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.

  • 1
    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, 2015 at 8:28
  • 1
    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, 2015 at 8:59
  • 1
    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. Aug 3, 2015 at 12:27
  • Use normal notation. It's exactly what it's designed for. End of.
    – Laurence
    Jun 14, 2017 at 11:23

4 Answers 4


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. Aug 3, 2015 at 15:12
  • 1
    Looks like some drum notation - clear, precise, and easily legible.
    – Josiah
    Aug 3, 2015 at 22:51

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, 2017 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, 2017 at 1:50

Personally, I prefer as simple notation as possible. Every line will start on the first beat by default. I separate anacrusis (pickup) with the character | (example, line 1 & 3). For rests (usually representing 1/4) I use the character -. Rests can be used to indicate more accurately when the line starts (example, line 3). If needed, you can emphasize the beats by underlining or bolding the right syllables but, personally, I'm too lazy to do this.

Oh | yeah, well so it goes
Yeah so it goes
- - - Oh | - that sweet heirloom
Them abbey stones

If you're presenting your music to other musicians you should stick with some standard notation or make sure they understand what your notes mean. I wholeheartedly support using custom notations so that the standard notation doesn't shape your work or lessen your creativity. Every now and then, it's wise to take a step back and think whether your notation is meaningful to yourself.

  • This is cool, but how would you capture faster rhythms, e.g. syllables as a triplet or something?
    – naught101
    Jun 22, 2021 at 5:53
  • 1
    @naught101 Wow I haven't run into this before! You can use bolding and underlining for that if it feels necessary. Also, wrapping text in different braces ((, {, [, <) might do the trick. Just keep to your own notation. I think it's worth noting that one line notation should always be preferred because then it doesn't rely on the character spacing of the font.
    – L.P.
    Jun 23, 2021 at 9:49
  • Agreed for computer-based methods. And nice solutions. I think multi-line, or at least annotated-line methods are quite nice for pen-and-paper though.
    – naught101
    Jun 24, 2021 at 2:56

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.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.