Friday, September 24, 2004

Matching Words to Rhythm

Hi Monty,

Over a year ago I read your document on how to write a song and I always loved music and I wanted to write my own lyrics and I didn't know how to and where to start until I read your notes. I wrote many songs but the only problem I have now is when I am in the studio it is not lining up with the music. Am I doing something wrong? They are good lyrics but putting it on wax is not a match. Do you have any recommendations? I appreciate any help you can offer.

Thanks, Chino Bazbeg



Hi Chino,

I'm glad my column helped you get started!

Without hearing your music, it is hard to guess what the problem is. You say the words are not lining up with the music. This doesn't happen by accident. In songwriting, often the words come first. In that case the music must be written specifically to match with the words. Often the music comes first, in which case the words are written specifically to match with the music. (Sometimes they come together, words and music at once, but for me that only happens in short bursts, then I have to fill out the rest either music first or words first.)

When you match music and words together you have to be aware of the musical qualities of the words. How many syllables are there? Where are the stresses? These things will match the number, lengths, and accents of the notes.

A good place to start is with the downbeat. If you count along with the music the downbeats are where the numbers fall. For instance in rock, most songs are in 4/4 time, or four beats to the measure, so you would count along 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. Those are the downbeats.

Now match some words like this: "1, 2, 3, 4 - I don't know how." That's one word to each downbeat (quarter notes).

If the words each had two syllables instead, you would also be singing on the upbeat, or the "and" which comes between the beats. "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 - I'm a lazy hairy cow." (Eighth notes.)

If you have your words written out, you can circle each syllable that lands on a downbeat. So in the silly example above, you would circle "I'm" "laz" and "hair."

You might try using triplets - three syllables to each beat, like this: "1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 - Are you the kind of a cow who can sing?" Circling the downbeats gives you "are" "kind" "cow" and "sing."

Notice that the downbeats happen on the same syllables that you naturally stress when you talk. If I changed that last example to "Are you a singing sort of hairy cow?" and then tried to match the words to the "1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4" triplet pattern, it just wouldn't sound right. Try it.

But, if we took that last line and matched it to a different rhythm, it might work. This time we need to mix rhythms, starting with a triplet, then proceed using the upbeats like this - "1 and a 2 and 3 and 4 and 1." Circle "are" "sing" "sort" and "cow."

Write out the words to some of your favorite songs and circle the downbeats and you will start to get a feel for how words and music fit together. Then try it with your own words. When you have the downbeats circled, then as you sing they provide a visual cue as to where the beats belong in the words. Take it slowly at first. The more you work with it the more natural it will seem.

Don't be afraid to change the words as you are setting them to music. I often find that I've used too many words. To make them fit more naturally with the music I often drop words that aren't really needed. For instance: "I know a place where cows can sing" might become "There's a place where cows can sing" or even "In the place cows sing" or "In the land of singing cows."

In other words, keep playing with it until you get each phrase to fit well.

Best of luck!

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