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Thread: Timing Structure of melodies/lyrics

  1. #1
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    Oct 2010

    Timing Structure of melodies/lyrics

    I've recently begun to compose some lyrics & melodys to all the music i've been recording (rock/pop). This has got me thinking about how to structure the melodies. I've noticed that there are 3 main ways in which the melodies are constructed:

    (a) they start on the first beat
    (b) they start on another beat (usually beat 2 or the upbeat of beat 2)
    (c) they end on the one-beat

    So if someone is singing "I love you":
    (a)"Love" will land on the first beat (the little pronouns like I are usually squeezed in right before the beat).
    (b)"Love" will land on the 2nd beat
    (c)"You" will land on the first beat

    There are of course some 'unusual' timings - Ballad of Curtis Lowe by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the vocals start immediately after beat 1 (either on the "1-e" or "1-and") - although I wouldn't call this exactly odd, it's just a little less straightforward than the typical land on the downbeat at the start of the measure.

    I noticed rock uses (a) much more than other styles (say, blues). Style (a) has a much more forward-moving stylistic sound to is than the others as well. But it's impossible to generalize anymore for this, for me at least.

    Was wondering if anyone else has any thoughts on the timing structure of lyrical melodies, and how it contributes to the overall feel and flow of the song or section.
    Last edited by DukeOfBoom; 10-14-2010 at 03:15 AM.

  2. #2
    Registered User TheAristocrat's Avatar
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    Aug 2008
    In all honesty, a simple reply on a forum will not do the topic justice. I would rather direct to this book which covers everything you'll ever want or need to know about melodies, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Exercises-Me...cm_cr-mr-title.

    Best of luck

  3. #3
    Latin Wedding Band Los Boleros's Avatar
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    Oct 2004
    San Francisco Bay Area
    Quote Originally Posted by DukeOfBoom View Post

    Was wondering if anyone else has any thoughts on the timing structure of lyrical melodies, and how it contributes to the overall feel and flow of the song or section.
    you can take a classic melody that everybody knows well and execute it so the first part comes in late. Later you can rush some of the ending and make the whole thing sound genius.

    I would not put much weight into what beat the melodies start and finish as this is all very negotiable.
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  4. #4
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Dec 2002
    Twickenham, UK
    The man rule is to use a rhythm that derives from natural speech rhythms.
    So "I love you" would normally stress the second word (unless the person you're speaking to is saying "nobody loves me", or "you love someone else" - in which case, the first or thirds words would be stressed ) - so that's why "love" tends to appear on a strong beat, or be a long note, while the "I" is on a weak beat.
    Same applies to phrases beginning with "the" or "a" - they will be on a weak beat, maybe a pickup, while the following word will be a strong beat. (The strong beat needn't be beat 1; it can be any beat in fact, as long as the preceding article is on a weaker one, or between the beats.)

    There are exceptions to this of course, which I always think sound awkward, and are a sign of lazy songwriting.
    Eg, the Manic Street Preachers "Design For Life", where chorus has the following rhythmic shape:
    BEATS: |1  .  2  .  3  .  4  . |1  .  2  .  3  .  4  . |
            A     de - sign         fo - or    life
    The wrong words - "a", "for" are given the emphasis, and it sounds clumsy. Worse, because it's the damn chorus! You feel stupid singing along with a phrase so badly scanned.

    Even a great songwriter like Stevie Wonder can be lazy with placing lyric stresses (he seems to care far more about melody and harmony, and why not?). "Sir Duke" has a real clunker that always makes me cringe. After the line "Music knows it is and always will" (which scans fine), he sings:

    "be one of THE things that life just won't quit"

    "The" falls on the downbeat. The line scans fine otherwise, but actually the whole pair of lines is constructed really oddly. You wouldn't put those words in that order if speaking them, would you? Or leave such a gap between "will" and "be"? You'd sound like you were a foreigner (German maybe?). It's like he's struggling to get the word "quit" at the end of the line to get a rhyme. But he's only rhyming it with "forget", which is not a perfect one anyway. I suspect he just thought "ah the hell with it, no one will notice..."

    I always remember something Bob Dylan said in an interview way back about what he was most proud of in his songwriting, what he saw as the main challenge: "making the words fit". I don't know of any bad scanning in Dylan songs; his lyrics and their settings are always eminently singable, which is one reason his songs are so popular with other artists.

    Mind you even he was liable to produce crap lines just to get a rhyme:

    "Now the beach is deserted except for some kelp
    You were always around when I needed your help"

    OK, the beach does figure earlier in the song. But "kelp" is just so obviously a rhyme for "help" (I mean, what else rhymes with "help"?). Moreover, the right word is "empty" not "deserted" ("deserted" refers to people not things; "empty" can refer to both). But "deserted" fits the rhythm better (and the rhythm of both lines as faultless). IOW, in this case, his aim to "make the words fit" (to rhyme and have a musical rhythm) has over-ridden his desire for sensible lyrics. The second is just so natural - something you might easily say (unlike the Stevie Wonder lines above) - that he would have resisted trying to put "help" elsewhere in the line. (Although I think "When I needed your help you were always around" flows as well, sounds as natural, and would have been easier to find a sensible rhyme. The only clever thing about the above couplet is that the odd word, "kelp", comes first, so that "help" kind of makes it all right. If it was the other way round, the use of "kelp" would scream out as a feeble grab at a rhyme.)

    In short, this isn't rocket science - place the syllables where they feel they naturally ought to go. If that's hard, change the phrase - find another word with the same meaning that fits better, flows better. The end result should feel comfortable to sing, that's the bottom line: not just in its range of pitches, but in its length and rhythm of syllables; and also in its meaning. The more you can make it sound like a normal spoken phrase elevated into melody, the better. ("Elevated", using its own natural shape and rhythm, not "awkwardly crammed into a pre-existing tune" .)
    The hardest challenges are (a) finding good rhymes, and (b) finding phrases with the right number of syllables (to match others). Personally I find these equally hard - maybe the second is harder.
    IOW, the goal is easily understood. It's getting there that's hard.

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