A Songwriter’s Prayer and a Lyric Rhythm Challenge

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


Additional challenges:

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:


  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.


The Incrementalists

I’m a big proponent of starting songs from distinct “seeds”—fragments of lyric, melody, rhythm, or just strong ideas for songs. This approach is pretty much the unspoken “go to” technique pro writers use to jumpstart their writing process on a regular, even daily basis. I describe a more intentional and disciplined approach to the practice in the first chapter of my new book, Songwriting Strategies: A 360º Approach.

One of the best sources I know for lyric seeds in particular is reading. One nice perk in catching seeds from reading: You flake out on the couch all afternoon reading your latest young adult, SF or mystery guilty pleasure. When you find a good phrase on page 237, you can say to yourself, in virtuous, only slightly defensive tones: “Well, actually I’ve been working all afternoon. This is research!” (Your spouse may not buy the argument.)

Recently I was reading a cool new book— The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White—that combines a bit of time travel (my favorite) with a bit of Dan Brown-ish secret society thriller, along with quite a droll tone. In one bit of dialogue, a main character says something like, “I was never good at good, I always believed in better…” That was my seed.

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A Good Song Crying From a Song Gone Bad – Bad Song! Part IV

I hope you’ve enjoyed my thread on the joys of bad song writing. I’ve introduced the bad song exercise, as a solo, co-write, or group exercise; and the Gallery of Horrors pages for your Songwriter Toolkit.

I always like to teach things I’ve tried, and try things I’ve taught. (There’s an example of a rhetorical device called chiasmus, which is another exercise!)

So I thought I’d share one piece of creative work with you, that came out of a self-challenge that came to me for my own writing as I wrestled with the idea of bad song writing. I like to push my writing forward by setting myself challenges, then trying to write them. I sometimes make the challenges fiendishly difficult: failing is fun, when what you set out to do was outlandishly unlikely in the first place.

I love songs about songs (I call them “meta-songs”), particularly songs where a song itself is personified in some way—even the very song being sung. As I was polishing up my bad song exercise, I thought about what it would be like to be a bad song. Would the bad song know it was bad? Would it think it was good? As I played around with the concept, I switched the point of view. How about a good song trapped inside a bad song? How would that song feel about its bad-song “environs” not to mention the lout that cooked up the mess in the first place? I had my concept.

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The Gallery of Horrors – Bad Song! Part III

In Part I of this thread, I introduced a “Bad Song!” exercise you can use as an ice-breaker or warm-up. In Part II, I gave some examples of great bad songs from the media, and pointed out that a talent for bad song writing is not such a bad professional skill to have in your toolkit. Here I return to the theme of using badness as a way of opening up your creative work. I guess you could call this “I’m bad and I’m proud…” or “I wrote it bad, and hey!—that’s good…”

Taking ourselves too damn seriously can definitely get us stuck.

Supposedly, late in his career, the composer Leonard Bernstein became creatively paralyzed. When he sat down at the piano he felt whatever he came up with needed to be “worthy of Leonard Bernstein.”

Now, I’m no Leonard Bernstein. But at times I “Simos freak myself out” in a similar way. I become the victim of my steadily rising standards, if not abilities. So there’s a specific tool I use to counteract the “Bernstein effect. When I come up with a real howler—a spectacularly terrible line—instead of throwing it away and trying to forget I ever wrote it, I collect it in an ongoing list I call my Gallery of Horrors.

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Bad Song! The Professional Possibilities of Bad-dom (Ba-dum?!) Part II

In my first “Bad Song!” post, I shared a “Bad Song” exercise I’ve developed that can be used in solo writing, as an ice-breaker or warm-up in co-writing, and as a classroom or workshop exercise. The spirit of this exercise is about letting go of professional aspirations for the resulting song. Otherwise it turns into “work” and you lose the point of the exercise.

That being said…

Since I first developed the exercise, the universe has been presenting me with a steady progression of great examples of “bad song writing” (not to be confused with “bad songwriting”!) that truly are professional opportunities.

First off, there are countless TV shows, like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Frazier, 30 Rock, and the like, where bad songs are integral to the story lines. Some of these songs are side-splittingly funny, like the episode of 30 Rock (Season 5, Episode 12, “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning”) where Jack Donaghy decides to pre-record disaster relief benefit shows for disasters that haven’t happened yet. Jenna Maroney winds up singing: “Help the people the thing that happened happened to…”—which would be funny, even if she weren’t singing about “Mayhem in Mago” and the wreckage of Mel Gibson’s sex jacuzzi.

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Bad Song! The Art of Sucking On Purpose… Part I

Here’s a fun exercise. Write a bad song. On purpose.


Dull and Humorless Statement of Learning Goals. Carole King said (somewhere) that she had to write about 200 bad songs before she started writing “keepers.” She wasn’t trying to write bad songs. But her experience shows us that even great songwriters build their craft slowly and painfully, by trial and error.

While that’s always true, you can accelerate the process by doing it on purpose!

