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If you write a song by doing the lyrics first isn’t that technically starting with time (rhythm) rather than with pitch, and would the term for that be musical phrasing?

E.g, if you write out a 4 syllable word for one bar, the possible rhythms will inherently be different than if you use a 2 syllable word. So aren’t we essentially beginning with an element of time?

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    Is there a problem with starting with rhythm first? Maybe tweak this question so the answer is something other than "I guess so?" Meanwhile, many write the lyrics first as a poem and then set it to music; this doesn't necessarily plan the ultimate rhythm in that early stage. But otoh hip-hop writing is basically exactly this, generating lyrics and intended rhythm at the same time. And "phrasing" is a term for the contexts either of analysis or expressive performance, not really one that describes a process. Jan 19 at 19:17
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    If I write, "Happy Birthday to you" & you don't know that tune, in what way are you forced into 3/4, with an anacrusis? Check The Beatles & Stevie Wonder before answering.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 19 at 19:18
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    You can voice as many syllables in a bar as you can get your tongue round. Compare a rap to a ballad. You can melissma over one syllable for a bar, or you can rattle them off like there's no tomorrow.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 19 at 19:27
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    Yeah, in short; I don't know of any term for "a compositional process that starts by focusing on rhythm, meter, or other aspects of the distribution of time" aside from just that, or less-wordy expressions to the same effect. Jan 19 at 19:30
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    Any discussion of this type, I'm always minded of probably the most famous totally dissociated lyric/composer team… "Goodbye Norma Jean. Though I never knew you at all…" Elton ringing Bernie & complaining, "How the hell am I going to make this scan??"
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 19 at 19:35

4 Answers 4

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Starting with lyrics — and only lyrics — does not imply starting with time or pitch. Lyrics could have any duration or rhythm depending on the desires of the composer.

As soon as measures, beats, or any time-related element is introduced, then, obviously, one is working with time. In the example given in the question, time has been introduced by suggesting number of syllables per bar. But one can certainly write lyrics independent, initially, of that consideration.

Phrasing is a combination of musical elements. Often it corresponds to the grammatical structure of the lyrics, but it doesn't have to.

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  • Starting with lyrics typically implies something about time and rhythm given the usual goal of writing a vocal part that supports or at least fits with the spoken declamation of the text. But within that guideline, the composer can still make nearly infinite choices about time and meter.
    – phoog
    Jan 22 at 11:24
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The answer is unequivocally no.

There are many cases where composers have written songs with the exact same lyrics and come up with completely different rhythms.

For an older example, consider Ave Maria as set by Bruckner, Schubert, Gounoud, or Cherubini. All completely different.

For a more modern example, consider Sting's "Don't Stand so Close to me," the original version vs. the 1986 version which has a completely different rhythm for the same words in the chorus.

A particular set of words does not demand a particular rhythm. The composer can choose to stretch syllables, introduce rests, or even repeat words or portions of words, to create whatever rhythm is suitable for their interpretation.

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    Another example is the Latin text of the Catholic mass, set in countless different ways.
    – PiedPiper
    Jan 22 at 9:12
  • Aside from the first two words, Schubert's Ave Maria was written for an entirely different text, a metrical poem in German. This explains why the Latin prayer fits the tune so horribly.
    – phoog
    Jan 22 at 11:18
  • @PiedPiper not always with the same number of syllables, however. In particular, kyrie eleison (Greek, not Latin) commonly appears as six or seven syllables, often in the same work, and occasionally as five.
    – phoog
    Jan 22 at 11:21
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E.g, if you write out a 4 syllable word for one bar, the possible rhythms will inherently be different than if you use a 2 syllable word. So aren’t we essentially beginning with an element of time?

By including "for one bar" in that example, you've already started to move beyond the elements of time and rhythm that are intrinsic to the lyrics: the constraint that these four syllables are to be contained in one bar is extrinsic. Another songwriter might put just one syllable in that bar and move the other three to the next one.

Suppose you sit down to write a standard 32-bar song, the form that prevailed in popular music for most of the 20th century, and you decide to start with the lyrics. Well, already, you're considering time before text, because you decided on the musical form first.

Great songwriting absolutely considers the rhythm of spoken language, and often the pitch, too, but even then it's possible to make choices. Schubert's setting of Erlkönig was far from the first, yet it was the first not to set the words in triple meter1.

(The rhythm of the text evokes a galloping horse, but Schubert evokes that musically with fast triplets in the piano, giving the vocal part slow half- and quarter notes, resulting in a degree of gravity that is lacking in earlier settings:

)

How is it possible to set the same text in duple or triple meter? The easiest way is to double the length of the stressed syllable when you otherwise don't have enough syllables for the measure or to break a single note into two of half the length when you have too many. To put this another way, consider three syllables in a measure. Common possibilities are:

  • 4/4 time: half, quarter, quarter
  • 4/4 time: dotted half, eighth, eighth
  • 3/4 time: quarter, quarter, quarter
  • 3/4 time: half, eighth, eighth

This is without even beginning to think of syncopation, "inverted" rhythms where the stressed syllable is shorter, etc.

So yes, starting with text does give you constraints or perhaps suggestions about the rhythm (although a composer can ignore these), but they are not absolute. The rhythm of speech is not as precisely specific as the musical parameter of rhythm, and the translation of speech rhythm to musical rhythm offers many options, indeed, opportunities for creativity.

would the term for that be musical phrasing?

Phrasing means many things, but most commonly it refers to the execution of a portion of a melodic line, as in "I really liked the violist's phrasing." The goal is usually to present a portion of a melody as a coherent unit.

The term could also denote decisions about, for example, where to breathe, because that helps to determine where phrases begin and end (but I omit reference to bowed instruments here, because there you would call it "bowing," as in "the orchestra's librarian copied the bowing into the cello parts"). By extension, you could conceivably refer to a composer's decisions about how to divide a song lyric into phrases as "phrasing," but it's not a common sense of the word.

More likely, to describe the decisions a composer has made about how to translate the rhythm of speech into melodic rhythm (or into melody more generally), I would say "text setting," as in "Peter Schickele's text setting frequently incorporates comic timing" or "the fact that Handel learned English later in life is sometimes apparent in his text setting."


  1. This assertion comes from a university textbook; I don't remember which one, and I do not know how thoroughly researched it was.
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If we start from lyrics then we start from lyrics. If we start from rhythm then we start from rhythm. Lyrics might suggest certain rhythms but cannot on its own imply a specific rhythm. For that reason starting from lyrics is most definitely not starting with rhythm. Musical phrasing on the other hand is more about execution and interpretation of note sequences.

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