Why bother getting stress right?
The purpose of a lyric is to communicate something. An emotion a feeling or perhaps a story. For that to be put over the best way it can be, it needs to sound natural. For a lyric to sound natural and conversational, it needs to use language that we use everyday, in the way we use that language when speaking to each other.
Now every multi syllable word in the English language has an agreed stress pattern. These can be seen in a dictionary. Not only that but each multi syllable word has a melody. Some syllables are pronounced with a higher or lower pitch than others.
The reason for this is when we hear a multi syllable word for example "evenhanded"
You will notice that the stressed syllable "hand" is a higher tone than the others.
Why is this so? It is because we do not hear a multi syllable word as four separate syllables, we hear it as one entity. It is like driving a car when you turn a corner you do several things automatically without thinking about them separately. You are just thinking I am going to turn the corner. The things you need to do that happen automatically it is a learned response.
So if you hear someone speaking a foreign language it always sounds as if they are speaking really fast. The reason being you do not know the agreed stress patterns and tunes of that language, so you are hearing it as separate syllables. They are not speaking fast at all.
Now what does this mean to song writing? Several things. It means if you do not place your stressed syllables in the corresponding positions within matching meter lines, within a section of a song. You will end up with unnatural stresses, and forced rhymes. If you do not match the stresses in the same lines verse to verse, you are going to end up with a lot of melody variation between the verses, or a stumbling meter when it's read out aloud.
What about single syllable words? Normally verbs nouns and adjectives are stressed other parts of speech are not. The exception to this is some times you may want to stress a pronoun to get a particular point across. For example "it ain't ME babe" the idea being that it is not me your looking for. Because I am not going to meet your expectations.
Ok enough of the boring English lessons what to do?
Well you can sit there in silence and say each of your lines as you would say them in normal speech, then go through and underline each stressed syllable.
Then check that you have the right number of stressed syllable per line, in approximately the right places.
Note and this is important.
line length is determined by the number of stressed syllables per line.
Line length is not, I repeat not determined by the actual number of syllables in a line.
Now I don't know about you but this seems to be a boring and laborious way to go about things. So what else can you do?
You can write new lyrics to existing songs making sure the stresses all work and you can do that in your head.
Or you can get, or make yourself a series of loops. Either straight drum loops, or drums and pad, or drums and base. Then say your lyric out loud to the loop. Test the stresses, just hear them. If English is your mother tongue you will instinctively hear what is correct and what is not. So no need to go through the stress analysis on paper. Just feel the meter of it naturally.
Now this can also be done by tapping a pencil in time on the desk. It is however easier to begin with to use loops. Especially if you are writing to a groove. Less to think about.
Songs are meant to be heard and felt, not read. So it doesn't make any sense to be writing in silence. It is like writing in a vacuum. Say the words out loud, hear how they feel.
Now and here is a bonus for writing or polishing a lyric to a loop. Prosody.
Make your line FEEL the same as what you are saying.
This is achieved by how the lyric is phrased, where it is positioned in the beat.
To test this put on a drum loop in 4/4 time and recite this line to the beat.
" I feel good today"
Now the first time you recite it just say it naturally with out the drum loop.
You will hear that the natural stress of this line is.
"I feel GOOD to DAY"
So the first way we are going to try it is as a positive statement, simply it's a great day and I feel good and all is right with the world.
To FEEL this from the lyric the first stressed syllable "Good" will fall on the first beat of the bar. "I feel" are pick up notes from the previous bar. So count one two three "I feel good today" with the "I feel" as half notes on the fourth beat of the pick up bar, "good" on the first beat of the bar, "to"on the second and "day" on the third, rest on the fourth. Say it several times like that and note how it feels.
If you then try this, you can get a slightly different feel. This time count one two on the pick up bar and say "I" on the third beat and "feel" on the fourth beat, then the rest of the line the same as in example one. Now it could be saying "I" feel good today, you may not , but "I" do.
Now if in the context of your song this line is conveying I feel good today, but maybe I won't feel so good tomorrow, because today I'm drowning my sorrows, and tomorrow the hurt will come back.
Then try it like this.
Count one "I feel" as half notes on beat two, "good" on beat three, "to" on beat four, and "day" on beat one of the following bar. Now it should feel as if your actually saying "I feel good today, but". You should feel a certain doubt or anxiety to the sound of the line.
Now having said all this, if you write your own melodies you should be having an aha moment right now. Because the lyric is dictating the grove, meter and feel of the melody. You will also notice the pitch. " good" will be a higher pitch and "today" will be descending, because that is how we say it in natural speech.
This has to tell you, that if this statement is in a verse, Then in the corresponding line in the next verse, if the natural shape of the language doesn't move pitch wise in the same direction,you are going to have a melody variation. That is ok, easier if you don't, but no big deal it is done all the time. Just note that it is there, so that when you set the melody, in one verse you may be going up in a spot, and in another verse going down.
Even if you are not writing the melodies it is your right and responsibility to get the feel to the lyric that you want. So make Margin notes. For example if you need the "I feel good today" line to be simply I feel good today. Note that you want "good" on the down beat. IE, beat one of the bar.
The technical term for these phrasing techniques is "back heavy" and "front heavy" phrasing.
Front heavy being the first stressed syllable on the first best of the bar.
Back heavy being the first stressed syllable on the third beat of the bar.
When I am preparing a lyric for melody writing. I make notations on the lyric sheet, for the phrasing notation I will write ( BH) at the end of any lines I need to have that feel, the assumption is that if it's unmarked it's front heavy. This is not a convention it's just my own short hand.
So if I ask the question again: Why bother getting stress right?
The answer might well be because if you don't, you have some nice words on a page. But what you don't have is a song.
Write to drum loops it's so much easier.
Play with the phrasing to get the feel of how the lyric sounds, to match what it is saying.