Pat Pattison compares songwriting to juggling. A great teacher of mine, movement education master Jaimen MacMillan, teaches juggling in an interesting way. He says that when we’re learning to juggle, what we’re most afraid of is dropping the ball. So he has us practice dropping the ball on purpose. We began to recognize those “tensing up” movements we made prior to dropping the ball; our juggling improves quickly through the work of turning the accidental to the intentional.

So with this exercise, we practice intentionally dropping the “songwriting ball.”

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Oligarchy and Premature Dynamics in Songwriting

People say musicians don’t necessarily have much right to weigh in about politics, at least not just by virtue of being musicians. I beg the question to viva la differ!

I think, firstly: musicians are citizens, and as such have the same right as any other citizens to speak their mind. Ah—but, so goes the argument­—they are handed an extra “megaphone” by virtue of their artistic visibility and influence. They should be careful not to use that extra resonance to actually speak their minds, support and champion their beliefs and values. Say wha’?

The “Shut Up and Sing” humiliation of the Dixie Chicks during the run-up to the Iraq invasion was not just a public shaming of that band alone, but a new brand of intimidation tactics that had the likely desired effect of stifling much other dissent in the country—including, I’m not proud to say, my own efforts, as I’ve described in my memoirette “A Coward’s Confession.”

Meanwhile, today in other news—the Supreme Court continues to re-sew the tatters and shreds of our what was once presumed a democracy into the fool’s motley of a more baldly acknowledged oligarchy—control of the state by wealth. Limits on campaign contributions by individuals are challenged and weakened; limits on contributions by corporations are next in line. Public campaign finance seems a lost cause. The prospect of endless floods of money pouring into an already compromised system of governance seems inevitable, unstoppable.

First off, note the ironic juxtaposition of the points above. Those who gain influence through sheer financial power are left unimpeded. Those who gain influence by virtue of their own artistic abilities are prevented from doing so, not by rule of law but by unabashed thuggery and brutality. (Tactics protected in their own right, by the way, as “free speech.”)

That’s music in politics. How about politics in music?

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New Writing Insights

Time Yourself! Seventeen Minutes—in Blog Posting and Songwriting

My friend and colleague Pat Pattison and I were sitting around the other day with a couple of other songwriting teachers, eating Pat’s delicious fish soup and a piece of Stilton to die for. (That’s the telling detail that puts you in the room, the descriptive paint that drips down and saturates the rest of this somewhat abstract post with sensory detail and “compelling verisimilitude.” By the way, that metaphor comes from Pat too.) We were discussing object writing, an associative, sensory writing technique Pat discusses in several of his books. He first introduced the technique in Writing Better Lyrics (Writer’s Digest Books, make sure to get the 2nd edition). This single exercise has dramatically transformed the writing practice of probably thousands of songwriters.

I’m know the creative writing world has developed hundreds of writing exercises, games, prompts, etc. I’d always assumed that Pat, having been trained in literary criticism and theory, had adapted some general creative writing techniques and exercises to the world of songwriting with object writing. But he claims it is truly his invention—and was invented specifically for songwriting. In particular, and somewhat to my surprise, he pointed out that timed writing—especially the idea of practicing object writing by writing to different lengths of time (10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute)—an integral part of the technique, is an aspect he developed.

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A Thread About Threads

The great Polish film director Kieslowski was famous for including certain scenes in multiple films. Perhaps this is because he used the same characters, or borrowed footage of certain scenes shot from multiple angles for different films and narratives. Whatever the artistic impetus, and whatever the process techniques that made this sort of magic trick doable, the effect for the attentive film-goer, especially watching multiple films over a period of time, was a kind of Cubist re-arrangement of time’s flow, causality and teleology, fate, destiny and recurrence.

You can use this technique in your songwriting work.

You can reference your other works. Not in ways requiring the auditor to go off in search of the reference to complete their experience, but as a way of weaving your work into a larger texture, tapestry. Create sequels, circles, rings, cycles. This can be approached as a learning and skill development technique, an artistic practice, and also as a kind of marketing strategy—a way of creating a narrative around the body of your work for your audience. Give someone a great first experience, then some threads to follow.

I like to say you can steal from yourself with impunity—as long as you agree in advance not to take yourself to court.

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Embrace the Mess

I’ve been reading a great book by one of the founders of Pixar, Ed Catmull: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Although he’s describing things he’s learned about fostering creativity in a large complex organization (an animation studio and technology development company), many of his lessons apply to songwriting: especially to the kinds of smaller-scale collaborative interactions that happen in co-writing, and even in solo songwriting.

Here’s one powerful insight from the book. After completing one film (Toy Story 2) on a crushing deadline, Pixar’s leadership had resolved to work everyone at a more sustainable, human-friendly pace on subsequent projects. But they found they were taking lots of time, in part because story lines kept changing all through production. On Finding Nemo they tried to change that. It didn’t work. The movie was successful, in fact very successful—the highest-grossing animated film ever. But (page 134):

“The only thing it didn’t do was transform our production process… By insisting on the importance of getting our ducks in a row early, we had come perilously close to embracing a fallacy. Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.”

There are big implications here. When we think we’re getting it all figured out, we’re often in danger of losing sight of the big picture. That’s true for any creative work, I think, happening at any scale. It certainly applies to songwriting—with a vengeance.

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