Pat's Lyric Tips

The Art of Phrasing

The Art of Phrasing: The Body Language of your Song
By Pat Pattison

I ran into “Circles” by Post Malone a bit ago and liked its vibe a lot. It’s a nice combination of floaty and solid, and for some very good reasons. I want to look at one of those reasons: how the lyric phrases are placed relative to the musical bars – their relationship to the downbeats of each bar, and their relationship to either the strong or weak bars. These relationships control how the ideas move, and so, how they feel. They create body language, a whole level of felt communication.

First, a few definitions are in order. We’ll call phrases that start on the downbeat of a bar, or pick up to the downbeat, front-heavy. Because the downbeat of the bar, in any time signature, is the strongest beat, the “heaviest” beat, all the weight of the phrase is in front. Front heavy phrases feel solid, stable. They are anchored, like a flag attached to a flagpole.

We’ll call phrases that start after the downbeat back-heavy. Think of the flag, detached from its flagpole, in motion, fluttering somewhere else. Back-heavy phrases are in motion – they feel unstable. And the later the phrase starts, the less stable it feels. (In 4/4 time, most phrases starting after beat 3 tend to function as a pickup to the next downbeat, and thus are front-heavy phrases.)

Strong and weak bars alternate, just like the beats of 4/4 time. Bar one is strong, the second, weak, alternating to create 4 and 8-bar sequences. Placing your phrases in the strong bar we’ll call strong-bar phrasing. Placing your phrases in the weak bar: weak-bar phrasing. Note that weak-bar phrasing requires the preceding strong bar to be empty.

Like back-heavy phrasing, weak-bar phrasing feels floaty, unstable. If you count a piece with weak-bar phrasing in half-time, the weak-bar phrases begin in the half-bar. In half-time, they are back-heavy! That's why weak-bar phrasing feels as unstable as back-heavy phrasing.

Now, listen to the Post Malone’s Circles:

Circles
Post Malone

We couldn't turn around

'Til we were upside down

I'll be the bad guy now

But no, I ain't too proud

I couldn't be there

Even when I tried

You don't believe it

We do this every time

Seasons change and our love went cold

Feed the flame 'cause we can't let it go

Run away, but we're running in circles

Run away, run away

I dare you to do something I'm waiting on you again

So I don't take the blame

Run away, but we're running in circles

Run away, run away, run away

Let go

I got a feeling that it's time to let go

I say so

I knew that this was doomed from the get-go

You thought that it was special, special

But it was just the sex though, the sex though

And I still hear the echoes (the echoes)

I got a feeling that it's time to let it go, let it go

Seasons change and our love went cold

Feed the flame 'cause we can't let it go

Run away, but we're running in circles

Run away, run away

I dare you to do something

I'm waiting on you again

So I don't take the blame

Run away, but we're running in circles

Run away, run away, run away

Maybe you don't understand what I'm going through

It's only me

What you got to lose?

Make up your mind, tell me

What are you gonna do?

It's only me

Let it go

Seasons change and our love went cold

Feed the flame 'cause we can't let it go

Run away, but we're running in circles

Run away, run away

I dare you to do something

I'm waiting on you again

So I don't take the blame

Run away, but we're running in circles

Run away, run away, run away

The 16-bar entry establishes the song’s feel and contour. After the two 8-bar sections, you know where you are. Specifically, you feel the 1-2-3-4 beats of 4/4 time. That’s what you tap your foot to. And you sway to the pairings of the bars: strong-bar, weak-bar, strong-bar, weak-bar, adding up to 4-bar phrases. The 4-bar phrases double into 8-bar units. Fair enough. You’ve got your bearings. You know what to expect.

As the next sequence, now familiar, begins, the strong bar is empty, and not until after the downbeat of the weak bar does the phrase begin:

Screen_Shot_2022-06-20_at_10.54.53_pm.png

Feels floaty, doesn’t it? Spooky even. Listen again, and count the bars, using “Strong 2, 3, 4, Weak 2, 3, 4 …” and note where his phrases are falling: in the weak bars, but only after the downbeat of the bar.

Like back-heavy phrasing, weak-bar phrasing feels floaty, unstable. And back-heavy in the weak bar is even floatier. Even less stable.

It will color what you have to say:

We couldn't turn around

'Til we were upside down

I'll be the bad guy now

But no, I ain't too proud

I couldn't be there

Even when I tried

You don't believe it

We do this every time

The lyric seems filled with angst, almost desperation. Look:

Screen_Shot_2022-06-20_at_10.56.42_pm.png
Screen_Shot_2022-06-20_at_10.57.24_pm.png

Now let’s try an experiment: take these lyric phrases and place them back-heavy in the strong bar instead of the in the weak bar:

The phrases still feel unstable, but note the difference in the lyric’s feeling. In the strong bar vs. the weak bar, it feels a bit more like information than like the weak bar’s cry of existential despair. Interesting: you can actually decide how you want it to feel. It simply depends on where you place your phrases.

