Life is full of interesting questions.
Why is the sky blue? Can Russian Twitter bots really swing an election? And where do broken hearts go, Whitney? Where?
But today, let’s try answering something more practical: What is prosody? And why should you spend the next ten minutes of your life reading about it?
What is Prosody?
OK. First things first.
Prosody is a big deal in songwriting. A really big deal.
It affects how well your song is understood. It affects how enjoyable your song is to listen to. And, believe it or not, it plays a pretty important role in helping people decide whether you’re a dope songwriter or just a dope, period.
And while the concept of prosody isn’t widely understood, it’s actually pretty simple. Simple enough, in fact, to tell you what it is in a single sentence:
Prosody in songwriting means making sure your words and melody fit well together.
This comes down to a really important principle of all art, not just songwriting: in general, in a work of art you want all the parts working together to achieve some larger goal.
You want the hills and the sky and the sheep to add up to ‘Pastoral Landscape’. You want the car chase and the hapless heroine and the cheesy catchphrase to add up to ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger movie’. You want the peppy tempo, uplifting lyric and last-chorus key change to add up to ‘Classic 90s Pop Song’.
Prosody is like this on a smaller scale. Whether the melody or the lyric comes first, you want to end up with a situation where they work well together. You want the melody to be interesting on its own, and your lyric to be interesting on its own. But you also want the melody to support what the lyric is saying so your song is easy to listen to.
So let’s talk about three ways you can do that.
Matching the Stresses in the Lyric with the Stresses in the Melody
Take any English sentence you can come up with, say:
Try saying it out loud. Especially if you’re in a public place.
You probably found yourself saying it like this:
Was I right? At least, you probably didn’t say it like this:
Trying saying that out loud. Especially if you’re a public place.
You’ll probably notice two things. One: it’s a bit of a mindfuck to try say it that way. Two: It’s a bit of a mindfuck to hear it that way. You have to think for a second to understand it.
The big idea here is that, in English at least, words have stresses. Some syllables are said with more weight than others: HAP-py, po-ly-STY-rene, an-ti-DIS-es-TAB-lish-ment-AR-i-an-ism.
And in songwriting, this means you want the stresses in the lyric to match the downbeats – the stressed beats – in the melody.
And the downbeats, if you were wondering, are just the first beat in every measure. (And maybe a secondary downbeat half-way through the measure also if you’re in four or six.)
That means the chorus of your song about your multi-testicular orthodontist is much better like this:
Than like this:
You might have noticed this sentence just happens to have a regular syllable pattern, or meter: four lots of unstressed-stressed. (If you were thinking ‘I don’t know Ed, but there’s something almost Shakespearean about that phrase’, then that’s probably why.)
In songwriting, regular stress patterns like this are rare – at least in anything written after the 1940s – but in any given word or phrase there will be a stress pattern, I promise.
And whatever it is, it’s your job as a songwriter to make sure the stresses in your lyric match the stresses in your song’s melody.
Try it out sometime. Get a beat on loop or an instrumental track playing and pick a phrase or two – anything. Try saying the words in different rhythms over the top. You’ll start to get a feel for which rhythms definitely work, which sort of kind of work, and which definitely don’t work.
Understanding this is understanding the most important part of how prosody works. And, in my experience, not understanding this is one of the most common reasons songs by inexperienced songwriters sound sloppy and amateurish.
A weird chord progression might be a stroke of genius. A weird melodic shape might be an interesting surprise. But a weird em-PHA-sis on a weird syl-LAB-ble almost always makes you sound like you don’t know what you’re doing.
(Mike Myers is with me on this, by the way.)
More-or-less Realistic Rhythm
As well as the stress patterns built into each of your lyric phrases, you’ll find most phrases in English come with a kind of rhythm.
