Poetry and music share a long history of mutual inspiration and collaboration. Modern song lyrics are just the most recent way that music and poetry have come together.
Once words have begun to be accommodated to music, they display qualities which might not be expected of them in their ordinary duties, and have not only lilt and balance, but tone and quality […] They are more carefully chosen than other words […] – C.M. Bowra, Primitive Song
Any aspiring songwriter can learn a lot by writing, reading, and studying poetry – because poetry was born from music long ago, and the two have influenced each other ever since.
The ancient Greeks sang lyric poetry while playing the lyre. During the medieval period in Europe, a “lyric” was any poem written so that it could be set to music – with a particular number of syllables per line. Meanwhile, western music theory adapted the concept of rhythmic meter from poetry. There would be no time signatures in music without poetry.
What makes lyric writing unique?
Many books written by commercial songwriters are quick to claim that song lyrics and poetry are different crafts. Why are they so eager to turn us away from the tradition of poetry, which can teach songwriters so much? I suspect it’s because the music industry’s job is to sell music, and compared to music sales, literary poetry just doesn’t rake in the big bucks.
The truth is that there’s only one difference between poetry and song lyrics: Lyrics are set to music. A lyric that works beautifully in a song might sound downright silly when read without music. Whether you want your lyrics to read well on the page is a personal decision.
Aside from that single difference, poets and lyricists share much in common. Both train themselves to:
- Write memorable titles, refrains and choruses
- Train themselves to hear the music hidden in language
- Take a basic idea and rephrase it in fresh, creative ways
- Weave words into patterns of rhyme
- Arrange sections of a text into a logical, seamless whole
Songwriting is a complex puzzle made up of all these problems and more.
Writing poetry is a way to exercise all of these skills which are so valuable to lyricists – the skills you can’t learn from your guitar, piano, or singing instructors.
Instead of dismissing poetry as too many commercial songwriting authors have, let’s choose to benefit from the centuries of insight that it offers us. Everything you learn about poetry can help you write better lyrics. Why not buy a book of poetry, or study a textbook on poetry a little every day?
I for one need all the help I can get.
For practical advice on writing lyrics, see:
- Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison
- Three Genres by Stephen Minot
In case you’re interested in the deep history shared by poetry and music:
- Primitive Song by C.M. Bowra
- Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations Between Poetry and Music by James Anderson Winn
Creative Commons photo of Apollo with a lyre by Tony Smith