Song writing with Carner and Gregor
The process of song writing
Often, when drafting a lyric—or in contemplating revisions—one word may sound more “right” than another word of the same number of syllables. Often this is because one phrase is harder to say than another phrase, because one word means something slightly different than another, or because the character would be more likely to use one word instead of another. But, putting these more logical considerations aside, I’ll often just prefer the sound of one turn of phrase to another that means pretty much the same thing and has the same rhythm.
The sound of a lyric—not only rhythm and rhyme, but also alliteration (the repetition of consonants), and assonance (the repetition of vowels)—can contribute to that lyrics’ very meaning. I think that’s particularly true in “Dancing in Pairs.”
It’s pretty clear in the opening verse that putting rhymes close together–and sometimes sooner than expected–creates a sense of agitation or energy that might mirror the dance club beat.
However, once the wistful part of the song begins and the mood becomes reflective, the sound of the words becomes even more important. The singer is singing about something she’s imagining, something she doesn’t have direct access to but knows exists somewhere or once existed. It’s something sort of like an echo. Repeating “so they tell me” and “so they whisper” helps create that sense of an echo (dramatically speaking, the repetition heightens her sense of uncertainty, but we’re focusing here just on sound). That echo is also created through repeated sounds.
We start with alliteration:
people danced in pairs. and they never knew the numbing…
and move onto assonance (remember that “the” is pronounced “thuh” and “of” is pronounced “uhv”)
…thenumbing of the drumming
and then we get both at once:
…back when murmured words could catch you unawares
Here, repeated Ms (murmurred, which also picks up the Ms of numbing and drumming), repeating Ws (when /
words / awares), repeated Cs (could catch), and repeated URs (murmurred words), all culminating in a rhyme from much earlier in the verse (pairs / unawares)
I’m not saying that, when we hear this, we’re consciously aware of the repetitions or think, “wow, that sounds like an echo of something I’ve heard before,” but I do think that we subconsciously hear the repetitions and perceive the echoes.
In a case like this, where the singer is groping for something far away, I think assonance and alliteration are much better tools than internal rhyme, because they hint at repetition without making it too explicit or present. Nothing is too certain, nothing is too clear, and even the rhyme is from long ago in the verse. Too much rhyme might feel too concrete, like the singer has too much of a handle on what she thinks and what she wants—or, put another way, too much rhyme might feel like the thing itself, and not the echo. I think the alliteration and assonance (in addition, of course, to Derek’s dreamy Debussy-esque music) is what creates the haunting feeling of this passage.
These excerpts from the Carner and Gregor blog are reproduced with permission from Sam Carner.