Paying attention to meter in lyrics is arguably the most difficult part of writing memorable lyrics. Meter is the stresses on the syllables of the words in each line of the verse and chorus.
For instance, in the line “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”, all of the “P” words are stressed on the first syllables of the words. The words “a” and “of” are unstressed syllables.
By paying attention to the stressed and unstressed syllables in each line of the lyrics, the lyricist can begin to write stanzas that have consistent meter. Now just add the burden of writing words with a certain meter that also pay attention to internal and end rhyme and other poetic devices such as metaphor, point-of-view and personification and then you’ll see why writing meter in lyrics is so difficult.
When figuring out the meter in a song, many lyricists will pull out a pencil to mark the accented syllables with a slash mark and the unstressed syllables with a u-shaped unstressed mark. See the diagram above. The stressed syllables are marked with a hard slash and the unstressed syllables with a soft “U”.
Many professional lyricists will study the music lyrics of others by pulling out a lyric sheet and marking off the meter. This is good practice so that one can get used to the rhyme of the words as one writes them.
Depending upon whether the lyrics are written first for the song or the music is first will in many ways determine how a lyricist approaches writing the meter. If the music comes first, then there most likely is already a certain meter established that the lyrics must conform to and if not, then the lyricist will have to figure out the meter and the composer later will write the music to fit the meter of the lyrics.
The best exercise for writing meter for lyrics is to either print out a bunch of popular lyrics or buy a book filled with lyrics and start marking up the syllable stresses in pencil. It may be easier to start off with hip hop lyrics since much emphasis is paid to meter and rhyme in this genre. With rap music lyrics in general, there is a definitive beat and rhythm that will make it easier for some beginning lyricists to follow.
No matter, which genre you choose, though, professional songwriters pay close attention to meter when writing songs. Sometimes error in meter can be spotted in professionally written lyrics since there was not a good way to write around the flaw without sacrificing other elements such as the meaning of the song. In these cases, sometimes you can hear a singer vocally covering up the error or emphasizing the error in order to make it a stylistic device within the song.
In general, though, its best not to write lyrics with flaws in meter, hoping the singer or band will cover the error musically or vocally. Rewriting and using a Thesaurus for word choice options help many lyricists overcome meter problems. Remember, the two most popular references for lyricists are the Thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary so make sure you have the two tools of the trade at your disposal when writing music lyrics.