Posted by: Debra Alexander / wordmavenmusic | January 15, 2011

The Chassis Of A Lyric

On Thursday morning, I switched on Jazz FM 91, as I usually do when I make my coffee, and was delighted to hear John Donabie interview David Basskin about “what goes on under the hood of a jazz tune.”

David talked about “the changes,” and focused primarily on the sequence of chords underlying “I’ve Got Rhythm.” This chord progression is one of the most ubiquitous in the genre; the chords are building blocks for hundreds of tunes. He elaborated on the skill required for all jazz instrumentalists to know these changes inside and out, to be able to play them in all keys, to understand the scales they’re derived from, etc., as well as to be able to “swing” and breathe life into everything they play. The “changes” are working tools of the jazz musician.

The working tools of the lyricist are, of course, words. To quote the great educator/lyricist/composer Sheila Davis, “It takes the talent of a lyricist to turn a melody into a song the world can sing.”  The equivalent of “the changes” to a lyricist are the three major song forms: AAA (verse, verse, verse), V/C (verse/chorus), and AABA (verse, verse, bridge, verse). Whether writing to a given melody, or writing words that will later be set to a melody, the lyricist has to know how to state the main idea within one of these structures (or a variation of it), give it a beginning, a middle, and an end, and put the title in the right spot in appropriate sections.

To answer the question, “What’s going on under the hood of a great lyric?”, we need to look inside the basic structural framework to the construction of each line, and beyond that, to the use of each word. If the artistry of a solo jazz instrumentalist emerges in the combination of notes and rhythms chosen to move from one chord to the next, the artistry of a lyricist is revealed through a combination of plot development techniques, figurative language, rhyme, and other sound effects achieved with words. A lyricist uses these techniques to breathe life into a song, while maintaining a conversational tone and conveying the essence of a universal idea intended to spark an emotional response—all within a piece that takes a mere 3 or 4 minutes to sing.

In upcoming posts we’ll look at various techniques that use sound to highlight emotion and underscore meaning of a lyric.


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