PROSODY: The Most Supremely Amazing Concept In The History Of Supremely Amazing Concepts
Not long ago I watched an interview with lyrics professor extraordinaire, Pat Pattison, with a name as clear and catchy as his insights into lyrics. It may look dry/academic, but have a click, I've lined it up at the right spot:
(Fast fact: his book "Writing Better Lyrics" is a great shitness detection tool for songwriters.)
I hate to sound like a headset-mic-wearing guru/turd, but this #lifehack changed my perception of my music, other people’s music, all forms of art, and the aesthetics decisions people make in life in general. I don’t know how I ever got by as a musician/fan without it. (It’s also a great piece of quasi-evidence to whip out when telling your friends they’re WRONG for liking something.)
It goes back to Socrates or Aristotle or one of those guys. It is simply an aesthetic principle, specifically that every aspect of a work of art should aim for and hit the same target. Or to put it slightly differently, every part of your song/painting/book should be unified by one overarching intention, and no part goes against that. Matchy, matchy, matchy. The most basic example: the bit where Garth Brooks, who is #shithouse, goes down low on the world "low" in "I got friend in low places".
I’m sure it occurs to every artist/listener on some level, but the hugeness of having it specified and brought to my attention blew my mind. Mainly because it’s the closest thing to an objective measure of the quality of art. If I ever went to the dark side and took up music criticism, it would be the only criteria I would apply - because beyond that critics just fly the flag of their personal taste. There's still a subjective assessment of the artist's intent, but it’s as bias-free as we can get.
(There's a narrower interpretation of prosody - being simply matching the emphases of lyrics and melody, also known as 'declension': see this Switched On Pop episode about Shawn Mendes's slightly-cloying-but-well-written "If I Can't Have You", as well as several famous instances of the word "somebody" being ludicrously mispronounced...
Above, L-R: SomeBODy, SomeBODEE-EE, SomeboDY)
...Which is a good microcosm of what prosody's about, but I'm talking about prosody in the wider sense.)
Now that I'm a devout Prosodist, I see prosody everywhere. Here are some very cool* examples.
(*cool in the nerdy sense that nerds use it.)
Sheila E - The Glamorous Life
A cool disco pop song that evokes the "glamorous life" of its protagonist, who is perhaps busting moves to a groove just like this one.
The chorus’s lyrics - note the stressed syllables and where the rhymes land:
She wants to live / The glamorous life
She doesn’t need / A man’s touch
She wants to live / The glamorous life
Without love / It ain’t much, it ain’t much
The first halves of each line end in soft rhymes (not cat/sat/mat, more like cat/patch/lamp) that strike the ear as being unified in intention: she’s happy in her glamorous life. But when we hit the last line, the first half ends with ‘love’ - which couldn’t rhyme less. It lands with a crashing THUD - coinciding with a big STOP in the song. The absence of love in her superficial life is the elephant in her oh so glamorous room.
As for the second half of each line, it’s ABAB - life, touch, life, much. When you have a perfect rhyme there’s a strong inference that the song is not lying or ironic. “It ain’t much” is the truth. That the phrase rhythmically breaks out of the chorus's lockstep is the stomping of the metaphorical elephant that ruins the party.
And if that wasn't hammering the point home enough: after that last line, the chorus is cut short by an entire bar = 7 bars. (This same device is used in the Beatles' Yesterday to the same effect: by taking away the expected resolution, it adds a sense of loss.) I DUNNO ABOUT YOU BUT I FIND THIS STUFF COMPLETELY AMAZING.
Another instance of non-rhymes being used to undercut the song's protagonist with cruel, cruel irony is in The Police - Every Breath You Take. Entire essays must have been written about this song's design. It portrays a stalker's mindset/routine: perfectly measured, yet so very wrong. Identical line lengths and perfect rhymes (every breath you take / make / break / fake / stake etc) and then THUD: “I’ll be watching you”: the line ends prematurely, rhymes with nothing and is just plain weird. Genius.
The Wipers - Over The Edge
A relentless track that beats you over the head; Greg Sage barks like the world’s most pissed off dog. The melody is a jagged straight line: two consecutive notes ad nauseum, stuck in some seemingly endless hellish Groundhog Day. The chords pace angrily around the dreary circuit of Em/C/Am/G - stuck in a cell with no breakable walls. It tries to get away from Em, but slides right back, like Sisyphus’s boulder. Misery.
VERSE 1: It’s not the truth I see / It’s just a mockery / Don’t need to waste my time / You know I’ve really tried / You take and never give / Make it so hard to live…” Strongly rhymed couplets labouring the point of his angry, frustrated tirade...
But then, the verse explodes with “I’m hanging on a ledge / Push me… over the EEEEEEEDDDDDDGGGGGEEEEE!” 'Edge' is the ONLY NOTE in the song that is different - a high and long scream over the chords, which have finally broken free, and tumble through a disorienting "key change chaos", like he’s falling - like he's given up clinging to that edge - suggesting that the only escape from this bleak existence is via a plummet into death or madness. Totally bleak, and intentionally so = perfect. (Fun fact: our old band Ohms' singer's demo was a cover of this song.)
