The Flow of Words

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 19, 2010

Unless you’re deliberately writing in a lofty, formal style, it’s best to make your lyrics move straight ahead, as they would in conversation. “To the store I will go,” or “The day, beautiful it is,” or “My slippers fetch me” might work okay in old timey poetry, but it’s jarring in modern lyrics. It sounds like a lyric made by a contortionist  or like dialogue by Yoda.  Of course if you’re writing in a lofty, more poetic or hymnlike style, or setting scripture to music, it’s okay. We’ve done it ourselves.

Here is a good example of backward phrasing (or maybe it’s a bad example) from a hymn written in 1868 titled, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” (Even the title is backward): 

The King of love my Shepherd is 

Whose goodness faileth never 

I nothing lack if I am His 

And He is mine for ever. 

Strong lyric, but we hope no one ever asked the author for directions. 

Consider how your words flow together as they’re sung. In an old movie called “Friendly Persuasion,” Gary Cooper made a cute little bit of business out of trying to pronounce “Mrs. Hudspeth.” He looked a little sheepish because he couldn’t get it to come out right (Misses Hudthpeth) and he didn’t want to offend her. That would not be an easy line to sing at a fast tempo. Try to say it rapidly three times and you’ll see. 


Sometimes the problem is having broad syllables that have to fit into little short, unaccented notes. Here’s an example: Your tempo is moderately quick and you’re in a shuffe pattern—dum, da dum, da dum, da dum (dotted-eighths-and-sixteenths.) Sing “On the rolling sea.” Works fine, doesn’t it? The syllables match the rhythm. Now, at the same tempo, try singing “On the great, broad sea.” Doesn’t fit, does it? The word broad is simply too broad to fit into that little spot at that speed. Sing your songs aloud and look for awkward singing lines. Fix them before letting your song out to the public. 

You probably won’t give a lot of conscious thought to all this in your first draft of a lyric. In fact, let us caution you not to. You can tie yourself in knots and bring on a serious case of writer’s block by being too analytical at first.  But in your rewriting, see how many words you can improve by paying more attention to how they sound and feel. With practice, this will become more and more instinctive, so you won’t have to do as much rewriting. 


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