Berklee Riffs: Natural Music in Language

By
Brenda Pike
September 17, 2010
Keppie Coutts encouraged students to "put the harness on the wild beast of lyric writing and take back control."
Coutts pointed students to further reading/listening they could pursue outside of class.
Student Harry Cramer, from Wellesley, Massachusetts, decodes the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a sentence.
Student Pete Melough labels the stress pattern in a sentence.
Photo by Brenda Pike
Photo by Brenda Pike
Photo by Brenda Pike
Photo by Brenda Pike

"Our brains are built for patterns," Keppie Coutts '09 told a group of high school students at Berklee's summer Songwriting Workshop

Humans' enlarged frontal cortexes allow for greater pattern recognition, Coutts elaborated. In music, this means that rhythm and rhyme is pleasing. The more a pattern is repeated, the more it will be remembered, so it's important to keep in mind when writing memorable lyrics. It also means that subtle changes in rhythm can change the meaning of what you say.

"The best way to convey your idea clearly and directly is to preserve the natural stress pattern of the language," said Coutts, "and make sure your melodic setting doesn't interfere with that."

To get a sense of that rhythm, Coutts had students label the stressed and unstressed syllables in various lyrics, such as those of "Eleanor Rigby." She pointed out certain patterns to watch out for: Verbs generally get all the stress in English. Compound words generally stress the first syllable. Pronouns are often stressed incorrectly in songs, as are -ty and -ly at the end of words.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken. The important thing is to be able to recognize them and break them intentionally, for a purpose, rather than out of ignorance. Coutts recounted an example of a song that she wrote as a student at Berklee and took into the studio with John Mayer. In "Waiting for the Avalanche," she stressed a normally unstressed word, "for." Along with professor Pat Pattison they tried again and again to change it, but in the end Mayer decided, "There's prosody in this missetting."

Reading/Listening Suggestions:

  • "Musical Language," Radiolab, NPR
  • This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin
  • The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin
  • Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks
  • Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson
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