Lyrically, see also the similar vibe in Joy Division - Digital: “I feel it closing in, day in, day out, day in, day out”. That “in and out” are essentially binary code, 1s and 0s = digital.
Musically, see also Jimmy Webb's classic pop song Up Up and Away - a giddy, delirious balloon ride conveyed through unexpectedly rising and falling key changes throughout.
ABBA - SOS
This one is interesting* (*in the nerdy sense). From the title down, there’s a pattern of threes. The verses have 3 bars - sad chords: vi / III / vi. (The first and third are the same... like the letters S.O.S.!) If that's too technical, You’ll hear them under the opening lines... “(vi) Where are those happy times, (III) they seem so far behind (vi)…”
Why do the threes matter? Because 99% of the time, song structures follow 4 bar sequences/powers of two. Three feels different. Three, in case you were wondering, is bigger than 2 and smaller than 4. Yes, it's true.
Even after the upbeat shift to the chorus, The Threeness remains: I, V / ii, IV / I, I = 6 chords, 3 bars. She’s saying “S.O.S.” each time she reaches the last of the bars. So eerily all-pervasive is The Threeness that I feel like ABBA are trying to transmit some subliminal occult message to the masses.
And now, for an example of BAD prosody, it's…
Queen - Hijack My Heart
Queen. Weirdos. MASTERS of prosody. So dedicated to unity of purpose are they, Brian May even LEARNED THE GOD DAMNED HARP for just one song. They took such massive artistic risks. And yet, they also released bizarrely MOR crap like this that adds no value whatsoever. They were perhaps TOO open to trying anything - especially during their 1989 'committee effect' phase.
Firstly the lyrics evoke fast cars, yet the track is sluggishly mid tempo. In the chorus he doesn't even say "Hijack my heart". No. He says the much crappier “My heart got hijacked, by you.” Passive voice? Why??? (Compare this with “Kickstart My Heart” and “Hotwire My Heart”)
The lyrics seem to fudge between two ideas. 1) Telling his lover she's so very important to him. 2) Some stupid James Bond drag-racing scenario in which “some stupid bimbo” tears off at the lights. And his heart’s supposedly hijacked by you... whoever that is. Which one hijacked his heart? Are they one and the same person? If he considers the love of his life 'some stupid bimbo', surely his problems run deeper and calls into question his judgment of character?
Prosody in our stuff
Now for the self-promotional/flagellating part of our blog roll. Prosody has guided my choices as a songwriter increasingly - every time I find myself in a Choice A vs Choice B situation (which is all the time), if I'm thinking clearly I'll have some regard to prosody. Here's a couple of times I think I got it right.
Mindstream Transference: when you’re writing a song from the POV of a member of a terrorist cult, you probably aren’t going to do the subject justice if you write linear, sensible sentences. Their fundamental insanity must be conveyed in 1st person - 3rd person would only work if being an impartial narrator, which would take us out of the action a bit. The verse chords are a long tangent, under lyrics that read like non-sequitirs, but actually describe various cult practices: it sounds mad, because it is.
The chorus moves into self-justifying talk with a stronger, more certain melody, although it still doesn’t quite align with the chords: the beginning of each line is harmonically adrift, finding its way to the chord at the end (I had to practice singing it for ages because I kept coming in on the wrong note).
Structurally, the song never stays in one place for long: there's very little repetition and its next destination is not predictable - like the character's train of thought.
Lt Naughtyman - another "warped frame of mind" song. Chaotic noise with instructional, passively-delivered lyrics, it's meant to reflect the mindset of a cop who murders an unarmed civilian; his calmness vs. the public outrage. The lyrics are from the POV of the amoral institution that suspends the killer cop in the course of business as usual, not because it cares, but because PR requires it. Hopefully the song conveys the animal, irrational chaos brimming under the surface of 'civilised' society that threatens to boil over any time.
There’s also the slow sludge of High School Was Shithouse, conveying the intolerable tedium of high school. The watery world evoked in Decompose and Swim; the chorus effect on the guitar sends the mind straight to the sea ('sea' also Nirvana “Come As You Are” music video), where I just wrote words around the idea of water. Then there's Doesn't Matter No One Cares with lyrics written start to finish, one draft, no edits - because it doesn't matter, dig? (I didn't do it that way on purpose, FYI. Accidental prosody.)
Have I ever got it wrong? Darn tootin' I have. Probably more often than I've got it right. Usually when writing lyrics, I've completely ignored the music's mood and written some random text, achieving a nice irony/intrigue, while also alleviating the need to be mood-appropriate. It opens up your subject options hugely, but probably 5/10 songs I've written will never get released precisely because this strategy didn't pay off.
So there you go. Prosody. If you made it this far then I recommend applying this thought process to the next song you hear. Just ask yourself if there's a unity of purpose running through every aspect of it. Have fun, nerds!