View Full Version : Songwriting versus Poetry

05-18-2007, 04:50 AM
Is there a major difference between the songwriting and poetry? I've been thinking about tackling songwriting, but I needed more info first. Thanks!

Also, is there certain rules or guidelines to songwriting?


05-18-2007, 06:15 AM
I'm no expert, but it's all rather Through The Looking Glass...

Lyrics are by nature poetic. But poems aren't necessarily lyrical.

Just my opinion but lyrics without a melody or beat are just a poem. It doesn't matter how beautiful, they're a poem. There are tone poems that are songs though...

On a personal level(maybe very personal) I prefer lyrics that have good meter and rhyme. I don't feel that way about poetry though. I mean, straight poems don't have to rhyme for me to like them.

Easy I suppose is to just write lyrics and find someone who's good at music who just writes music. I figure that's only easy if you can find someone whose music meshes well with your lyrics, and if you can communicate well.
So yeah, hard...

Hehe, I'm just getting the ball rolling. Hey SONGWRITERS! Jump in here will ya? At least she's asking for help on a realistic level. Didn't just jump in with a poem and call it a song...

05-18-2007, 08:01 AM
Lol! Thanks for the reply! Your advice and info was very helpful! Seems like maybe I do have a shot at this songwriting genre! Also, as in all writing genres, finding someone to edit, publish, or collaborate with is half the challenge!


05-18-2007, 12:32 PM
Is there a major difference between the songwriting and poetry? I've been thinking about tackling songwriting, but I needed more info first. Thanks!

Also, is there certain rules or guidelines to songwriting?

I've always heard they're different, but I've never been sure how, but now that you ask and I think about it...

Popular songs have formulaic structure, usually something close to this:


with the chorus usually being the same each time. Musically, the verse has one melody with the chorus (usually) a second melody, and the bridge yet a third melody, and there's also often an instrumental break thrown in somewhere. Poems (at least that I recall from high school English class: if I'm going to label myself, I consider myself a songwriter but not a poet), generally don't have the repeated choruses, for one thing.

I've read a few books on songwriting and been on a few forums where it's been discussed (mostly the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.makers.songwriting). I have only vague memories of what any "rules" or "guidelines" are right now, but I know there's stuff out there.

Lol! Thanks for the reply! Your advice and info was very helpful! Seems like maybe I do have a shot at this songwriting genre! Also, as in all writing genres, finding someone to edit, publish, or collaborate with is half the challenge!

My impression is that songwriting, as far as the business of publishing and selling songs, is [even] more competitive than novels and other forms of writing. Especiallly if you only write lyrics, you're dependent on not just writing good lyrics, but getting them in front of good musical composers, who then must pitch the songs to popular artists looking for good songs. There are apparently a lot more lyricists than music composers, and of course lots of scams, such as "We'll put your lyrics to music and make it a hit song for only hundreds of dollars!"

I've written songs off and on for years just for the fun and experience, without any expectations (which has been fortunate). But it's easy enough to "publish" songs on sites such as http://soundclick.com and a lot of people do just that.

05-18-2007, 06:04 PM
This subject, (or the closely related one of putting Music to Song Lyrics) has come up before in a previous thread, and has two different parts to the question, although it can be said from the start that Songwritng and getting a Song Published and Recorded is far more complicated (and expensive then merely writing a Poem

Relative to the writing of one vs the other, one must recognize that Poetry and Songwriting have different purposes. Poems are meant to take all forms of experience (both internal and external) and put them in an organized form that will communicate with a reader on multiple levels, by recreating universal experience, so that it might provoke thought or emotion or understanding on multiple levels.

Although Poems can can draw from "Personal" experience, they are more properly suited to dealing with classical questions of Life, Death, History, Conflict, Philosophy, Social Criticism and various moral and ethical issues, and all are most effective if they are presented on a universal level.

The forms that Poems can take are almost unlimited as long as the Basic elements of craftsmanship are employed encompassing Purpose, (whether it be description, analysis , or expression of an emotional or intellectual response to experience), Focus which centers on a single subject, and be bounded by Unities of Expression, Thought, and Image, which must end in a Denouement or Outcome that Unites the whole, and they can encompass such complexity because they may be examined at leisure and returned to over and over again to capture subtleties of meaning.

