Welcome to the second tool in my series on Songwriting Tools. And thanks again for signing up!
Scansion is another general lyric tool and is particularly important. It’s the principle of preserving the natural shape of language and has a lot to do with getting the marriage of words to music right.
While there are few rules in songwriting – only tools – squeezing in an unnatural rhyme or a set meaning into a line can often undermine the emotional impact of your writing. Conversely, getting the scansion or words to music right will result in a much stronger emotional impact of your song. This might be particularly important if you are writing in a lyric-driven genre.
How scansion works
Each word in the dictionary has a natural rhythm comprised of stressed and unstressed syllables. When you combine words into a line this has a natural rhythm or ‘shape’. This means that finding the best line for your song isn’t just a matter of figuring out the rhyme scheme, but also the rhythm scheme of your song. It impacts what happens when we reach for the rhyming dictionary, what choices we make with the possible words we find.
Simiarlarly, each melody has a natural rhythm comprised of stressed and unstressed beats according to where they sit in the bar. Stressed beats are (in a 4/4 signature) beats 1 and 3. Unstressed beats are beats 2 and 4.
When the shape of our words perfectly matches the shape of our melody we have the best chance to communicate the full emotional impact of our lyrics.
How to get the scansion right
I suggest the following three-step process:
- Figure out the rhythm of the melody
- Figure out the rhythm of a possible lyric
- Do they match? If no, try another line or melody. If they match your scansion is good.
Note step 1 and 2 can be switched.
If we have a melody with a rhythm of:
“da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM”
da = an unstressed beat in the melody
DUM = a stressed beat in the melody
And the lyric we are thinking about using is:
“I know that love can bring changes”, which has a natural rhythm of:
“da DUM da DUM da DUM DUM da”
This works well for the first six syllables of the line, but falls apart when we get to the word “Changes”. Try saying it with the stressed and unstressed sylables switched around i.e. “da DUM” rather than its natural shape, “DUM da”. This is what setting it to our existing melody would want us to do.
So we now have three choices:
- Live with the imperfect match. This is clearly my least favored option.
- Rewrite the melody to match our lyric
This can be done by simply adding a note or two or nudging the syllables of our line to land on the right stressed/unstressed beats of our (slightly modified) new melody.
- Find another lyric that matches the melody
“A love that turned my life around” has a natural rhythm of:
“da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM”
Are there lyrics in your catalogue that you feel would benefit from getting a better scansion? If you fix it, how does this affect the overall emotional impact of the song?
I’d love to hear how you get on at email@example.com