Metering (also called note counting or syllable counting) is very important in lyric writing. I often read lyrics online and I’m always amazed at how many people don’t take the time to balance their lines and make sure that the meter is consistent. The standard excuse is “Man, I only write lyrics! I leave the music to somebody else”. See, metering is part of your job! Here is why…
Not A Poem
The main problem is that many people confuse lyrics with poems. They are not the same. Here are a few basic differences:
- Whereas a poem can be very intellectual and obscure, a song as to be clear and to the point.
- Whereas a poem is meant to be read, lyrics are meant to be sung. This means that any word that is long, technical and/or difficult to pronounce will not be easy to sing. No tongue twisters!
- Poems have no time constraints. Each line can be arbitrary long and the final poem can span several pages if required. A song is usually limited to 3 minutes and has to include many repetitions.
Poets like Leonard Cohen are known for turning poems into lyrics, but it’s usually done after many hors spent pruning away each lyric line until they can be sung comfortably.
Metering can be described broadly as “the number of notes in a line of lyrics”. The reason I don’t say the “number of syllables” is because syllables can be stretched or shorten depending on pronunciation, slang and “creative” diction. Also, this is the same number of notes that would be played in an instrumental monophonic melodic line. Imagine if you will a saxophone player playing the same notes than the ones being sung.
As an example, here is a verse from a song of mine called “Paper Flower Girl” (meters are in parenthesis):
Standing on the corner (6)
Here you are (3)
Selling little flowers (6)
Packs of two (3)
Doesn’t really matter (6)
Who you are (3)
When you give love (4)
When you give love (4)
This example demonstrates that lyric lines are often symmetrical: see how line 1 and 3 not only rhyme: they have common meter. Lines 2 and 4 don’t rhyme, but they have the same meter. There is a sense of symmetry and balance where each line as a corresponding one with the same meter.
Also note the following points:
- It’s easier for someone to write a melody if they know the meter for each verse, chorus, bridge, etc.
- Each song section has a certain number of bars anyway, so even if you wanted to “break the rules”, you would run out of time.
- It’s also better to break your lines into shorter meter counts. 4 to 9 notes is ideal and most flexible. Try not to get over 10 or 12.
- Writing your lyrics in this way will show that you know your craft and it will be easier for others to fit music to it.
- This is what Bernie Toupin did with Elton John: his lines were already metered and balanced. Elton would just sing them while trying different chords and melodies, and he knew he didn’t have to rewrite the lyrics. This allowed them to write together while communicating with a fax.
For more details (and much better examples), check Jason Blume’s “6 Steps to songwriting success”, pp107-109.
Metering your lines can be seen like construction material for a house. Imagine for a moment that you are an artisan building beautiful ceramic tiles that comes in 6×6 and 12×12 inches. Knowing that, anyone can take your material and put it in their architectural plan knowing that it will fit the room perfectly. They would also be able to figure out the cost and buy from you in advance. That’s the powers of standardized sizes. And this takes nothing away from your artistry.