How Do I Add Rhythm (or Flow) to My Song Lyrics?
There are two components to songwriting: words and sounds. That is, you pen the lyrics but you also write the melody. You need to wear two hats during the process, being both the poet and the composer. And melodies may seem simple to make at first glance (it’s just a string of notes, right?) but in actuality there is an element to melody-writing that constantly trips up even experienced lyricists: rhythm, often referred to as flow.
Let’s talk about the rhythm or flow of your lyrics and how you can add it to your words before you even get to the music composition process.
- How Do I Add Rhythm (or Flow) to My Song Lyrics?
- What is Flow in Music?
- What Kinds of Meters Are There?
- How Do I add Rhythm or Flow to my Words?
- How Does Meter Relate to the Music’s Rhythm?
- Examples of Meter in Modern Music
- Other Articles to Consider
What is Flow in Music?
Flow sounds like a vague and subjective concept to beginner lyricists, especially rappers; dozens of people will tell you that you have to feel the rhythm of the song, and they will give you abstract ideas about how to visualize your song’s flow. But it’s actually a very simple and objective term.
Flow is essentially how musicians talk about meter. And the term meter in poetry just refers to the rhythm structure of your lines. In layman’s terms, flow is the pattern you use to stress syllables throughout your verses which thereby makes them sound consistent and fluid. There is a bit more to flow than just the meter, such as rhyme scheme and subdivisions, but meter is one of the largest indicators of flow and, sadly, the most overlooked of these aspects.
What is a Stress in Poetry and Lyrics?
Words in then English language have stressed and unstressed syllables. The stress is where you accent or emphasize a certain part of the word. For example, the word “example” stresses the second syllable “am”. If we were to visually signify where the stresses occur in a sentence by bolding the stressed syllables, it would look like this:
The Elephant eagerly caught a precarious case of Clamydia.
Now let’s look at the rhythm structure of my example sentence about the floozy elephant. We will use a “/” to denote a stressed syllable and an “x” to denote an unstressed syllable (these are the symbols frequently used in traditional poetic analysis):
If you notice, the stresses occur in a pattern: one stressed followed by two unstressed: / x x / x x, etc. The way that this line moves in a consistent pattern of stresses gives it flow.
What Kinds of Meters Are There?
There is a number of common stress patterns (flows as the rappers say, or meters as the poets say) used in traditional poetry and they are also relevant to lyrics. There names and structures are as follows (again, using “/” for stressed and “x” for unstressed syllables):
- Iambic (x /): every second syllable is stressed.
- Example: That grand old sound when toes get stubbed
- Trochaic (/ x): every first syllable is stressed.
- Example: Peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
- Spondaic (/ /): Two syllables are stressed side by side, but this form is less common and defined in English; it’s more common in ancient Greek and Latin.
- Anapestic (x x /): two unstressed syllables are followed by a stressed syllable.
- Example: And the record goes round.
- Dactylic (/ x x): A triplet feel where the first syllable is stressed and two syllables after that are unstressed.
- Example: I can see what you mean when you say what you say
If we then compare these meters to the elephant example from earlier, we find it has a dactylic flow.
How Do I add Rhythm or Flow to my Words?
The rhythm/flow of your songs can begin to surface before you even add music to your words. You add flow to your words by keeping a consistent meter as you compose your lines of lyrics. Even if you already have some verses, you can go back and add meter to improve their rhythm. This process is actually called lyric setting.
Read through your words like you would a poem, don’t worry about a melody for now. Pay attention to where the stresses naturally fall and identify a recurring meter, even if it’s inconsistent or drops in some places. Now try to arrange your words to maintain that meter you’ve already started with throughout each verse. To do this, you sometimes need to try the following tactics:
- Find synonyms for words that have the wrong syllable count,
- Mash overly long words into a smaller beat subdivision and make it an ornamental phrase (we’ll talk more about that in the next section),
- Modify the subject-object-verb order of a troublesome line (standard English is in SVO order but poets break that rule all the time),
- Drop words or syllables that can be dropped without losing the meaning of the word or sentence (pronouns are the usual target for such cullings).
