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    A Lyric or a Poem?

    Posted on August 20, 2009 by Paul | 0 Comments | Jump to Comments Box Below

    A Lyric or a Poem?

    by Paul Baloche

    What’s the difference between a lyric and a poem? A poem may be a lyric, but a lyric isn’t necessarily a poem. Take, for example, the chorus of the favorite Christmas carol:

    GlO o-o-o-o O o-o-o-o O o-o-o-o O ria!
    In excelsis Deo!
    GlO o-o-o-o O o-o-o-o O o-o-o-o O ria!
    In excelsis De-e-O!

    This is one of the world’s great lyrics, but it’s a lousy poem.

    Even though poetry and lyrics are not necessarily the same thing, this doesn’t mean that lyrics can’t be poetic. Look at some definitions from the Encarta World English Dictionary:

    • POET: Somebody imaginative or creative or who possesses great skill and artistry and is able to produce beautiful things
    • POETIC: having qualities usually associated with poetry, especially in being gracefully expressive, romantically beautiful, or elevated and uplifting
    • POETRY: literary work written in verse, in particular verse writing of high quality, great beauty, emotional sincerity or intensity, or profound insight
    • WRITING WITH POETIC EFFECT: a piece of writing that has the imaginative, rhythmic or metaphorical qualities and the intensity usually associated with a poem

    Doesn’t that describe what you want your lyrics to be? Even simple worship song lyrics, though usually not lofty, are often imaginative, metaphorical and insightful. The best writers find unusual, surprising ways of saying things. But be careful. In trying to make your lyrics poetic or lyrical, don’t lose your clarity. Don’t get so “arty” that you’re out there somewhere by yourself in a galaxy far away. It takes work, but a good lyricist finds the right balance.

    The Sound of Words

    Lyrics are meant to be heard, not read silently off the printed page, so it matters a great deal how they make the human voice sound. Some words just sing better than others. They ring better. They sound better and they feel better as you sing them. It isn’t enough just to rhyme the ends of lines; it’s important how all the words sound, especially the sustained ones, and most especially the higher sustained ones.

    • Words that make the singer sound good will also feel good in the singer’s mouth and mask. The long tones will ring and every syllable will roll easily off the tongue. The vowels will vibrate in the face and give a wonderful resonance to the voice. If you don’t think about this when you write your lyrics, singers may be less apt to want to sing the song, even though they may not be able to tell you why.
    • Some vowel sounds are great on high long tomes while others should be avoided if possible. No vowels sound bad, but the so-called “pure” vowel sounds ah, ay, ee, oh, and u, resonate and feel better than the short vowel sounds, as in cat, pet, sit, look and much. Even some of the latter are brighter than others. (Long i is a diphthong, which means that it has more than one sound. Most of us pronounce it ah-ee. This ah is brighter than an ordinary ah, and most singers hold it out and fade into the ee at the last moment.) Of course you can’t just decide to use only the pure sounds and exclude the others, because you can’t communicate very well in English without using all of them. But you can try to use the more resonant vowel sounds wherever possible, especially on the long high notes of loud, bright songs. Some of the more muted sounds may be desirable on long high notes of quiet songs.
    • Now let’s consider the consonants. Say them aloud, not their names but their sounds: Some of them have length and sound softer than the others (f, l, v, w, y,  z.)
    • The tonal consonants m and n are almost like vowels, in that they can be held out and hummed.
    • The plosive consonants, b, ch, d, g, h, j, k, p, and t, are shorter. You can’t hold them longer because there’s nothing there to hold onto. All the consonants sound good either loud or soft, but the plosives are especially suited to strong statements.
    • Some consonants can go either way: S and sh, sung loudly with strong accents, can sound like crashing cymbals: “Lightning strikes and shouts Your worth!” Sung quietly and smoothly, they sound like soft breezes.

    Caution: Don’t go overboard with all this. Of course you can’t get all the vowels and consonants smooth or hard or tonal — don’t even try — you could drive yourself crazy, or at least get a severe case of writer’s block; but in your RE-writing, try to replace words that clash with the feeling you want to convey.

    Technical Terms

    By the way, although this is basically a blue-collar course, we’ll occasionally throw in a few highfalutin technical terms, just to show off. Don’t worry if you don’t remember them all. They are just handles to help us catalog and discuss the musical or lyrical devices they describe.

    For instance, what is the definition of melisma?

    A. smooth melody                                             B. poor melody

    C. more than one note on a syllable                D. stomach growling

    This sounds like a trivia quiz. Knowing the answer won’t help you write better songs, but if you’re using this book in a class, it will help your professor know if you’ve read the material. (The answer is C.)

    This is an excerpt from the book “God Songs” written by Paul Baloche and Jimmy and Carol Owens.  Available at

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