Try saying this phrase:
Tell me if I’m wrong, but I’m 90% confident that when you read that sentence you did three things:
1. Paused a little bit after ‘stumbled’
2. Paused a little bit more after ‘fell’
3. Then rushed pretty snappily through ‘quickly picked himself up’
OK. I cheated. I came up with a phrase that was about movement, so that probably influenced how you moved through it. I also threw three nearby ‘I’ vowels in ‘quickly picked himself’ which probably encouraged you to pick up momentum again.
But was I right? Did you do any of those three things?
At the very least, here are three things I’m 99.9% confident you didn’t do:
1. Rushed through ‘He stumbled, fell,’ without any pauses at all
2. Left a big pause after ‘and’
3. Drew out ‘up’ like ‘uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup’
Every phrase you can come up with works kind of like this. There are places you naturally go faster or slower, there are places you’ll pause and there are some words or syllables you’ll sit on a bit longer than others. That’s part of how we say things to make sure other people understand. That’s part of a phrase’s natural rhythm.
And if prosody is about making sure a song’s melody fits well with a song’s lyric, it’s your job to make sure the rhythm your melody uses is a reasonable facsimile of how you might say that phrase IRL.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying every phrase has one definitive spoken rhythm and it’s your solemn duty to follow it. I’m not saying you should go out, right now, and buy the Collins Dictionary of Every Phrase Ever and How to Say Them.
There is plenty of creative licence here. There are usually a handful of different ways you can say a phrase in real life, and when it comes to turning a phrase into a sung lyric there are lots of lots of ways you can do it.
But there are also lots of ways I strongly recommend you don’t do it.
Like, I recommend you don’t put rhythmic pauses in places you’d never put them when you speak:
And I recommend you don’t draw out an unimportant word like ‘the’ or ‘in’ on a long note:
But above all, I recommend you think about how the rhythm your lyric mimics real speech.
A lyric is somebody saying something to someone else so you want it to sound vaguely conversational. And the best way to make it sound vaguely conversational is to make sure, no matter how much creative and artistic licence you want to take, that the rhythm of the lyric doesn’t wildly distort the loose rhythms of real speech.
High Notes Emphasize Weightier Words
OK. We’re nearly there.
We’ve talked about stresses. We’ve talked about rhythms. Let’s talk about melody.
If you were wondering, no, I’m not going to tell you that every spoken sentence has an innate melody and you should mimic that in your song’s melody. (Though, for what it’s worth, people have tried.)
But I am going to say this: aside from the stresses that go on syllables, you’ll often find in speech you say some words with more emphasis than others.
You might not agree. In fact, my personal view is that it’s pretty amazing we can cross oceans in a matter of hours in flying metal boxes and in the grand scheme of things having to wait two hours for a delayed connection isn’t really worth worrying about.
Either way, try saying it like it’s what you believe.
You probably gave some words a bit more weight than the others. Possibly like this:
Or like this:
But probably not like this:
The equivalent of these emphases in songwriting is your vocal melody’s high notes. The higher you go, the more emphasized the word attached to that note is going to be – especially if you get to that note by a bit of a melodic leap.
That means, if you’re really smart, you can think about how you can make your vocal melody and lyric work together to give a subtle emphasis to words worth emphasizing:
It also means, just like you don’t want to put unimportant words – like ‘at’ or ‘the’ or ‘in’ – on random long notes, you don’t want to put those words on random high notes either:
So Should I Write the Melody or the Lyric First?
So that’s prosody, in a nutshell:
1. Think about how the stresses in your words match the stressed beats in your music.
2. Think about how the rhythm your words is a reasonable representation of real speech, or at least not a crazy distortion of it.
3. Think about how your vocal melody’s high notes emphasize some words in your lyric more than others.
And like I said way back at the beginning, it doesn’t matter if you write your melody first or your lyric first – or you write music and lyrics yourself or as part of a team. In fact, in practice, ending up with good prosody means plenty of give and take and making adjustments to the melody and lyric as you write them to make sure they work well together in the end.
Because really, that’s all that matters: that your words and melody fit together well in the end. However you get there.