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When looking up written lyrics of songs, multiple sources tend to put line breaks in the same place. My question is how do the people transcribing the songs know where to put the line breaks?

Sometimes it's fairly obvious because of the rhyming scheme (put the line breaks where there are rhymes), but there are definitely trickier cases. For example, the written lyrics of Guns N' Roses's "Sweet Child O' Mine" on both Genius and LyricFind put the line breaks in the same place on this verse, for a total of 6 lines:

She's got eyes of the bluest skies
As if they thought of rain
I'd hate to look into those eyes and see an ounce of pain
Her hair reminds me of a warm, safe place
Where as a child, I'd hide
And pray for the thunder and the rain to quietly pass me by

However, you could just as easily interpret the line breaks being this way, for a total of 4 lines:

She's got eyes of the bluest skies as if they thought of rain
I'd hate to look into those eyes and see an ounce of pain
Her hair reminds me of a warm, safe place where as a child I'd hide
And pray for the thunder and the rain to quietly pass me by

The main reason I'm asking this question is because of internal rhyme, since we'd need to know where the line breaks are in order to know that a song contains internal rhyme.

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  • In the past (Sweet Child O Mine era) they'd often be printed on the back of the record/inside the booklet for the CD. So that would kind of give you a definitive answer.
    – DavidW
    Oct 26, 2022 at 22:17
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    IMO, the first one makes no sense. The verse is 16 bars, which is pretty obviously built from two groups of 8 bars, which are again subdivided into 4 groups of 2 (or you could argue for 2 groups of 4). So, wherever you put the line breaks, you should end up with 2, 4, or 8 lines … not 6. Oct 27, 2022 at 8:04
  • Your spelling makes sense in the sense that each line is a verse. There is a common practice in poetry to give line breaks to each half verse, although in this case this is a bit mixed up. This would make sense for example if this was somehow reflected in how the singer sings these verses, but this does not appear to be the case for me. Most likely it is mostly arbitrary.
    – Lazy
    Oct 27, 2022 at 9:56
  • Often people get it wrong. For example, most presentations of Purcell's Evening Hymn are incorrect because they follow the musical phrases rather than the rhyme scheme. Both approaches yield lines of irregular length, but following Purcell's phrases gives you something that seems rather less like a poem. The original publication has eight rhyming couplets, but most programs break the last four lines into five or six that have weird internal rhymes without having end rhymes, so you get the impression of something that started out trying to be a poem but couldn't quite manage.
    – phoog
    Oct 27, 2022 at 20:19

3 Answers 3

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At a glance, the first layout just doesn't look right, because it's organised as 6 lines. This is unusual for pop/rock music, and it doesn't make much sense for at all for this song because it subdivides nicely into 2's and 4's.

Each verse in this song is 32 bars long, and is made up of 2 stanzas of 16 bars each. Each stanza is 4 lines, with each line being 8 beats.
It's a simple pattern that's very common in many forms of music, and it's a very effective structure (though it can get boring after a while).


The second layout in your question (4 lines), organises each phrase onto a line of its own, which is good. But it doesn't show that there are rests (or held notes) in the middle of each "line", which break these nicely into halves.


Looking up the lyrics in the album booklet reveals a layout that is different to both of those in your question, instead using 9 lines:

page 9 of the booklet of "Appetite for Destruction", showing lyrics to "Sweet Child O' Mine" with the verses in question written on 9 lines

This booklet seems to be using a style that avoids commas within lines where possible, and instead uses line breaks for short pauses. One reason for this style choice might be that longer "lines" are less likely to spill the column and need indentation like in the previous song.

Interestingly, the booklet version has "I hate to look into those eyes" rather than "I'd hate to ...", which doesn't match with the audio track; this might be a typo, or maybe it's just sung differently than the lyricist originally intended.
The booklet also abbreviates what sounds like "Whoa oh, sweet child o' mine" in the chorus to simply "Sweet child o' mine". This seems like a sensible option when listening to the wild outro.


If I were transcribing this verse of the lyrics, I'd definitely go with 8 lines (2 stanzas of 4 lines each):

She's got eyes of the bluest skies
As if they thought of rain,
I'd hate to look into those eyes
And see an ounce of pain.

Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place
Where as a child I'd hide,
And pray for the thunder, and the rain
To quietly pass me by.

I claim that this is a much better layout than the ones in your question and the one in the booklet, for a few reasons:

  1. The last line isn't unnecessarily broken up; instead a comma is used to show a brief pause.
    This gives every line 8 beats (2 bars).

  2. The verses is broken into 2 stanzas.
    You can hear this break as a short rest after a long note (and a drum fill).

  3. This structure also makes the rhymes much easier to see:

    • "skies" & "eyes"
    • "rain" & "pain"
    • "place" & "rain" (assonance)
    • "hide" & "by" (assonance)

In Summary

Look for a structure that organises the lyrics in a meaningful way. Listening to the music when possible and count the beats and bars if you can. Rhymes will usually be at the end of a line. Patterns made up of 2's and 4's are very common.

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It also depends on the context, where you put the lyrics. E.g. here's an example, which may be relevant when you print certain areas for ads, tickets, posters etc.:

ex1

For example if you'd have line breaks, it may spoil the effect .. or just highlight it visually (broken heart).

ex2

Also, it makes a difference whether you put the lyrics just as text, or, like in a songbook, together with chords: then it's probably determined by the musical content.

Also, treating it as verses from a poem, different people may come to different conclusions about intonation, hence linebreaks.

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In my experience, this is very much left to the transcriber's interpretation. When lyrics are being included in something like a CD booklet, the decisions on where to break lines may be based more on graphic design and layout considerations rather than musicality, phrasing, or where the actual breaks occur in the song's performance.

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