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Lyrics don't require meter as does poetry so what separates lyrics from prose? Reputation? Rhyme? Does meter even matter?

Example: lines 2 and 4 vary quite a bit in length

4 Answers 4

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A few points:

  • "Meter" has a definition in the context of poetry, and another definition in the context of music. The two interact, but let's not confuse them!
  • Technically, poetry doesn't have to be metrical, and neither does music. You can have unpulsed music without a beat, or a piece that chooses not to use a time signature. And yes, you can set prose to music as well as poetry. But setting those points aside, looking at the majority of poetry, which is metered, and the even greater majority of music which is metered...
  • One of the advantages of lyrics is they can rely on musical rhythms to fit more "feet" into a line than would normally be the case in poetry. Note that, musically, all four "lines" are the same length, two bars of 4/4 (probably). The fourth line packs in more feet, and "feels" significantly longer, because the previous three lines all end with long notes (final word of each taking most of a bar), while the final line keeps moving all the way to the last beat.
  • That said, nobody said all lines of poetry have to be the same length; many forms incorporate lines of different length (sonnet, haiku). And musical phrases can be made of portions of different lengths (a double period is often in the pattern 2 bars, 2 bars, 4 bars). Plus composers can and do simply extend phrases for effect.
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Lyrics don't require meter as does poetry

Poetry doesn't require meter either. Meter is a tool that provides accents and rhythm which can be used to support the text.

so what separates lyrics from prose?

  1. Song lyrics are performed as a music piece. This means that all music elements, such as melody, rhythm, meter and others may be used to support the meaning of the text. In order to realize this, lyrics must match the music. This primarily means matching the speech and music accents, as well as numbers of syllables with musical notes. Matching length of the lines is an example of consequence of this relation.

  2. Song lyrics are primarily sung, while prose is spoken or read quietly. This emphasizes all sonic aspects of the language and allows to use them to support the text or for additional effect. An example of a very commonly used technique is rhyming which doesn't occur often in prose and might be even undesired. Singing often emphasizes vowels, which increases their importance in comparison to spoken prose or spoken poetry.

  3. Song lyrics are primarily presented to the audience by being sung. The singer has complete control over how they sing. This includes all kind of vocal effects, emphasis, accents as well as details of pronunciation. These elements are also available to an actor who recites poetry or speaks the prose, but if the text is presented e.g. as a book, the author must rely on the reader's imagination.

Example: lines 2 and 4 vary quite a bit in length

Why would they be the same? Maybe the effect bases on creating an expectation of lines of matching lengths and not fulfilling it? Compare it e.g. to deceptive cadence where the dominant chord resolves differently than expected.

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  • 'Singing emphasises vowels' - and any other sounds which can be held. Good point +1.
    – Tim
    Sep 24, 2021 at 8:41
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Let's look at your specific example. I divided the two lines in question into measures matching the accompaniment and bolded the stressed syllables.

Let me ride down in Rocky Canyon

Down a | rickety rockety | road with a lazy old | herd.

O Let me ride down in Rocky Canyon

Where the | wrinkled old creeks and the | shaggy old peaks seem to | speak a friendly | word.

The fourth line spans an extra measure compared to the second, but otherwise the two lines do have a common metric pattern:

  • Two unaccented pickup notes;
  • Measures with six syllables, having the first and third accented;
  • A single stressed syllable cadence.
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Lyrics are words set to music.

Prose is writing that isn't poetry which in the traditional sense has meter and/or rhyme.

The modern sense of poetry is much broader than the traditional sense. E. E. Cummings (maybe that should be 'e e cummings') is a modern poet who wrote unmetered, unrhymed poetry. Any text that someone feels is sufficiently expressive may be labeled poetry. Someone might say Jack Kerouac elevated prose to the level of poetry.

If you want to think about in terms of categories, both poetry and prose can be categories within lyrics. You can have poetic lyrics with meter and rhyme. You could also have prose lyrics that don't use meter or rhyme.

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