Songwriting Theory – Length Of The Line

This week’s topic is an interesting one.  And a very short one. I tried to flesh it out and realized I was just adding stuff to make it longer not better.  I’ll admit that this one is a bit “fuzzy”.  What I mean is that there are so many variables that it is hard to make any definite-always-true-all-the-time statements.  But the basic concept or idea is another tool in your toolbox.  The slug line of these posts which will be collected into an E-Book and Video course is “No Rules, Only Tools“.   I am a very firm believer that theory and techniques are just tools to be pulled out of the toolbox and used when you need them.  As you internalize a tool you wont need to dig it out of the toolbox unless you are stuck.  Then the tools allow you to analyze what you are doing and take action to get unstuck. The more tools you have. The more options you have.
So what do I mean by Length Of The Line anyway?  It is pretty simple. It is very obvious on the lyric page.  The lines of lyric will have a number of syllables or cover a number of beats in the music.  These will be the same from line to line.  Or they will vary.
Once again one is not better than the other but will “convey” your meaning in a different way. A stanza is a group of lines usually four or six lines in length.  You will see three line stanzas as well as five lines. But four and six are the most common.  The lines in a given stanza will either be made up of the same length or they will be made of of lines of differing lengths.
Stanzas made up of the same length lines are more stable.
Stanzas made of of differing length lines are less stable or unstable.
Knowing this can be useful when you marry this or contrast this with the sentiment of lyric used.  A lyric about loss or indecision will be enhanced or magnified when use of differing line lengths is used.
By contrast a lyric that shows action or is about finding resolution (probably the chorus) will be enhanced or magnified by a stanza made of of same length lines.
Below are a couple of examples that demonstrate the difference using standard nursery rhymes because they are public domain AND they are familiar.

Same length — stable, balanced, no call to forward motion

Girls and boys, come out to play                4 beats
The moon doth shine as bright as day       4 beats
Come with a whoop, come with a call        4 beats
Come with a good will or not at all            4 beats

Differing length — the second line is shorter – unstable, unbalanced, signals more to come

Mary had a little lamb            – 4 beats
Fleece was white as snow       – 3 beats
Everywhere that Mary went   – 4 beats
The lamb was sure to go         -3 beats
This again is a simple concept so no need to belabor it. So that’s it for this week.

As always go out there and make some music!!


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3 thoughts on “Songwriting Theory – Length Of The Line

  1. Thanks Art! I ike how you stated that the 2nd line signals what is yet to come. I have used many different methods, but just didn’t recognize it. It’s nice to be aware that this is something that can be pulled out and used purposefully when desired


    1. Yes that’s one of my pain points is that knowing how the mechanics of something works allows you to purposely shape what you are doing. And bail you out when you are stuck.


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