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In this post, this post, and my own post in the writing stack exchange, it is clear that stresses in words should be aligned with the strong beats of the music. Apparently these occur on odd beats, such as beats 1 and 3. This was a sort of "eureka" moment for me, and I thought that writing lyrics would be simple given this new structure/constraint.

Then I learned about meter. There are, on wikipedia at least, there are twelve types of metrical feet (and this isn't including tetrasyllables). Ten of these 12 include stresses. Naturally, I was overwhelmed and realized that I was hardly closer to writing lyrics that flow. The only helpful takeaway (though, I'm not sure if it's even true) is that verses should generally have the same meter. One other helpful tid bit is that some meters seem to be less popular than others, such as the cretic, molossus, or pyrrhic, so I have simply avoided those.

My question: Is there a standard or tried-and-true meter that has been seen in popular music's history that I should look at for some clues? Is there a "most effective" or "most prevalent" meter I should be aware of? Essentially, the "match beats to stresses" does me no good because there are simply too many possibilities remaining.

There is much information about prosody and meter on the internet, but typically the types of feet are defined, and example is shown, and that's the end of it. I would be interested to learn about the various emotional effects of the various meters (for example, the anapaest is used as a comic meter in english). What meter should be used for pop music in english??

Let me know if this is not musical enough for this stack and I will post in the writing stack exchange.

Thank you!

  • The rhythms used in pop music follow trends, just like other aspects of the music. Half a year ago it was Scotch Snaps: youtube.com/watch?v=i7cG9QIvIWo – Your Uncle Bob Aug 13 at 14:51
  • @YourUncleBob this is a good start--thanks! – 286642 Aug 13 at 15:12
  • "...words should be aligned with the strong beats of the music." I'm not sure I agree on the implied idea. At least you should consider turning the perspective around - whatever you write, and however the lyrics are performed, the rhythm of the text is part of the music. Your lyrics contribute to the perceived rhythmic feeling. Try it with a metronome or a very simple drum beat: by singing or rapping words with different stresses and timings on top of the simple beat, you are creating rhythms and making musical decisions. Don't take the rhythms as a given. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Aug 13 at 19:25
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    Dekkadeci: emphasis of syllables of course has to be natural, according to how it should be in the language, but I think the OP can tell if it sounds weird and foreign even without rules. What I meant was that I got the impression that the musical rhythmic details would be fixed and given from a musical director as a "specification" for the lyricist to obey, which may sound artificially rigid. :) Why not let the lyrics rule the music and not the other way around? Lyrics have their own internal structure, like in your example word "beautiful". – piiperi Reinstate Monica Aug 14 at 18:10
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's more of a question about poetry than about music. – ttw Aug 16 at 10:35
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There is no short list of most popular meters, but what there is is all the existing music and lyrics in the genre that you want to write for. If you’re not already someone who sings, learn to sing. Pay attention to the meter and prosody of the songs that you love.

You will probably find that meter is not actually consistent through the verses of many songs. Rather, the rhythm is the same but syllables are added, taken away, shortened, and lengthened to help the changing words fit the same music. We can’t really tell you how to write your lyrics, but you can practice writing lyrics and setting them to music and also studying how others have done it.

One thing I will say is that the quality the lyrics and music separately should be your top priority. Then take those ingredients and work on the prosody. Don’t get so caught up in writing to a certain meter that it ruins your sense of wordplay, metaphor, imagery, etc.

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This is a difficult question to answer succinctly and accurately, because both rhythm and poetic meter are extremely varied. Even within a purely in top-40 pop context, the way Jay-Z sets lyrics to music is very different from the way Sia sets lyrics to music. Music is often characterized by a lack of "hard and fast rules", but I think that is exceptionally true in this case; it is much easier to get audiences to accept unusual syncopation and syllable misemphasis than it is to get them to accept unusual tonalities.

Before you read any further, it is probably best you read this answer to How can a non-musician recognize anacrusis?, which demonstrates anacrusis by explaining the concept's relationship to lyrical stresses. One really good exercise would be to literally count out the one-two-threes of Happy Birthday as-in that answer, and actually sing the first syllable of the song on the first beat of your count, with full emphasis; the example of how lyrics should not sound might be more helpful to you than the example of how lyrics should sound. It is important you take note of the idea that a bar is a series of beats, and each bar typically has the same number of beats, in the same order if the beats vary in length -- and even when this is in some way not true, there is usually a recognizable pattern. There is no obligation for a song to be in fours, and if you choose a traditional poetic meter, you may want to experiment with an unusual number of beats to a bar to give the lyrics a faster, choppier and/or more mechanical feel, if that effect is appropriate.

I would suggest that you write your lyrics first, and then your music -- whether or not you should constrain yourself to any particular poetic meter is up to you. Traditional poetic meter sets tone because it comes with other genre conventions, and it also provides an interesting artificial framework for a skilled poet to fill with naturally-flowing language -- whether this appeals to you is something only you can say (disclaimer: I think the Writing Stack Exchange crowd were somewhat wrong or oversimplificatory about some of the music stuff; no doubt they would say the same of my views on poetry).

Similarly to the anacrusis exercise, speak your lyrics aloud and note where the natural syllable stresses lie. These stresses are -- unless you consciously decide otherwise for artistic effect when you feel more confident -- your beats. Say your lyrics aloud again, except this time try to keep those beats at a constant-ish rate, or whatever feels "rhythmically natural" -- I'm oversimplifying and handwaving tremendously here, asking you to appeal on some level to instinct, but at the end of this process, you should find you have two classes of stress, stronger and weaker, and the strongest stresses represent the first beat of your bars, which is usually (oversimplifying again) where things like chord changes and "new sounds" go, and when the bass drum kicks in. Melody notes here will usually not be overly dissonant, and/or will often resolve quickly.

Also, what you first come up with may only be a skeleton rhythmic cadence -- unless your original meter was quite varied, or you want the lyrics to come out mechanically, there is a good chance you might want to "pull this rhythm around", deliberately move notes forwards or backwards a bit in time. The first minute of John Coltrane's Chim Chim Cheree is a good example of the sort of rhythmic variation you might want to introduce. I often use my phone to record several spoken-word recitals of the same lyrics in very different rhythms before choosing one.

Also, it's okay if some songs a "more lyrical" and other songs are "more musical", or don't even have lyrics, too. I love The Killers, but I could never defend their lyrics, they just performed their pop-rock really well with a really cool sound.

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