by Deborah Underwood
Illustrated by Juli Kangas
2016 Best in Rhyme Award Top 10
See the Top 20 Best in Rhyme Books for 2016
Musicality of Words
by Deborah Underwood
For many years, I sang with a chamber choir that performed new compositions. This was a joy—and sometimes a challenge. On occasion, we’d sing through a newly-composed piece for the first time and it would be obvious that the composer was used to writing for instruments, not voices.
The giveaway? The word stresses and the musical stresses didn’t align, making the text difficult to sing.
If you tap out the musical beats while singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” you’ll see that the beats line up with the accented syllables of the words. Because of this, singing the song is natural and easy:
ROW, ROW, ROW your BOAT, GENT-ly DOWN the STREAM
Now substitute text that has the same number of syllables but different stresses. You might get this:
ROW, ROW, YOUR boat GENT-LY down THE stream, OH!
Try singing that gracefully!
When text stresses and musical stresses align, a song flows. If I have an ear for rhyme, I suspect it’s partly due to my years of singing in choirs. I’ve internalized rules of rhythm and word stress by singing well-set texts for decades.
Good lyrics can teach us a lot about writing good rhyming picture books. You don’t need to be a singer to benefit: all you need to do is read a libretto, or study a well-written song, or go to a musical.
When I was around 10, I saw my first Gilbert and Sullivan show and was delighted by the text’s cleverness. In The Mikado, the ruler has decreed that anyone caught flirting will be beheaded. A town official explains:
This stern decree, you’ll understand,
Caused great dismay throughout the land!
For young and old
And shy and bold
Were equally affected.
The youth who winked a roving eye,
Or breathed a non-connubial sigh,
Was thereupon condemned to die –
He usually objected.
Even without knowing the music, you can hear how this verse dances. (The playfulness is also a big selling point for me. In another song, they are forced to keep coming up with rhymes for “executioner”—my favorite is “Don’t blame me/I’m sorry to be/of your pleasure a diminutioner.” Silly!!)
Another treasure trove: the songs of the British duo Flanders & Swann. Here’s a link to one of my favorites, Ill Wind, for which they took the music of one of Mozart’s horn concertos and added their own text:
For Ill Wind click here
And of course many Disney musicals have fabulous lyrics. Who can resist Beauty and the Beast’s “Gaston” and its classic line “I’m especially good at expectorating”—take that, all you folks who think we need to simplify vocabulary for kids. Or have a listen to one of my favorites, the soaring “Out There” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
And Hamilton! There’s a whole four-year self-study course in rhyme and rhythm right there.
If you’re musically inclined, try writing (or borrowing) a melody and singing your picture book text to see how it flows. You can even go a step further: after I finished Good Night, Baddies, I wrote and recorded a lullaby based on the text. It was a fun addition to the book trailer and a nice freebie download for readers.
For Lullaby click here
So when you’re looking for mentor texts, by all means read rhyming picture books. But stretch your feelers farther, too—there’s a lot to be learned from our talented colleagues in the music business.
And if you think this means you can write off your Hamilton tickets, you won’t get any argument from me.
Deborah Underwood is the author of numerous picture books, including Interstellar Cinderella, Good Night, Baddies, and the New York Times bestsellers Here Comes the Easter Cat, The Quiet Book, and The Loud Book. Her upcoming books include Super Saurus Saves Kindergarten (June) and Here Comes Teacher Cat (August). She lives in Northern California with her feline muse, Bella. Visit her online at DeborahUnderwoodBooks.com.
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65 thoughts on “Rhyme Revolution 2017 Day 11 ~ Deborah Underwood ~ Musicality of Words”
Thank you Deborah, loved this post! I just listened to Ill Wind and it totally made my day ! Am off now to look for more Flanders and Swann songs
Love this idea, Deborah! Great post!
I love when poetry “sings.” Thanks for sharing!
Thank you! I agree there’s no need to simplify vocabulary for kids.
