Creating Emphasis

The meaning of your lyric depends on which word gets the emphasis.  For example, the phrase “I’m going to the store” could mean:

  • I’M going to the store    (not you, me)
  • I’m GOING to the store  (in motion, on the move)
  • I’m going TO the store    (not away from it)
  • I’m going to THE store   (the only one, the most important one)
  • I’m going to the STORE  (not the office)

As a songwriter, you have two ways of creating emphasis: pitch and rhythm.


“Pitch” is how high or how low a note is.  There are always exceptions, but as a rule high notes get more emphasis than low notes.  For example, the old nursery song “Row Row Row Your Boat” begins with a low pitch on the word “row” and rises to a higher pitch on the word “boat.”  In this case, “boat” would get the emphasis in the phrase.


Rhythm is concerned with the beat or the flow of the melody. In general, longer notes get more emphasis than shorter notes, and remember – space counts.  If you sing a note and wait a while before singing the next note, it has the same effect as holding the note out. There are three ways to emphasize a melody note with rhythm:

  1. Start the note at the usual place and hold it longer
  2. Start the note earlier and release it at the usual place
  3. Wait a little longer before singing the next note.


In addition to these two ways of creating emphasis, singers have one more tool: tone.  Tone can be changed in a number of ways.  For example,

  • If you’ve been properly singing every line and then you speak a couple of words, the spoken words will stand out and get emphasis.
  • If you’ve sung a line in a normal tone and then sing from the back of your throat for a couple of words, those will stand out.
  • If you “growl” on a few words, those will stand out and get emphasis.

These variations become especially useful when you’re singing a song demo.  Remember that musically your song should be a balance of repetition and surprise.  Too much repetition and the listener is bored.  Too much surprise and the listener is confused. If you’ve sung the chorus the same way twice, it’s time to make a change for the third time.  If you’ve already sung the first verse straight, you have the freedom to give the second verse a little more expression. Take note of where you want to create your emphasis , try each method – pitch, rhythm, and tone, and use what works best.