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Are there any good notations for rhythm in song lyrics? Usually when I'm writing lyrics with pen and paper, I underline emphasis, which works for rap, but probably misses a lot of nuance for sung lyrics. Are there any good methods for notating emphasis, speed, and rhythm in general?

Pen-and-paper or software based answers are all acceptable. I'd be especially interested in any ASCII-based solutions.

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    Does it make sense to write down the rhythm if you don't write down the melody? Someone who knows the melody will know the rhythm, and someone who doesn't won't be able to sing it anyway... – yo' Aug 3 '15 at 8:28
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    In hip-hop, melody can be irrelevant. Also, it can be useful for other melodic styles if the melody hasn't been decided on yet, I think. – naught101 Aug 3 '15 at 8:59
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    I'm thinking rhythm slashes and/or "X" note heads on a standard score, with the latter being the way I've seen unpitched vocals notated many times. When you're writing, you could just put a line under or above the lyrics and put rhythm slashes on the line. – Todd Wilcox Aug 3 '15 at 12:27
  • Use normal notation. It's exactly what it's designed for. End of. – Laurence Payne Jun 14 '17 at 11:23
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A very common way to notate lyrics where pitch doesn't matter is to just use a single line staff to note the rhythmic hits. In this system everything is the same except there are not distinct pitches per note.

Here's an example of this system used to notate The Aggressive Bee:

enter image description here]1

  • An alternative that I've seen omits the (solid) noteheads and the staff line, so your notes look like |. |' | | and so on. Of course, minims and semibreves (half/whole notes) need the noteheads to differentiate them from the others. – John Gowers Aug 3 '15 at 15:12
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    Looks like some drum notation - clear, precise, and easily legible. – Josiah Aug 3 '15 at 22:51
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I've certainly seen some notation being used for chords that can be used for lyrics, too. Basically, you add the bars, and then you divide each bar into an equal number of intervals, usually 2, 4 or 8. If then a syllable is longer that this basic unit, you add -- after it.

To give an example:

| Yes-ter-day -- | -- | -- -- All my | trou-bles seemed so | far -- a-way | --
| -- -- Now it | looks as though they're | here -- to stay, | -- oh
| I -- be-lieve | -- in | yes- -- ter-day. | -- |

Note that for convenience, we divide each bar of the song in two bars (i.e., 2/4 rather than 4/4). The syncopation, if occurs a lot, can be marked in another way, too:

| Yes-ter-day -- | -- | -- -- All my | trou-bles seemed so | far a- <| way
| -- -- Now it | looks as though they're | here to <| stay, oh
| I be- <| lieve in | yes-ter- <| day. |

It's not particularly useful or visible here since the song doesn't really have syncopation, but I hope the idea is clear.

  • this is kind of like guitar tab – Dave Jun 14 '17 at 11:26
  • This is quite good, because it's really easy to scribble down quickly with pen and paper. It would be good to have an additional method of being able to notate syllables that are shorter than beats. – naught101 Jun 15 '17 at 1:50
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The standard method for classical Western music is, to integrate it into a score notation, as can be seen here in Lilypond notation manual. If the melody is inexistent or can be assumed to be known, the single pitch or drum-like notation suggested in other answers will do.

Actually this does not cover which syllables are to be stressed (one can put an accent on the note, but it remains unclear, whether it also applies to the lyrics), but there are good reasons for it:

  • Singers prefer to have their degree of freedom
  • If the text is carefully adjusted to the melody (or vice versa), it is clear anyway

If you want it nevertheless, proven methods are either underlining or uppercasing the stressed syllable.

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