Phonemic Lyric


phoneme (from the Greekφώνημαphōnēma, “a sound uttered”)

Be careful when changing the lyrics to a near-completed song.

There are two factors that contribute to successful lyric writing: meaning and phoneme. The meaning of a word or phrase is the most obvious factor when writing, but the best songwriters realize the importance of how a word sounds. What a word sounds like—the linguistic timbre—needs to be seen as another aspect of the instrumentation. A word can provide a percussive snap to a phrase, with the clicks and shooshes that propel a song.

Luckily, the balancing of meaning and phoneme (i.e. the proper writing of lyrics) is done best when done instinctively. The sound should seem “right” in the context of a piece of music, and make sense only after the second pass. But it’s when you go back to revise lyrics that you risk losing the instictive sound that caused you to choose words in the first place.

Phoneme, for some artists, are more important than meaning. Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is a master at using words as instruments in and of themselves:

“What I’ve got you’ve got to get it put it in you
What I’ve got you’ve got to get it put it in you
What I’ve got you’ve got to get it put it in you
Reeling with the feeling don’t stop continue”

“Black bandana, sweet Louisiana
Robbin’ on a bank in the state of Indiana
She’s a runner, rebel and a stunner
Oh her merry way sayin’ baby whatcha gonna”

“Sweetheart is bleeding in the snowcone
So smart she’s leading me to ozone
Music the great communicator
Use two sticks to make it in the nature”

Kiedis is ALL phoneme. But one musician that consistently strikes a nice balance between phoneme and meaning is Paul Simon. Here’s an example from his song “Boy in the Bubble”:

It’s a turn-around jump shot
It’s everybody jump start
It’s, every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,
Medicine is magical and magical is art think of
The Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart, and I believe…

The point is, think long and hard about the sound of a word before you remove it from a song. People hear things before they understand it, and we all know how important first impressions are…


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