Song Lyrics are much more limited as their "primary purpose" is to provide Entertainment and Pleasure by provoking emotional response through describing Personal Interactions, providing Social Criticism, or communicating Feeling. This may sound roughly similar to the goals of poetry, but "Lyrics", because they must be grasped and absorbed at a rapid pace, are generally limited to a single theme that can be responded to on an emotional or direct level without requiring (or encouraging) thought beyond the basic message, although other levels and any subliminal messages may be generated or otherwise carried by the music itself.

Moreover "Traditional Lyrics' were and are generally encumbered by the necessity of regular Rhythms, Rhyme and a fairly standard over all structure of Verse-Chorus- Bridge-Chorus-Verse-Chorus or variations thereof, which would generally NOT be considered appropriate to Poetry.

Keeping these distinctions in mind, one must remember that composing music is a distinct skill, in and of itself, and may exist, with or without being associated with any lyrics, so that if it is the music that comes first, then it is the lyrics that must conform while if the lyrics come first the reverse is true,

It is at this point that the distinctions between Poetry and a Lyric, which is written to be set to Music, become extremely important because Poetry need not be either rhythmical or lyrical, (or at least may be irregular in its patterns), thus making it more difficult to match with musical rythems that must conform to styles or patterns reflecting various musical genres and often be dancable in order conform with public expectations.

For myself, and because of that, I find that I write my Song Lyrics with definate Melody Lines and Structure in mind, even though I try to keep the Music I write for them open enough to be used with a large variety of arrangements so that they may work in several genres, limited, primarily to their subject matter.

Moreover, I would contend that no part of this process is likely to come easily or quickly, no matter what latent skills one might be born with it, because each aspect represents a craft which requires a great degree of dedication, and discipline to PERFECT on its own, (beyond minimum levels), and requires even more of the same to merge with the other aspects smoothly.

Finding a collaborator, can, indeed, simplify the process, but finding one who's on the same page as you as to your goals, while not impossible, is no small task in and of itself, and that's just the beginning of the business end of the process.

If you're only interest in producing an end product that can be performed by yourself of others, the process can end there, but if your goal is to make money off of it, there is much more to be done.

With a Poem, You can simply write it, research the Markets, and keep sending it in, (at the cost of a few stamps) and hope for an acceptance, (Which, for the most part will reward you by payment in copies)

With a Song, the process is not nearly that straight forward, for once the lyric and is written and set to music, it must be MARKETED and SOLD and that means putting it in a "Demo" form so that it can be submitted to Publishers, which, even if you can do it yourself, can be expensive in time, effort and money.

If you have to rely on others, It can cost $200 to $500 to have each "Professional" demo done and then will require that that demo be shopped around to various Publishers in hopes it will be given a Publishing contract, (which should not be negotiated without the guidance of a lawyer, and will probably cost another $300-$500) and provides NO guarantee that the song will ever be recorded and released to the public, (although that, in fact, is the Publishers job) and it cannot earn you any money until it is.

Even after, it's recorded, one has to depend on the changing tastes of the public as to whether it will have any success.

There is no doubt that such success can bring far more rewards than any individual Poem, or even books of Poetry, can, but it is FAR more difficult to achieve.

Hope this answers your question.

Jim Hoye, (JRH)

P.S. Posting a song on U-tube, MySpace, Acid Planet, or any other Computer Venue is simply "Performance" and NOT "Publication" as no provision is made for Sale, Profit, or Protection of Rights On the other hand, posting in that manner, without proper Copyright protection , (and notification of it) is an open invitation to having anything of potential value, ripped off. so BEWARE.

05-28-2007, 09:53 PM
Well, having written (and occasionally performed) my own songs - though never officially published... and in recent days become interested in poetry... and then trying to write songs again, I'd say the words already written above are true regarding the relatively open liberty you have with a poem as opposed to a song.
I find it all really fascinating, and cannot offer any real expert input here, only that both are attractive - plus I play guitar, so for songs you have the music to consider, fitting them all together. It is a challenge indeed.
If that isn't enough, I've lately learned that there is such a thing as 'audio poetry' which idea I like a lot but realize it is not really song. Basically setting your poetry to some sort of music.
Again, I don't say this as an expert, but I suppose with a poem you can let the words stand on their own strength, while with a song the music should be at least as interesting as the words, or at most minimal provide decent support to the words. Also, say, in a performance, the words to a song may sometimes be played with, bent, stretched, substituted, mumbled (in the event of memory lapse). I doubt a live reading of a poem will allow such slips.
well, I'm getting lost now, so take what applies and discard the senseless.
I've also worked most lately on purely instrumental pieces, and I believe that this is also a fertile ground for poetry, or at least the feel or idea of poetry, without words.
Now I'm getting all excited...

