I’ve been mulling over the difference between songwriting and poetry writing for years, ever since I wrote my first poems in a high school creative writing class and realized that a song’s lyrics are a poem set to sonic devices. Having written poetry in an academic setting and, occasionally, publishing it, I’ve spent more time listening to music and looking for similarities, differences, and things each medium can teach writers how to write these two seemingly similar formats.
I came to the ignorant conclusion that songs were simple poems, ones that cheated by repeating the same lines over and over, drawing out words to rhyme. Songs break every rule I learned as a metrical poet. That’s not always the case, of course, just my initial thoughts on the songwriting process.
So recently I decided to take a stab at it, to see just how hard it was to A) Write lyrics, B) Create chord progressions, and C) Combine the two. I play guitar decently. It’s something I picked up a few years ago but, even now, I couldn’t tell you individual notes or complex chords. Instead, I learned the basics and how to fake my way through chords and use my ear to pick out what works and what doesn’t — similar to how one would use far-fetched slant rhymes in a poem.
No — I am not going to share any of my poetry or songs on my blog, though I do have to say that a few of the songs I’ve written are (in my opinion) more put together, better, and more effective than many of my published poems. The difference, of course, is that a song requires lots of “other things,” like different instruments, someone who can actually sing (I can’t), and someone who can play all the frills and improv stuff that makes a song memorable.
Still, the experience of songwriting has been a fun break from poetry and has taught me things about both.
Songs vs. Poems
There are many advantages and disadvantages to writing songs over poetry and vice-versa. I’m not saying these points are always the case, just something I have experienced in my own work.
Here are a few “poetic pros” (get it?!):
- Poetry is typically made to be read. On a page, a reader is able to look back at previous lines, reread entire sections, make notes, and so on. It is a much more “academic” experience for skilled readers, though most poems can be enjoyed by anybody if they sound good. This is an advantage because the poet can be more “clever.”
- The poem can get away with certain things, like stand on its own without having to match a melody. You don’t see a lot of trochaic hexameter lyrics out there, do you?
- Poets can be much more metaphorical than song writers if they choose to be. This isn’t always the case, of course, because most songs have surface meaning on top of a deeper, more thoughtful one.
- A lot of modern poetry (not that beat rap stuff all the kids are doing) doesn’t have to rhyme, whereas a song’s rhyme adds to rhythm which emphasizes certain ideas. In an unrhymed poem, diction plays a much more important role as well as tempo and flow.
And a few reasons songwriting is different than writing poetry:
- You can write a song with, like, 10 lines and repeat them all day long. It helps to have a standalone sound and instruments carrying the tune, of course. With refrains, choruses, and a few bridges, lyrics can be incredibly simple (see: pop).
- Songs are meant to be heard, not read. That said, songwriters can get away with dragging a phrase out and skipping expected stressed words and whatnot. Lyrics are driven by sound.
- It is very easy to be tacky in songwriting and get away from it as long as it sounds good and makes sense. This is an added challenge, too, especially for less-experienced songwriters.
- Another somewhat challenging aspect of songwriting is that you will likely not have the resources to create a finished product. In addition, there’s almost less to do with a song (except for personal enjoyment) than a poem.
I’m still experimenting with both forms and will update you on additional thoughts. In closing, I’d like to say that being a student of poetry, writing songs is actually a challenge. I try to draw out lines and find myself over-rhyming. Like a poet, I’m more in tune to my voice and a single instrument than an entire cacophony of noise.