You are in the business of creating motion, and, as you can see, motion creates e-motion. How you make it move, all by itself, creates a feeling. Back-heavy in the weak bar: pretty unstable. Drenched in regret.

Now count the bars in the next section, noticing where the phrases lie, again using “strong-bar, weak –bar,” and noticing where the phrases begin, front-heavy or back-heavy:

Seasons change and our love went cold

Feed the flame 'cause we can't let it go

Run away, but we're running in circles

Run away, run away

Now they’re all back-heavy in the strong bar, while doubling the length of the phrase. It’s an effective contrast on both counts. It feels more insistent, yet it’s still a bit unstable, avoiding the downbeats. Like our experiment, it feels a bit more solid. It maintains some of the angst and regret, yet moves us forward emotionally. Granted, there are other elements working here too, but it’s useful to focus on this one element, since it’s a compositional choice you get to make every time you write a line in a song.

Here come da judge:

I dare you to do something

I'm waiting on you again

So I don't take the blame

Screen_Shot_2022-06-20_at_11.00.58_pm.png

“Do” is on the downbeat of the strong bar. It actually anticipates it by an 8th-note, making the punch even stronger. “I dare you” starts on beat 3, but still feels like it’s picking up to the downbeat. You can feel the insistence the position gives it. Then,

Run away, but we're running in circles

Run away, run away, run away

returns to the less stable back-heavy plea, again coloring the last lines with anxiety.

Such a nice emotional journey created by the phrasing of these sections. From back-heavy in the weak-bar to back-heavy in the strong bar to front heavy in the strong bar. The phrasing alone, because of the motion it creates, takes us on a pretty intense ride.

Count out the rest of the song. It’ll be good practice.

The point here isn’t that Post Malone (and the five other writers on the song) did all this on purpose, though they could have. The point, rather, is that the way they phrased it has emotional consequences in and of itself. A more important point: whether or not they intended to add those specific emotional colors to the lyric by they way they phrased it, you can.

Phrasing has the power to create emotion. It’s the body language of your song. And with each line you write, you always have the same decisions: front-heavy or back-heavy? Weak bar or strong bar? Just ask, for each line, “How am I feeling here, stable or unstable?” If it’s a line you really mean, a fact or a commitment, look for downbeats and look for strong bars. If you’re feeling unstable – regret, uncertainty, longing etc., try back-heavy and/or weak-bar phrasing.

It’s certainly possible to place your phrases on the downbeats of the weak bars. Listen:

Heartbeat City, The Cars

How did it make you feel? Some listeners feel like they're floating—unstable, in motion. Now check out the phrasing. Do the verse lines start on the downbeats? They sure do. And yet they feel unstable, because they all begin on the weak bar:

Screen_Shot_2022-06-20_at_11.03.56_pm.png

Again, if you count this in half-time, it’s back-heavy, beginning in the half-bar.

For practice count through the entire song. I’ll wait.

Interesting: the only phrases that begin front-heavy in the strong bar are "O Jackie" and "I missed you so badly," phrases which make up the song’s essence, the whole why of the song. And did you note the back-heavy and weak-bar phrasing in the chorus?

Obviously, these concepts work in any time signature. Here’s a lovely little piece in ¾ time by Tim Hardin, one of my heroes. Count it, “strong 2 3, weak 2 3…”.

How Can We Hang On To a Dream, Tim Hardin
Screen_Shot_2022-06-20_at_11.06.16_pm.png

How does it make you feel? Of the six phrases in the verse, five start on the weak bar and one (“still loving you”) is back-heavy in the strong bar.  All together, they color the lines with a feeling of helplessness or remorse.

The two lines of the chorus are both back-heavy in the strong bar. Tim Hardin is using two different phrasing tools to create emotion, thus also creating some variety. Neat.

Of course, you likely noticed Tim Hardin’s verses are seven bars long, making the expected weak eighth bar turn into a strong bar. A nifty trick, adding to the feeling of instabitlty. (The Beatles play the same game in their seven bar verses of “Yesterday,” making “suddenly” feel really sudden.)

Add these phrasing concepts to your daily listening habits. At first it’ll take practice and focus, like anything else. As you are listening, monitor how each line’s phrasing makes you feel. Was the phrasing helpful in communicating the message and emotion of the line? Does the meaning of the line reek of regret, yet is front-heavy in the strong bar? How could you re-phrase it to get a more expressive result? Or does it commit to undying devotion, but uses back-heavy or in the weak bar phrasing? How does that affect your level of trust? Could you re-phrase it to get a stronger result?

Motion creates e-motion. How you make it move, all by itself, creates emotion. You’ll find phrasing a useful and powerful tool to add an extra level of feeling to your songs.

Write fearlessly.

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Further listening for songs using weak-bar phrasing:

 

  • Dreams, The Cranberries

  • Go Your Own Way, Fleetwood Mac

  • If I Ever Get Around to Living, John Mayer

  • No Regrets, Tom Rush

  • Who’s Crying Now, Journey