Anthony Ravenscroft
05-28-2007, 10:38 PM
A song is not a poem; a poem is not a song. There are a few overlaps, being they're both "lyric forms."

A poem is not necessarily meant to be read aloud. A song that never leaves the page is dead.

A poem can refer to itself in various ways. A song tends to baldly repeat whole big chunks -- not unusually, the repetition is the bulk of it.

Some very catchy tunes are utterly ludicrous when recited or printed.

05-28-2007, 11:12 PM
One generally begins visually, the other audibly.

A song could have as a chorus,

Oooh, baby baby baby,
woo hoo hoo
ohhh, you turn me on,
I love you so,
ooh la la la la la

This could be repeated until fading - you could have backup singers harmonizing, musicians adlibbing.

For a poem, you'd want to find another way to say it.

If I've been writing poetry then try to write song lyrics it takes some real effort to think audio rather than visual.
And the reverse is equally true.

05-30-2007, 07:02 PM
They were once the same thing. They grew apart, like blues and jazz and rock&roll.
A major difference at present day is that the music and meter has been squeezed out of poetry...not to mention the rhyme. Songs are more like poetry than current poetry is.
A major criterion for poetry is not formal structure, but metaphor. The whole "not mean, but be" thing. A GREAT many modern poems don't have this. If you removed the hard returns they would read as an essay. Whereas a great many songs are extremely poetic.

And of course, there is rhyme. Rare in current poetry, 99% neccesary in songs. (I say 99% because not all songs rhyme-- a couple of Brinsley Schwartz songs come to mind, but there are lot of more recent examples.

It's a rare poem that has much music in it anymore, but there are a lot of songs written every year that are major contributions to poetry. Louis Untermeyer once told me that he thought poetry as such was moribund and that rock lyrics were the true metier of the age.

05-30-2007, 07:30 PM
[quote=JRH;1341937] Wow. JRH that was a fascinating and very informative post. Beautifully said.

05-30-2007, 08:31 PM
When it's all said and done, the only thing that really matters: how does it sound? How does it feel? How does it look? How does it read? Is it something you can put music to, or envision music? Is it something you can write or type out on a piece of paper and read it aloud and it just somehow works as it is, and music may do it more damage than good?
Okay, that's more than one thing... Wherever you answer positive to the Its, then you can call it what It most closely resembles.

Again, from personal experience, I feel I can whip out a half-decent song pretty easy, whereas poetry creates more doubt and hesitation. On the other hand I love to just start off with a couple words and see where they lead, see what they sound like together, play with textures, without worry about what the words might mean.
Sometimes I'll open my notebook with the conscious intent of writing poetry, but end up with lines that plead for rhymed guidance, and I begin to hear guitars and chords and maybe a rough melody. And it becomes a potential song.
It works the other way too. Sometimes I sit down with intent to write song lyrics but it just doesn't come together, but I see where it could go in other directions, become something else, the words themselves hint of a stand alone quality.
Of course, lots of times, I don't come up with song or poetry, just a bunch of scribbled mess - most of the time, really...

And I have that terrible feeling that the main point of this post fell to the wayside and wandered off into the woods... better go try and find it.

05-30-2007, 10:24 PM
I think it also depends on if you already have a tune or background music that you're trying to put words to. If the music is already telling a story, adding words is like painting by numbers. Poetry starts with a blank canvas and relies on itself to create an impact on the reader. Songs rely on a blending of words and music, so the words serve a different function. It's kind of like if you're chosing a wine to drink by itself, you'll want certain qualities, but if you're choosing a wine to go with fish for dinner, you'll probably want to choose other qualities.

I'd suggest analyzing some of your favorite songs and ask yourself why you like them so much, then try to incorporate those things in your own songs. Do the verses vary on the same theme? Does the writer tell a story? Does the writer have a point? Are the lyrics derivative of the music? Do the songs have alot of words or only a few? Etcetereeee, Etceteraaaahhh.

05-30-2007, 10:48 PM
I think it also depends on if you already have a tune or background music that you're trying to put words to. If the music is already telling a story, adding words is like painting by numbers.

Excellent point.

Came back to add that it just depends.
Four possibilities came to mind:
1. You have a song that is obviously not a poem.
2. You have a poem that will not work as a song.
3. You have something that sits at a place where it could go either way.
4. You have something that covers both.