Warning! Songwriters, Don’t Break Contract With Listeners & Singers

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Woman signing contract illustrates the agreement that writers implicitly enter into with singers and listeners to maintain metrical consistency throughout their song.In my article Are Inconsistent Rhyme Schemes Destroying Your Songs, I wrote:

When you begin a song, you establish a contract with your listeners — you make certain promises.

As I went on to discuss in that article, your rhyme scheme is one part of that contract. Meter is another. This metrical contract is your promise to keep the meter (line length and syllabic stresses) consistent throughout the song. You begin establishing this contract from the first line. By the end of your first verse, your contract is signed, sealed, delivered.

To demonstrate, let’s look at Isaac Watts’s two famous hymns about the cross, “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” and “When I Survey The Wond’rous Cross.” He wrote the first in Common Meter (alternating lines of 8 and 6 syllables) and the second in Long Meter (8 syllables in every line).

Sing the following aloud, to any tune you know for “Alas …” but not any tune for “When I Survey …” We’re pretending that the “When I Survey …” verse belongs to “Alas …” If you don’t know any tune for “Alas …” just read these lines aloud or use the Sojourn tune, written by our friends Alex O’Nan and Brooks Ritter:

Alas! And did my savior bleed?
And did my sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown
And love beyond degree.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

If Watts had intended that verse from “When I Survey …” to follow the preceding two from “Alas …” he would have broken the metrical contract with us.  After all those Common Meter lines we don’t expect him to suddenly switch to Long Meter. The even-numbered lines of that last verse are too long. If he’d really written those verses together as one hymn, he would have needed to trim the last one so the verse matches the other two, like this:

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose a crown?

Beginning songwriters often break the metrical contract with their audience, which forces singers to unnaturally cram too many words in a space designed for less.

They also break metrical contract if they keep their syllable counts consistent but they don’t pay attention to the natural stresses of words. This causes singers to put the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLAble (see this article for more on that problem).

But just as I noted in the article about rhyme schemes, you can “break contract” on a different part of a contemporary song. For instance, if you write your first verse in Common Meter you can utilize a different or irregular meter on your chorus, pre-chorus or bridge. Most people have listened to enough popular music of the last century to understand that these parts of a song are melodically and metrically different than the verses.

But break contract on subsequent verses at your own peril. Chances are it will not make you sound unique; it will make you sound confused. If a worship songwriter is confused, worship leaders and church congregations will be confused too. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), so we probably shouldn’t be either.

To summarize:

  • Each verse must keep the metrical contract with the other verses
  • Each time you sing a chorus, it must keep contract with the other choruses in your song
  • Pre-choruses or bridges must keep contract with other pre-choruses or bridges
  • But a verse doesn’t need to keep metrical contract with a chorus. A chorus doesn’t need to keep contract with a bridge or pre-chorus.
Woman Signing Contract art used via Flickr creative commons license


Paul Keew July 14, 2012 at 2:12 am

A friend recommended your site, and this is the first post I read. I love the analogy of a contract! A very helpful way of putting it. I look forward to reading more!

Bobby Gilles July 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Thanks Paul. We’re glad you found us, and grateful that your friend recommended our site!

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