Happy Birthday From Me! I inaugurate this new blog with a post combining some new creative work of mine with an exercise drawn from the work. This “dry lyric” is a kind of songwriter’s hymn: a non-denominational, spiritually open-ended, gender-neutral invocation of the higher purpose we pursue as songwriters. (Music still to come.)
As I wrote the piece, I began to pay attention to some details of syllabic rhythm, as discussed in my book Songwriting Strategies. By the time I finished, I had challenged myself to use all of a certain subset of rhythmic patterns at least once in the song. I then wrote up this challenge as an exercise for fellow writers, the pedagogical “shadow” of the song. That’s kind of the way I roll now. Read through the song lyric, note the technical challenge I tackled, then if so moved write a new song yourself that tackles that challenge or spins off from it to one of your own liking and constructive bemusement. Happy Birthday from me!
A Songwriter’s Prayer
©2014 Mark Simos/Devachan Music (BMI).
CHORUS: syllabic rhythm
Thy Holy Name we shall exalt u/u/u/u/ a
In every corner of Heaven’s vault u/u/uu/u/ b
In tone and chord, word, thought, beat, sound u/u/ // / // / a’
Our work not done till the Circle’s round u/u/uu/u/ b
Since You see even the sparrow fall u/u/uu/u/ b a
Our task: the questions we ask of all u/u/uu/u/ b a
No passing moment, fair or fell u/u/u/u/ a b
Unworthy for us in song to tell u/uu/u/u/ c c
When it comes out right let us delight uu/u/u/u/ d
Yet darkness too a spark can ignite u/u/u/uu/ e
In silence loud—truth can ring u/u/ /u/ a’
We sing the song of every thing u/u/u/u/ a
We sing the song of everything u/u/u/u // a’’
The Exercise Born From The Work
The Playground: (constraint or limitations on structure)
Iambic tetrameter: four-stress line, with an upbeat syllable, ending on stressed syllable
Each stress can be 0?, 1, or 2 weak stresses
The Attending Task: (what you learn to pay more attention to)
Secondary patterns formed by the subsidiary lyric rhythm
The Challenge: Placement of triplets
Intersperse, throughout the lines, lines that place a triplet on each of the four beats in turn, as well as grounding lines with no triplets
Light to heavy: a stressed or unstressed syllable can demote/promote to a secondary
Use this in a spotlight position
Have one spot in the song where the unstressed syllable drops – a caesura
Make it meaningful: render into caesura what is caesurest
I did not begin this song lyric with the challenge in mind. I was more than halfway through the second stanza—on the word “unworthy”—when I realized I was paying attention to the placement of the triplet in the rhythm, but hadn’t committed to making the variations in these rhythms, line by line, an intentional pattern. I also had used only one of the variations at that point. I then committed myself to these new challenges in finishing the song.
This yields three discoveries for me:
- The best of our challenges emerge in the work itself. Just as structure can be emergent, in the work of the writer or in the listener’s ear, so can those self-challenges by which we build our skills. True, you can start a creative task with a known challenge, set by yourself or by others—a teacher or coach. But far more potent are challenges that only occur to you in creating the work itself. Working this way, something of this emergent quality, this captured epiphany, remains as a chaotic undercurrent in the fabric of the work, there to be experienced by the attentive listener.
- This is a “tour challenge”: use all combinations of an element or resource throughout the work. The nature of this sort of challenge is that the patterns formed by the resource of attention (in this case, lyric or rather syllabic rhythm) must be to some extent “through-composed” rather than repeating. That is, if I want to use all of:
u / u / u / u /
u u / u / u / u /
u / u u / u / u /
u / u / u u / u /
u / u / u / u u /
then I set conditions for work that will not be symmetrical or repeating. For this to be easy on the ear, we need an ancillary, more obvious consistent structure or pattern enforcing regularity against which this more chaotic patterning will counterpoint. In this case, those ancillary structures are the aabb rhyme scheme and four-stress line length patterns of the stanzas.
- In a challenge used for real rather than academic or textbook creative work, there must be room for a relaxation of restrictions. That means, instead of requiring endless permutations of too many variables, you pick one point of focus for the combinatorial exercise (in this case, use triplets in each position and in no position). You exclude certain other possibilities: in this case, there is never more than one triplet in a line. (Otherwise there would be not 5 but 16 variations to include.) Limitation is the crucible wherein style is formed. You allow some other detailed variations to occur just a single time in the work: in this case, one line without an unstressed syllable (u / u / / u /); and one where either a stressed or unstressed syllable is shifted to a secondary. These one-time occurrences (or “events,” to use a concept I first heard from John Mayer) are placed in spotlight positions, so that they resonate as both purposeful and meaningful.