Deborah, your ‘Goodnight, Baddies’ lullaby sounds wonderful and the trailer looks good, too! The Baddies look so cuddly, it’s hard to imagine they’re baddies. I’m more aware of forced rhyme these days, but when I first started writing rhymes, I wasn’t. Thanks for your post.
Hi, Deborah! Thanks for sharing your love of music, rhythm and rhyme. You’re picture books are perfect mentor texts.
What a great post! I totally agree about the study of music and how it helps with rhyme! Wonderful examples! Thanks Deborah!
Another super way to start a Monday and a new week! Thank you for a wonderful post, Deborah! Your idea of putting your own rhyming text to a familiar tune is clever Your musical experiences and and love of the the sung word are evident in your writings as well as the tender lullaby for the Baddies. Such a lovely voice!
Great post! Music and rhyme go hand in hand. If it doesn’t have rhythm and a beat, it isn’t working. Thank up Deborah!
Thank you Deborah! As a singer songwriter I was just inquiring (on subitclub) about using a lullaby i wrote in a picture book. What a wonderful post (and your lullaby was beautiful!)
Absolutely loved the post and trailer — what a wonderful book!
Great guidance here! Thanks for the post, Deborah!
I’ve always thought lyricists were overlooked in the award game. Some of them are so poetic and real. RENT and WEST SIDE STORY have always resonated for me. Thanks for you post. Congrats to all the winners!
Thanks, Deborah, for the reminder of the musicality of good rhyme! Your books are wonderful mentor texts for rhyme. What a cute song you’ve done too.
Thank you, Deborah. A well-written rhyming story does read like music. And I love the idea of singing text to determine its rhythm & flow. Great advice.
Oh, what a fun Monday morning post. I harmonized with the Baddies lullaby. And the French Horn story—oh my, I think my husband could have written a song about the time I took flute lessons. I am sure he would loved to have hidden it away! I have been a singer since my early years, so this post was so awesome. Thank you, Deborah.
Thanks, Deborah, for a great post. I love when rhyme and poetry “sings”.
And until you mentioned it, I’d never had a second thought about the “expectorating” line but totally agree that we shouldn’t write down for children.
Great post, Deborah! I totally agree with the musical connection. One of my favorite ways to test my rhymes is to pick a tune and sing my words to it. It really helps to see if they flow or not. I love Good Night, Baddies! Congrats on having it chosen as one of the best rhymers of 2016!
Loved your post AND ordered your book! It looks so fun!
Hi, Angie–well, my Monday is off to a flying start–I commented on the Deborah Underwood post and misspelled my own name! (Willaims instead of Williams.) Forehead slap! Also, every time I go to comment on the posts, my computer asks if I want to continue because it’s not verified as a safe site. I have to click yes numerous times. I wonder if anyone else has this problem? Have a great Monday! –Deb
Deborah – thanks for a really fun post with excellent examples of lyrics and music to learn from. I look forward to reading your book!
Thank you for sharing excellent advice. And what a lovely voice you have -sweet and comforting like your books! 🙂
Thanks so much for this important rhyming advice, Deborah! Since I’m a musician, it makes me so happy to hear you add this layer that is so often missing when it comes to “How to Write in Rhyme,” instruction. The musicality of words is so important, and I LOVE the trick about putting your rhyming text to a familiar song to work out the beats! Perfect!
Reblogged this on Sensibility and Sense and commented:
Ever hear music in your head when writing in rhyme? Well, you should! Deborah Underwood shares this important rhyming advice in today’s Rhyming Revolution post. Great stuff Angie and Deborah!
Great post, Deborah! Thanks for the advice that music can help us with our rhyming PB’s. I loved the Ill Wind example and your lullaby is lovely!
I love music and singing and your lullaby is SO MUCH FUN! Thanks for posting about the musicality of language Deborah. We (my five kiddos and I) adore all your books!