Getting Creative with Stresses
Keep in mind that, in music, you don’t always have to rely on the natural stresses of every word; lyrics can and sometimes do move the stress in a word in order to keep the meter (i.e. rhythm) of a line. Let look at a musical example of a misplaced accent. Think about where the stress naturally falls in the word “somebody”. The stress is on “some”. Now listen to the opening line of “All Star” by Smash Mouth:
“Some-BODy once told me the world is gonna roll me…”
How Does Meter Relate to the Music’s Rhythm?
Meter in poetry and beat division in music are practically one and the same. They both describe a consistent method by which you stress certain sounds to build an expect-able rhythm. While consistent meter is not essential to every song you write, it’s easy to see that meter adds fluidity to lyrics. And that fluid movement of syllables can make a song catchier because, as we’ve mentioned before, catchiness is strongly related to how easily a person can memorize it. It’s easier to memorize a song when the words have a consistent rhythm built into them, versus a song with erratic changes in flow that throw the listener off.
What is a Beat or Subdivision in Music?
Now I need to briefly explain what “beat” and “subdivision” mean in music. Beat is the basic unit of time in a bar of music. It’s normally expressed as four pulses (or toe-taps) in a bar of 4/4 timing; each of these four beats would be called a quarter note. A subdivision is when you take any one of those four beats and break it down into shorter, quicker notes or movements. For example, if you take the last quarter note in the bar and change it to be two eighth notes, so the bar now looks like this:
So when I mention breaking words into smaller subdivisions, that is what I’m talking about: take a few quick words or syllables and squeeze them into one beat by making them into eighth notes, or a triplet, etc. For simplicity’s sake, I refer to this subdivision as an “ornamental” throughout this article; it’s not the exact meaning of the term, but it’s very similar.
What is an Anacrusis?
Lastly, let me say that songs and poems will sometimes have an anacrusis at the beginning. An anacrusis is jut a few extra words/syllables at the beginning of a line that act as a pickup to the main pattern. The best way to explain this is with an example: in the song “One Week” by The Barenaked Ladies, the singer starts the song with the words “it’s been…” before the music actually starts up. That is a pickup A.K.A. an anacrusis.
Okay, now let’s get to some meter examples.
Examples of Meter in Modern Music
Meter is more common than you may think in popular forms of music. Let’s look at a few examples of pop, rock, and rap songs that effectively use meter to keep the rhythm.
Quick Disclaimer! Now one quick thing you need to keep in mind when checking the meter (aka flow) of a song is that sometimes a singer will add in ornamental subdivisions like I just explained. In those cases, you can often place the ornamental as a whole (that is, all the syllables of that subdivision) into one beat and it will still fit the overall meter pattern. I’ve denoted these ornamentals in the following examples by placing both syllables into one table box.
1. “Heather” by Conan Gray
This song has a strong and clear triplet feel to it, not only in the guitar rhythm but in the lyrics itself. Go have a listen to the first verse of this song and follow along with the meter table of the verse below. You’ll quickly notice that the words are following a dactylic meter pattern (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed, with occasional rests to keep the pacing which I have notated with “(r)”.
2. “Promise” by Eve 6
Max Collins (the songwriter from the band) makes use of some classic trochaic meter in this single’s verses. Listen along and spot the stresses in the first few lines:
3. “Bubble Gum” by Clairo
This song has a bit of a swing to it, but I noticed an iambic stress pattern in the verse. Not that in a few unstressed pattern boxes I fit in two syllables; this is because those words were subdivisions to the main beat (eighth notes in a quarter note pattern):
4. “Crybaby” by Lil Peep
Here’s a hip hop example from the emo rap artist Lil Peep. This is a variation on trochaic meter, where the first syllable is stressed when counting quarter notes. However, I’ve broken the syllable chart into eighth notes since the flow follows a distinct pattern of Q Q E E E E (“Q” meaning a quarter note and “E” meaning an eighth note).
|She said I’m a cry-|
5. “Numb Little Bugs” by Em Beihold
This song has a dactylic rhythm to the chorus:
|Do you ever get a-|
|(anacrusis to chorus)|
|Happ||Y, but||You||don’t||wann||a||die.||Like||you’re||hang||ing||By a|
I could go on and on analyzing song meters, but you get the gist. Stress patterns provide an important element of flow to lyrics. Meter can help to push your words forward in a song and lean into the rhythm, rather than leave your lyrics floating over the beat.
Other Articles to Consider
Thanks for reading! If you found this guide helpful, here are a few more articles to consider perusing: