, and if we pay attention to form as we
write, the form draws ideas out of the unconscious mind and gives them
shape. You can use the form of an existing song, or you can let it emerge
as you write. It's helpful to speak or sing the words aloud in rhythm
as you write. With the very first line, a form begins to appear - in the
number of words, the accents, the rhythmic feel, alliteration or internal
rhyme, etc. The second line will respond to the form of the first. It
may mimic the rhythm or "answer" with another, it may or may
not rhyme (if not, perhaps an alternating rhyme scheme will develop).
Don't censor or control anything. Just watch for and follow the emerging
form, and it will inspire a flood of lyrical ideas. The form can also
evolve, perhaps into verses and choruses or something entirely new. Using
form this way brings a musical quality to your writing right from the
start, it gives you a sense of a larger whole, and you can dive in without
any initial material -- no melody, no chords, not even a topic.
Even if the words aren't too hot at first, the form may lead to
something better. Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" is a famous
example. The original words were, "Scrambled eggs," and something
about "I like your legs." But just like the mythical Everykid
who first sang "you look like a monkey/and you smell like one too,"
McCartney used that form to play with words until he got what he wanted.
Listen for form in other people's work and get to know how lyrics
are built. Some have one stanza form that repeats, with the "hook"
appearing in each stanza (Greg Brown's "The Poet Game").
Some use the classic post-50's pop form of verse/chorus/bridge (Alanis
Morissette's "Thank U"). Some are a hybrid of the two (Joni
Mitchells "Help Me"). Some use tight rhyme schemes (Herman
Hupfeld's "As Time Goes By"), and others rhyme hardly at
all (Linda Creed's "The Greatest Love of All"). The varieties
are endless. Whatever form you choose or discover, use it consciously
to inspire your writing. It's a powerful and often-overlooked songwriting
Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
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is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm"