Motion Creates E-Motion In Songwriting

 

Pat Pattison writes and teaches online songwriting and lyric writing courses for Berkleemusic.com, the online continuing education division of Berklee College of Music. His books, including ‘Songwriting: Essential Guide to Rhyming’ and ‘Songwriting: Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure,’ are recognized as definitive in their genre, and his clinics are attended by songwriters all over the country.

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Here’s something for your spare time: let’s arrange some rhymes in different orders and feel how a change in rhyme scheme creates different kinds of motion. Rhyme is one of the controllers of motion in a song. Sure, the musical groove, the harmonic and melodic rhythms make things move. But rhyme overlays these and adds yet another layer of motion in the song. A useful tool, rhyme. Start here:*

Sports star
Porn star
Rock star
Pop star
DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

*(Just tap your foot in 4/4 time and consider each syllable in the 1st 4 lines a quarter note in a 4/4 rock beat, so each line lasts 2 beats. In the rhythm figure, DUM= ¼ note, da =1/8 note.)

Say it several times and feel how it moves. You feel the motion of four lines – eight quarter notes – that seem to group naturally into groups of two, followed by the rhythm figure:

DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

Ok, now this:

Sports star
Rock star
Porn star
Pop star

DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

Say it several times, then go back and do the first one again. I’ll wait.

Yup, they feel different. Why? Because the rhyme schemes each create a different kind of journey. Look again at

Sports star
Porn star
Rock star
Pop star

DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

The rhyme scheme, in couplets, moves in segments of two – the lines group in pairs. It stops motion at each couplet by resolving, by creating balance: let’s call it a tonic function, like going to the 1 chord. So it gives you three segments:

Sports star
Porn star

Rock star
Pop star

DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

In all, it stops us three times. Could be for a reason. Maybe it wants you to notice that the linking of the sounds also joins the two ideas more closely. You could say that rhyme creates groups of thought. It glues ideas together via sound, thereby creating a closer bond between the meanings of the words. Kinda makes you wonder, “Hmm, sports stars and porn stars getting together. Hmm.” And joins rock and pop stars in the brotherhood of music. With that in mind, say it again. Pretty neat.

Now. how about this one?

Sports star
Rock star
Porn star
Pop star
DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

Rather than two groups of two, this rhyme motion creates one group of four, and isolates the rhythm figure:

Sports star
Rock star
Porn star
Pop star

DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

In the abab rhyme scheme, the lack of rhyme at line two creates something like a subdominant function – it wants to move forward, but has no particular target. Line three, because it rhymes with line one, creates strong forward motion. It creates a sequence: If you’ve just moved from a to b, and another a comes along, you expect b, so you’re driven forward, this time knowing where you want to go: back to the b sound. When we hear the b, the whole thing resolves and we feel done – stable. But not until we hit the last piece.

Look what it says about our characters now. No more raised eybrows about after-sports activities. Now the porn star is aligned with everyone in one way or another, as are everyone else in the sequence. The bond with the sports star has been enlarged and changed.

One more:

Sports star
Rock star
Pop star
Porn star
DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

The abba rhyme pattern doesn’t feel finished – there’s no sequence established by abb:

Sports star
Rock star
Pop star

It doesn’t feel finished (odd number of lines) and it doesn’t have a destination. When we hear the fourth element,

Sports star
Rock star
Pop star
Porn star

it still doesn’t feel finished. There’s not enough pattern established by abba. It could easily move on to

a or a
b b
b b
a a
b c
b c

Then it would feel finished.

Abba feels sub-dominant, like it’s still going somewhere. The lack of resolution creates an open, unstable feeling, so the four lines slip easily into the DUM da section without interruption creating a unit of all five lines. Pretty much, you keep going until the very last DUM. It feels like one whole thing.

Sports star
Rock star
Pop star
Porn star
DUM da da DUM da da DUM DUM DUM

And the rhyme scheme also creates a vague, unstable relationship between our characters. They’re, restless, disconnected.

Motion creates e-motion. And on more than one level. The way you make something move, the motion you create, in and of itself creates emotion. It makes you feel like you’re moving or stopping. It makes you feel stable or unstable. And it connects concepts. Yup, you can say a lot with a rhyme scheme, if you pay attention to it and understand what it can do for your song.

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I did a master class in Perth, Australia and worked on a song with Rachel Dillon. Here are the first two verses and the chorus from her lovely song, Bellbird Hill:

We grew up together in the same small town a
Standing watching summer storms coming down a
You with hair of gold and a will so strong b
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song b
You chased the ducks I ran from the drake c
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake c
Pretended to drive ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van d
And we ran, and we ran d

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

We had an interesting time talking about this song. We looked at the images, how they SHOW rather than TELL – creating pictures in our own heads, involving us in the song, because they’re our pictures. The earlier in the song you see them, the earlier the song becomes about you.

So let’s switch the first two lines of verse 1. The summer storms line shows us something, and creates a nice bag of dye that drips downward to color the lines below it:

Standing watching summer storms coming down a
Growing up together in the same small town a
You with hair of gold and a will so strong b
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song b
You chased the ducks I ran from the drake c
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake c
Pretended to drive ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van d
And we ran, and we ran d

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

Compare the two versions: with lines 1 and 2 switched, and without them switched. See how putting the image first drips its colors onto the ‘Growing up…” line? Almost always works better. And, because it’s the first thing we see (therefore, in a big spotlight), it colors the whole thing more deeply. Read both versions and see what you think. I’ll wait.

But we especially talked about Rachel’s use of rhyme. Her aabb verse rhyme scheme, carried for two verses, actually creates four sections, not two. It stops motion four times. A very stable feeling: lots of stops.

We tried turning both verses from aabb rhyme schemes into abab rhyme schemes to create a 4-line journey:

Standing watching summer storms coming down a
You with hair of gold and a will so strong b
Growing up together in the same small town a
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song b
You chased the ducks I ran from the drake c
Pretended to drive ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van d
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake c
And we ran, and we ran d

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

This is still stable, but you move smoothly through four lines without stopping. With abab cdcd, you don’t stop every 2 lines, and it creates two units of 4 lines, while aabb, ccdd, creates four units of 2 lines. Now they feel like verses, with the lines moving into each other. The rhyme scheme,

Then, instead of abab, we tried unrhyming the first couplet to create a less stable, more open journey, xxaa. You don’t hear any rhyme until the last syllable of the verse, ending with a surprise rhyme at the 4th line of each verse. I especially like the feel of the 2nd verse this way:

Standing watching summer storms rolling by x
Growing up together in the same small town x
You with hair of gold and a will so strong a
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song a
You chased the ducks I ran from the goose x
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake x
Pretended to drive ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van b
And we ran, and we ran b

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

Finally, we tried abba, hoping to create a more wistful feeling with the open, unstable motion it creates:

Standing watching summer storms coming down a
You with hair of gold and a will so strong b
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song b
Growing up together in the same small town a
Pretended to ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van c
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake d
You chased the ducks I chased the drake d
And we ran, and we ran c

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

I like the effect of the internal rhymes van/dam/swam in blurring the motion, helping to create a floating, nostalgic feel. Pretty neat.

A rhyme scheme can be an expressive tool. We tried four rhyme schemes on Bellbird Hill and each created a different journey – same words, just a different arrangement of rhyme scheme (motion) to create the different emotions.

It’s nice to be able to lay out the choices – to know what choices you have and how each one makes you feel. Then you can choose the one that feels best to you. But always try your options. You never know…

Have fun. Write fearlessly.