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“A song doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does need rhythm.”

To approach the idea obliquely, we might start with a question, “What makes a poem a poem?” With all of the iconoclasts who have done new things with poetry over the last century, it becomes a difficult question to answer. With all of the free verse out there, a poem certainly doesn’t have to rhyme or use other poetic devices such as alliteration or metaphor. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has a definition, which may be longer than this book, but it boils down to saying that a poem in some way uses lines as design elements whether they be aural and metrical or visual on the page; whereas, prose uses sentences as the base elements. So, poetry itself does not have to have a meter or rhythm these days.

Does a song have to have a rhythm? Technically, no. It would be a matter of putting some of these more modern poetic forms to music. Would the music have a set melody with repetition in verses? Probably not, if such a structure would not fit the words. Would most people recognize this as a song? No more than most people easily acknowledge a composition in modern free verse that has no rhythm to it as a poem. The “experts” might call such a work a song. Your average Joe isn’t an expert, but he knows what he likes. What the average Joe likes is a song that conforms to expectations. It has rhythm, meter, melody, verses, rhyme, and often a chorus. You can get away with a song that doesn’t have a chorus. You might be able to pull off a song without rhyme. If your audience is John Q. Public and family, they will probably rebel when you remove other elements that they expect in a song.

Jez Lowe once wrote a song that was a forty-line ballad. He loved the song as he had written it, but it wasn’t working. The audience’s eyes were glazing after a certain number of verses. As much as he hated to do it, he reworked it into a more traditional style of folk song. He added a repeating chorus. He cut it from forty substantive lines to about fifteen. Since those alterations, the song has taken off and been his most covered song. He met the audience’s expectations and was rewarded for it. This brings us back to the main point of this tip, you can break all the rules if you want to, but you’d better know how much your audience will stand.

Tip Origin: Anne Hills

Status: Complete


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