Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sublime scanning

Everyone understands the role rhyming plays in songs. Fewer people think about scansion—the rhythm or meter of the lines.

If a line scans well, then the emphasized beats match the emphasized syllables. Compare this:
to this:
MARy HAD a SMALL parAkeet
When it comes down to it, the scan is far more important than the rhyme. Don't believe me? Listen to Chicago's Questions 67 & 68. There's not one rhyme in that song. Because all the words fall neatly into place, you don't even notice until someone points it out.

Good scansion also goes a long way toward selling the lyrics.

Not long ago, fellow songstress Jannie Funster posted a snippet of something she's working on in my comments:
Give it away
it'll come back to ya.
Sweeter and deeper than
you ever dreamed.
Give it away
it'll come back to ya.
Give it away.
Because I'd never heard the song, I first read these lyrics as if they were prose, with no idea how they'd scan. My impression: Hmm, that's nice. Yep. Nice message.

But then, out of songwriterly curiosity, I looked at the lines again to figure out where the emphases should go.
GIVE it aWAY (beat beat)
IT'll come BACK to ya
SWEETer and DEEPer than
Suddenly the snippet was amazingly hooky. It stuck in my head without so much as a melody to help keep it there. And the lyrics! So insightful and meaningful and TRUE.

Line the words up with the beat, and their impact increases a hundredfold.


John Wenger said...

"MARy HAD a SMALL parAkeet"? Didn't you mean, "MARy HAD a SMALL PARakeet"?

Just curious.

Jannie Funster said...

It is just so intriguing how the magically metric mind automatically finds the beats.

You had it all correct, just in my melody the second line goes...

It'll COME back TO ya

The whole For DEEPER and SWEETER, line you have bang on too.

And the last line rests on beat one and two before coming in with the last Give it away.

Subject to slight changes in lyrics, of course. :)


cinderkeys said...

He who shares my last name:

The Mary line is in four-four time, with every syllable an eighth note.

DA da DA da DA da DA (rest)

If you put the Mary-parakeet line in its place, matching syllable for syllable, then it's MARy HAD a SMALL parAkeet.

You could mess around with the beats to get it to fit better, of course. But since I was demonstrating a line that doesn't scan, I didn't.


I was afraid I might have gotten something wrong, but thought I gave it my best shot. :) Is the "It'll come back to you" not straight eighth notes?

The failure of the magically metric mind to find the beats every time could be a whole 'nother post ...

wyvernfree said...

I missed this post earlier. That's really interesting... I originally read the lines with the same mixed anapest/trochee rhythm the author suggested (GIVE it a/WAY it'll/COME back/TO you.) I had to really concentrate on what you were suggesting before I could "hear" the stricter anapests (GIVE it a/WAY (beat) (beat)/IT'll come BACK to you.)

I'm willing to bet this is because my background is in poetry and so I'm not used to automatically thinking about the instruments adding in extra beats while the words take a break. ;-)

cinderkeys said...

That's interesting. Now that you mention it, I don't think I would have worked out the scansion I did before I started writing songs.

As it is, I only now figured out how the lines might scan with Jannie's intended emphases. My first interpretation had the time signature at six-eight, but it looks like I was wrong.

Having instrumentation filling in beats is amazingly useful in songwriting, I can tell you. :)

wyvernfree said...

I'm in total agreement about meter being much more important than rhyme, though. Reading a rhymed poem that doesn't scan is like nails on a chalkboard to me. It's one thing to break the rhythm here or there for dramatic effect, or to substitute a foot if it flows smoothly; but people who pair up a 5-foot line and a 7-foot line with end rhymes drive me up the wall. So do people who expect you to mispronounce words to fit their rhythm scheme. Ugh!

cinderkeys said...

Ugh indeed. Do a lot of poets (presumably unpublished ones) fail to scan? If so, I wonder if that happens less in lyrics because lyrics have to be sung. When a line in a song doesn't scan, it becomes immediately apparent the moment you sing it out loud.

That doesn't stop Alanis Morrisette, but she's an exception. :)

wyvernfree said...

Bah, this stupid pop-up window just ate my really long comment. :P

But yeah, crappy poetry does. Don't you remember my "Bisexual Vampyre" series back like forever ago on Quartz? That was right after I agreed to judge some online poetry contest for some reason, and almost all the entries were either diary entries broken up by random line breaks, like

I am
so lonely.
Why doesn't anyone appreciate me?
Am I destined to always
be alone?
I miss my boyfriend.
I cry in bed.

Or else they were inspirational atrocities with rhyme and no rhythm at all, like

I used to be so lost and I didn't know what to do.
But then I found something new!
I let Jesus Christ into my heart,
And now I am blessed to have this totally awesome new start!!!

I stopped having much of anything to do with the poetry scene not long after that. *rueful grin*

cinderkeys said...

Sorry about the pop-up window. I've learned the hard way to select all and copy before trying to save a comment. (At least when I remember.)

I will never forget the Bisexual Vampyre series. :)

Maybe there should be some rule requiring poets to read their stuff out loud before showing it to anyone. Or, maybe I'm naive to think that would notice anything wrong ...