This is Part two of my Lyric Writing guide. Here you will learn how to accompany words by writing alternate lyrics.
It is important not to mistake alternate lyrics with cover songs. There are many ways to cover a song, you can alter the lyrics slightly to modernize it like in the Disturbed cover of Tears For Fear’s “Shout”. You can also alter the tune slightly as seen in Madonna’s version of Don MacLean’s “American Pie” or Sheryl Crow’s cover of Guns n Rose’s “Sweet Child o’ Mine” [also altered to change the voice from male to female]. You notice that the song in essence stays the same, both lyrically and melodically. For more examples of cover songs, see the reference to ‘Triple M’s Musical Challenge’ in Part 1 of this guide.
What are they?
Alternate lyrics use both the melodic and lyric arrangement of a pre-existing song. The ‘new’ lyrics are sung to the same melody, and in the same manner as the original song. This process is not only used by novices, there are a number of established artists that use this practice.
Why write alternate lyrics?
Many novices use this practice as a tool to help the learning process of combining words with music. As for established artists, well there are several reasons why – some possible reasons are as follows.
* One of the most common forms of alternate lyrics are parodies. Check out any of Weird Al Yankovic’s work. Some of his titles include ‘Amish Paradise’ (“Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio); ‘It’s all about the Pentiums’ (“It’s all about the Benjamin’s” by Sean Combs, Notorious B.I.G, Sean Jacobs, et al); ‘Constipated’ (“Complicated” by Avril Lavinge).
* Alternate lyrics can be used to add a little ‘flair’ to a live performance, or break the monotony of playing the ‘same’ song every night whilst on tour. This can be seen in the Guns n Roses track “Don’t Cry” [both versions can be found on the ‘Use Your Illusions’ albums].
* Perhaps too much was written in the original song draft and the writer adapted the excess to make a ‘new’ track. Or possibly the writer was unable to decide on a particular angle on the song, and continued to alter the song until they found something they were happy with. This can be seen in the Staind song “Outside”, you can find one of the original versions of this song through a simple search on the ‘net.
It is probably best when you first attempt to write alternate lyrics, to choose a song that you are familiar with. When choosing a song, try to pick a melody you know well. To start with, examine the lyrics, making note of patterns such as rhyme schemes and syllable count. What do I mean by this? Look for which line ends rhyme together and whether there is a pattern to it. Count the number of syllables in each line and see if there is any intentional design to them (note not all will have this, but it is important to take note of what is there).
* — * Make sure you know the song well, listen to it 100 times if need be. You need to be able to not only call the melody to mind but also how the lyrics are placed and sung.
What are you going to write about? You will need to have a clear idea of what you are going to write about. If you are going to write a parody, what topic are you going to use? Jot down any ideas and thoughts you could cover in the song, use something like the word association exercises in Part 1 of this series. If you decide to do a more serious song, jot down some ideas/words, etc that come to mind – this can help you when it comes to the writing of the lyrics.
Now I can’t tell you exactly how to go about the actual writing process. Everyone has their own style and methods, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure how I write, it just comes to me. I can however, give you some pointers to keep in mind when it comes to writing alternate lyrics.
Hints and Tips
# I mentioned earlier to take note of the syllable count. By keeping this count in mind you will be able to keep pace with the original song. Keep a copy of the lyrics close by for easy reference if it makes it easier for you. I’ve noticed a couple of examples in my travels have disregarded this, ending disastrously for the song. The reason this happens is because the ‘beat’ [or syllable count] for the lyrics has been disrupted, throwing out the flow of the song. For example, if the original lyrics go: 7/8/7/7 and your alternate lyrics go 5/6/5/7; you can tell straight away that there is going to be some problems in the flow of the ‘new’ song. This may take a little more time and planning in the writing of the lyrics, but if you stick with the ‘format’ of the original song your lyrics will thank you for it.
There is an exception to every rule, and there is one to this. You can sometimes get away with being one syllable out either side of the actual count. Though you need to be careful when doing this because it has a chance of not working. This will not work for all songs, so you will need to be careful when applying it. This technique can help give you a little more freedom to work with, however, I strongly suggest leaving this technique until you are more familiar with lyric writing.
# If a lyric has a specific rhyme scheme, try and stick with it. Just like poetry there are different styles that are used. If a piece uses freestyle rhyme, you may be able to get away with using free verse for your lyrics.
# Try to stay away from the lines or phrases used in the original song especially if you are doing something drastic like converting rock influenced lyrics into that of say Christian lyrics. That in itself could be a very effective song [genre mixing is very popular these days] but only if it is done correctly. Remember what you are writing about, I recently saw a piece that tried to convert a piece about street racing into a Christian based song. This would have been very effective if they didn’t use the same phrases that were in the original song that conflicted with what the author was trying to say.
# You can, if you like, use a prompt from the original song if you are writing about a similar topic. As in the first examples given on types of alternate lyrics, both the Guns n Roses and Staind songs mentioned, the chorus’ stay the same and ties the two sets of lyrics together. You can use a line or two if you like to ‘tie’ your piece to the original song and to compliment to your ‘new’ song.
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By using alternate lyrics you are able to teach yourself how to accompany words with music. Once you feel comfortable with the accompanying of words and music in this form, you can take a go at a little harder technique found in the next Part 3 of this series, Sampling and Ghost Songs.