My husband is a chaplain at a nursing home, and both he and the residents love the old hymns. Not only is the music inspiring and the words rich in meaning, but there’s a strong match between the words and music that makes them easy to sing and to remember.
Loved that trailer and the tune! And yes, I’m sure all my years of singing musicals and singing in choirs helps me hear rhythm…now if I can just translate that into my writing. (Though I sure hope I write better than I sing! 😉 )
I’ve only read three posts so far, but I think you should consider collecting the posts for Rhyme Revolution 2017 into one volume and publishing it as a book. Definitely!
Sent from Outlook
Thanks for the great advice and examples, Deborah! I so admire the way writers write lyrics in musicals–it really does bring poetry and storytelling to the forefront. I’m actually going to see Hamilton on May 5th with my daughter-got the tickets last June…shh! she doesn’t know yet…it’s her birthday on Wednesday and it’s her birthday gift 🙂
Really interesting post. Great idea to stretch beyond mentor texts and find inspiration in other sources. Gives me a whole new way to think about music and lyrics. Thank you!
Deborah, thanks for your delightful post. I’ll be doing a lot of singing and looking for that rhythm and beat!
Loved your post, Deborah! Your Baddies Lullaby is absolutely beautiful – I’ve played it over and over. You’ve shared great advice. Now I’m off to the library to check out some of your lovely books. Thank you!
Love this post. I don’t understand all of the technical rhyming language, but from years of music and choir participation, I feel like I have internalized rhythm and rules just as you have. I also find it so important to read aloud works written in rhyme. The trip-ups point right to where changes need to be made. Thanks so much for sharing!
Thank you, Deborah, for adding music to my day. I have some of your books and will be adding more to my bookshelf. Your stress on the importance of musicality is always something to keep in mind when we sit down to write.
Deborah thanks for making sure we listen to the musicality of words in songs we here. Deborah has inspired me to try to snag Hamilton tickets in San Francisco.
Hi Deborah, rhyme and music do work together and just yesterday I was telling my 7yo that she should learn rhyme with me to improve her songwriting skills. It would certainly benefit me! Thanks for the amazing post!
Thanks for the post. Great advice!
Thank you, Angie! Gonna love my book! And thank you for all the hard work you put into providing us rhymers with all the info and support we need to make beautiful books!
Hi Deborah! I loved your Goodnight Baddies lullaby, thanks for sharing the trailer!
I don’t have musical training – i’ve never been able to sing ‘on key’ – and i do struggle with rhythm. But you give lots of good advice, thank you.
Thanks, Deborah. I draw inspiration from musicals all the time. It’s a good place to find unexpected rhythms.
Thank you for your inspirational post.
Great insights!!! Thanks:)
Great post. Thanks for sharing!
I love Good Night Baddies! great rhyme. I totally agree that music help to see where the stores elements are in rhyme. Why didn’t I this of that?!
thanks for the post.
Cheers for the TOP 20 in picture books; GOODNIGHT BADDIES a favorite of mine. Thanks for posting and celebrating ageless rhyme.
I just LOVE it when the daily entries for Rhyme Revolution align with things I’ve been thinking in my own research! I’ve sung in church choir for years also, and I’m CONSTATNLY surrounded by the music of Disney movies, being a mom of 3 princesses. I’ve been analyzing meter and rhyme every time I hear a song, and it’s so exciting! It’s definitely inspiring, and it makes me want to write!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I’m nodding my head like crazy, to everything you said! Love, Love, Love!
Sing our rhyming picture book manuscripts. What a (novel) idea! 🙂 Thank you for your sage advice, Deborah.
Love this! I always make up goody rhyming songs for my kids…maybe it’s slowly helping me to be a better picture book rhymer. 😉
DEBORAH: I LOVE the inspiration to reach for other sources besides books! Rhyme is all about rhythm, so it makes sense to seek out true music sources–as our cute little Drummer Boy icon for Rhyme Revolution (see top of page) also points out. THANK YOU!!!