Let’s talk about something magical.
Ever notice how some songs seem to have this completely fluid quality about their lyrics? They sound almost like a beautiful cascade of words and lines that melt seamlessly into one another. The rhymes happen right where you expect them to. The point of the song is not only apparent, but made even more so by the structure of each word’s place in the song.
This magical quality is called phrasing.
When a song has great phrasing, you almost hardly notice. Everything is in it’s place and it just feels good. But the second the phrasing get’s weird, we immediately know it. That’s why a good understanding of phrasing makes a huge difference in your songs.
All magic and stardust aside, here’s what phrasing actually is:
Phrasing is the arrangement of words and lyrics into lines and music. It does not distract from the song – it communicates and enhances the flow.
Rhythm is also part of phrasing – not the drum beat of a song, but the rhythm of syllables in a phrase, what has emphasis, what doesn’t, what words are long, what words are short and rapid.
The way a melody can be divided up into individual lines that have a push and pull, a tension and release – that’s musical phrasing. When it’s good, your ear is pushed and pulled in all the right places.
Let’s take a look at some lyrics, shall we?
Phrasing that makes seamless, beautiful sense:
Here’s one of my favorite examples of brilliant phrasing in a song. It’s Gary Burr’s “Can’t Really Be Gone,” cut by Tim McGraw. Let’s look at the first verse:
Her hat is hanging by the door
The one she bought in Mexico
It blocked the wind, it stopped the rain
She’d never leave that one
So she can’t be really gone
When you read this lines to yourself, you immediately know where one thought ends and the next begins. They read like sentences in a book. In fact, let’s put punctuation in:
Her hat is hanging by the door,
The one she bought in Mexico.
It blocked the wind, it stopped the rain.
She’d never leave that one,
So she can’t be really gone.
Every line ends on a comma or a period. Beginning of thought, end of thought. Right where you expect them to be.
Now, let’s look at the other half of this example – the melody. If you need the song for reference, check out the first verse here:
Let’s zoom in on that very first line: “Her hat is hanging by the door.”
Notice that the melody starts down, and leaps up on the word “hat.” This particular word is a noun. This is a very purposeful choice by the writer.
When you read the word “hat,” you pull up some visual or sensory collection of a “hat” in your mind. All the imagery, tactile sensations, even emotional qualities you have filed away under the word “hat” are called up.
You don’t read it, you feel it. Some people might see a combination of letters as well as pictures, but we all conceptualize a hat.
Accenting the word “hat” with a lift in the melody line gives it emphasis. Bam. A visual is there in your mind. You’re not just listening, you’re seeing the story unfold.
Let’s look at the words, “by the door.”
This is a more subtle employ of phrasing and one of the reasons why Gary Burr is a great writer: the melody sings the same way it speaks.
Go ahead, speak the words “by the door.” You’ll hear your spoken melody – baithuh DOOR. “By” and “the” link together on the note, and “door” dips down. “Door” also gets the emphasis. It’s weight is carried down as the final, conclusive word in the phrase.
In the song, melody of this line mimics the natural way someone would speak it. “By” is up, “the door” pulls back down. Your ear can tell that the line has concluded. You know that’s one thought. You know another is coming up next.
You know it’s happening without really knowing it’s happening.
And at the end of the day, the listener hardly notices that all this is happening. It’s a collection of subtle cues, a mastery of language and intonation, that speaks to a very primitive and very empathetic part in all of us. We know it’s happening without knowing it’s happening – the song just makes sense.
That is amazing phrasing.
Phrasing is a critical tool when it comes to getting your point across in your songs. When it’s off, your listeners feel it.
If the phasing is off, your listener will know. It will distract them from your message. If you use jarring phrasing throughout your entire song, you will fatigue the listeners ear and make them more inclined to turn off your song. Or worse, they may decide that your set is a great time for a bathroom break, or to head to the bar for another drink.
Here’s how to break the rules for innovative phrasing
Good phrasing can be interesting phrasing.
Sometimes you have to learn the rules, then break them. Not all your lyrics and melodies have to be picture-perfect nursery rhymes or limericks where every word fits beside it’s neighbor like a perfect puzzle piece.
You can take risks – stretch words, reverse emphasis, twist your melody around – but be aware of how much warping you’re doing.
You don’t want your whole song to be an oddly pronounced string of experimental sounds and syllables.
I’ve found a sweet spot for most risk taking in songs to be the good ol’ 80/20 rule. Give this a try:
- 80% of your lines? Use conventional phrasing. Give your listeners stable ground to stand on.
- For that remaining 20%? Break the rules. Do something delightfully different.
Want a tip? This is my favorite tool for writing lyrics with great phrasing.
I wish I could remember who taught me this because I literally use it every time I write! This is a great trick for keeping your lyrics and melodies in perfect harmony:
If you write lyrics before melodies:
As you’re writing your words and building their melodies, simply speak your lyrics out loud.
- How do they sound when you say them?
- What is their natural intonation, their internal melody?
- What words bounce up, what words dip down?
- What halves of words take the emphasis?
Collect all this info and wrap your melodies around your lyrics in ways that mimic the way they’re naturally spoken.
If you write melodies before lyrics:
Listen closely to your melody. Plink it out on the piano. Be aware of the falls and rises.
Listen to your melody. What does the melody seem to be saying?
What words sound like they naturally fit the rhythm of your melodic lines?
Perhaps a bit esoteric, but within the melody is a hidden string of words waiting to be discovered. If you listen closely, you can start to imagine what words have matching emphasis and phrasing.