Filling a blank page

Lyrics vs Poetry – What’s The Story?

You hear songs, you see poetry.

But of course there is much more to the tale than that.

It’s probably easiest to first think about what they have in common

The basic and most noticeable difference between lyrics and poetry is that some sets of words are meant to be read and stand alone with no supports, and some sets of words are meant to be sung and are part of a whole set of other stuff, such as a voice, someone else playing instruments, the melody and the rhythm.

Therein lies the basic variation.

And so, poetry, in being designed to be read not performed, lends itself to a more linear structure, quite different to the repetition and bar structure of most of our 20th and 21st century songs.

That’s a huge distinction to start with, but also on that same basic level the two disciplines also have four main things in common…

  • The words used
  • The rhyme structures
  • The pattern and rhythm of syllables
  • The end result of a creative and artistic process

Both have a few other important things in common also: good titles, great hooks, use of lyrical ‘sounds’ within the chosen words used, and using new and refreshing ways to talk about an age old situation.

There are a lot more I am sure and as with almost everything that follows, there are always exceptions to the rules and I will be using a lot of generalisations.

So here goes with a few reasons why lyrics and poetry are not really the same thing.

Firstly, lyrics within a song are meant to invoke feelings while poetry on the other hand, is generally written to make you think about what is being said. Almost all of the following comparisons are the means of how this difference is achieved.

Poetry does not have a rigid structure enforced (except haiku for instance), which the vast majority of songs do. A song has verses, chorus, pre chorus, and a bridge, or a combination of some of these.

This is required to help the listener know where they are in the song, sonically.

Also, a songs rigid structure is for the listener’s memory, so that they can remember and repeat the song to themselves. We all like singing along to our favourite songs, and this is one of the reasons we can remember the words and the melody so easily.

Rhyme is more important in lyrics than poetry, although I suspect that this will cause many an argument.

This is because you hear a song in sections (lines, verses, chorus etc.), and the rhyme helps your brain to pick out the sections and line ends. As in the previous paragraph, this all helps us to remember those much loved songs.

Lyrics are usually more relaxed, and mimic natural speech (especially contemporary pop, rap, hip hop and rock), whereas poems generally have more complicated full sentences, and an amazing vocabulary.

When reading a poem you can read parts twice, and check back earlier in the text, but when listening to the lyrics in a song you can’t do that and have to grasp what’s going on ‘on the fly’ so to speak as you listen (unless you are reading the lyric on a page and not listening to the song).

Lyrics are very limited by time (two to maybe four minutes usually), whereas a poem can be any length at all as long as it’s not a ‘fixed form’ type of poetry (such as haiku, again).

Lyrics, when being read alone on a page, often seem lost without the melody, chords and rhythm that they were written to be an integral part of. They can appear disjointed and overly simplistic, only coming to life once they are performed with the music.

On the opposite side of this you have poems which are usually easier to comprehend as you read, and they stand alone without support.

And so to a final thought:

In 2008 poet Simon Armitage, one of the UK’s best known poets, wrote in The Guardian newspaper…

“Songwriters are not poets. Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted clichés and mixed metaphors.”

I suspect Mr Armitage has a penchant for listening to badly written songs.

And then…

In 2016 the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan. Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, said this when presenting the award…

“…for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

I know which camp I am in.

What are your thoughts on the Lyrics vs Poetry debate? Are they two completely different writing disciplines or two sides of the same coin? Let us know what you think.

Alternatively, if there are any subjects that you would like us to write about, please just tell us in the comments below or send us a message.

Amanda West is a professional lyricist specialising in music for sync licensing and runs Sheeaun Music a boutique label, publishing house and song metadata compiling business. She is also an integral part of the Online Musician team.

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