Lyrically Speaking: Working in Common Meter

Don’t be depressed if people are nodding off during your best songs, their eyes crossing, their faces drooping inexorably toward the tabletops. Don’t bother spending big bucks on an exotic vacation-pilgrimage to find “inspiration.” Before you call your travel agent, try a little juggling. It could be a simple case of dull, lifeless lyric structure. A little excitement might be all you need to put your best ideas in nice, bright spotlights.  

Let’s work with common meter, a great starting point for creating a lyric and for assuring a musical match. Like the eight-bar musical unit, common meter has been the staple of songwriters, from the early troubadours to Tom Waits.  

Writing in common meter is not a goal; it is a tool. Since common meter creates expectations, you can learn to create nice little surprises, both with rhythm and with rhyme. It’s sure to get your listener’s face off the table. Here’s a piece of common meter (where RS = Rhyme Scheme, #S = Stresses): 

The níght’s a lónely nóvelétte (RS: a; #S: 4)

Drágging ón and ón (RS: b; #S: 3)

Mémoríes and óld regréts (RS: a; #S; 4) 

Línger tíll the dáwn a (RS: a; #S 3)                             

Both the rhyme and the rhythm move in an abab (alternating) structure, giving double power to our expectations, and making the expected fourth line resolve completely, though a bit dully.   

But just because you expect something to happen doesn’t mean it has to happen. Expectations can be used to make structures more interesting. A surprise can add color and interest to your songs: first let your listeners expect something—then surprise them with something different.  

First, create your own four-line common meter structure, matching mine exactly. I’ll wait… OK. Let’s start manipulating. Whatever I do to mine, you do to yours. 

Step 1: Try shortening line 4: 

The night’s a lonely novelette (RS: a;  #S: 4) 

Dragging on and on (RS: b; #S: 3) 

Memories and old regrets (RS: a; #S:4) 

Linger till dawn (RS: b; #S:2) 

This throws us off balance, hanging in the air, waiting for a resolution that never comes.  

Step 2: Now let’s make another easy move: extend line 4 by another strong stress:  

The night’s a lonely novelette (RS: a; #S: 4)

Dragging on and on (RS: b; #S: 3) 

Memories and old regrets (RS: a; #S: 4) 

That linger till the waiting dawn (RS: b; #S: 4) 

What a simple technique: all it takes is an extra two syllables inserted inside the line, one unstressed and one stressed. You can do it anytime you want. Uncross your listener’s eyes. 

Step 3: You could stop here and have a more interesting structure, but let’s keep this effect and try something more. Let’s rhyme line 4 with lines 1 and 3 instead of line 2, like this: 

The night’s a lonely novelette (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Dragging on and on (RS: b; #S: 3) 

A darkened room does not forget (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Memories and old regrets (RS: a; #S: 4) 

So far you’ve juggled phrase length and rhyme scheme. Again, you could stop here and have a more interesting structure, but you can make it even more exciting . . . 

Step 4: Let’s add another line to what we already have, make the additional line a four-stress line. Rhyme it with lines 1, 3, and 4, like this: 

The night’s a lonely novelette (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Dragging on and on (RS: b; #S: 3) 

A darkened room does not forget (RS: a; #S: 4) 

The wasted loves, the endless fret (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Memories and old regrets (RS: a; #S: 4) 

The added line turns on spotlights. We’ve set the line up specifically to get extra attention, so something important should go there. Maybe even a title. When you turn on spotlights, make sure you use them. 

Step 5: Let’s add yet another line to what we already have. Make it four stresses and rhyme it with lines 1, 3, 4, and 5. Add it inside the structure if you want to.   

The night’s a lonely novelette (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Dragging on and on (RS: b; #S: 3) 

A darkened room does not forget (RS: a; #S: 4) 

The wasted loves, the endless fret (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Rising when the sun has set (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Memories and old regrets (RS: a; #S: 4) 

We’re able to sustain all these lines, building pressure and excitement with each step without losing momentum. All this just because we’re expecting a rhyme for “on.”  

Step 6:  Let’s take one more step. Since your listener (now giving you complete attention bordering on adoration) has been expecting a rhyme for “on” all along, let’s see what will happen if, in the blaze of all these spotlights, you actually produce it.         

The night’s a lonely novelette (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Dragging on and on (RS: b; #S: 3) 

A darkened room does not forget (RS: a; #S: 4) 

The wasted loves, the endless fret (RS: a; #S: 4) 

Rising when the sun has set (RS: a; #S: 4)

Memories and old regrets (RS: a; #S: 4) 

That linger till the dawn (RS: b; #S: 3) 

Because it creates such strong expectations, common meter presents interesting structural opportunities. The more interesting your structure, the more visible those wonderful ideas will become. The more visible the ideas, the stronger the interest from your listener: head up, eyes uncrossed, life transformed… 

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