Home | Audio | DIY | Guitar | iPods | Music | Brain/Problem Solving | Links| Site Map

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Using Poetry as a Method of Creating Musical Vocals

Applying Music to the Oral Interpretation of Poetry

With this tutorial you will learn how to read poetry aloud in the attempt of using this skill to perform musical vocals. Poetry reading itself is a notable skill, but we want to take this learnable talent to create music. Granted, not everyone can sing ,but I am a firm believer that it is because the individual has not been trained how to sing. Very few people are truly 'tone deaf,' but merely lack the training on how to hear and then adjust the voice to the desired key that was learned at one point. Poetry reading is a very natural process and it is teachable, and in learning to use the individual's "natural voice" we can avoid the intimidating subject of "learning to sing." Our assumtion is that it is easier to learn to recite poetry using the natural voice than it is to learn how to sing. Once the skill of poetry reading is learned, then it is easily transferred to the role of a "musical performer." Finally, in working with poetry and learning how to read it may also lead to writing one's experimenting with poetry writing, and it is here where great rock-n-roll songs are initially created...the writing of a few lyrics.

Looking at the history of rock-n-roll you will find a list of song writers whom are known for writing exceptional lyrics. Some of the more notable ones are Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead lyricist,) Paul Simon, Elliott Smith, Joe Strummer (The Clash,) Neil Young, Lennon and McCartney, David Bowie, John Prine, and others. If you look at certain genera's such as rap, then the songs could be defined as contemporary "street" poems with a driving beat. Some poets such as Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Jack Keuroac, Timothy Leary (very limited readings) and Ken Kesey (prose) read their poems live with a "melodic stacatto" rap of sorts. A great study of poetry supported by music iis Jim Carroll who is a poet and author of The Basketball Diaries, who used a great NY rock-n-roll band as the medium for his "recitals." Jim Carroll's first album Catholic Boy was his breakthrough album. The beauty is that you can use poetry as a means to expressing yourself musically, as has been proven by the success of numerous performer.

We will begin by giving you some links and suggestions on finding a piece poetry that you will find meaningful. (The time may come when you start writing your own, but for now we are interested only in the presentation of poetry.) Once you have your poem, then you need to learn the fundamentals necessary to reproduce a captivating reading. This will include determining what the meter and rhythm of the poem is, how to interpret the meaning of the poem, how to practice your recitation, and finally how to present it. As in all things, the greatest key to success is practice. While you are learning to recite your poems, some of you may have the urge to write you own poems. Go for it, but just be careful that you do not use the lack of material as an excuse for not performing.

This lesson builds upon the Logic Studio techniques taught here.


Listen to former Poet Laureate Billy Collins talk about reading a poem.

No doubt, most students have little or no experience in reading poetry out loud, especially before large groups. And we know that a poem will live or die depending on how it is read. What follows, then, are a few pointers about the oral recitation of poetry. The readers, by the way, should not read cold; they should be given their poem a few days in advance so they will have time to practice, maybe in the presence of a friend. In addition to exposing students to the sounds of contemporary poetry, learning to recite poetry is a great way to improve ones' abilities to communicate publicly.


Goal: Find a poem to use. Internet the poem. Practice the poem. Present the poem.

Tools: A hard copy of the poem, a dictionary, some paper, and a pencil.

Things to Keep in Mind at All Times

  1. Practice often by reading aloud to yourself
  2. Visualize you giving the ultimate delivery by reading the poem slowly, with a normal and relaxed voice, while using pauses for punctuation.
  3. Use your dictionary often and religiously. Look up new words everyday and practice enunciating them aloud..

Finding a Poem

The first thing you need is a good poem. Before you choose a poem you should define exactly what you would like to convey. If you find a poem or a small piece of prose that has meaning to you, then it will be all the easier for you to express and share your emotions with your audience. Define what it is that you are passionate about, and then find a poem that represents such for you. If you do this then it will be far easier to share your passion with others since you will be believing in what you are saying. To do otherwise, means that you will have to put on an actors hat or just fake it...this will only set you up for a dismal performance. For me, I have always enjoyed reading poetry that is mystical. Knowing what you like will help you narrow down your list, but there is extensive list of poets and narrowing it down to one poet may be overwhelming initially. If your thing is contemporary poets then you will have a shorter list from which to choose. At this point it should be apparent that to narrow your list of choices then you should determine what it is that you want to express. The American ideal was built upon the wilderness spirit, and so if you love the outdoors or our American heritage then you can pursue American poetry and literature and the Transcendentalist movement. In all fairness to the blokes on the other side of the Atlantic you may want to look at the works of: William Blake, John Donne, and William Butler Yeats, all of whom also dabble in mystical themes. There are some great Chinese poets, but as you can see we are building a rather large list of poets and still have barely touched poetry from different cultures. At this point you just need to find you a poem...so just do it!

The Rhythm, Meter, and Musicality of a Poem

In poetry, the meter is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse, and to the listener the rhythm of the poem is often interpreted as the musicality of the poem. The meter of a poem plays an important role in interpreting the poem. To the musician, the meter is the melody. There are several different types of meter and you should familiarize yourself with them. Wikipedia is where you will get your basic definition of meter in poems. Here is an excellent example of   how to use meter in poetry and verse. You can also see how the poet Robert Frost used meter in his poems. Here is a short, but very pragmatic lesson on using rhythm (required reading.) To give an effective presentation, then you must know how to identify, listen to, and reproduce the meter. If you cannot do this then you will not be able to entertain or captivate your audience. This is true even if you are going to be adding music, loops, or other audio effects over the poem. It all begins and ends with the meter.

Interpreting the Poem

A Way of Thinking about Poetry with an Eye to Enjoying It

Prose in its most basic form makes its meaning directly, through the content of the words. It literally attempts to say what it means. Poetry also makes much of its meaning in that way. One of the ways, however, that people have defined poetry over the centuries is that poetry is writing that also makes its meaning less directly, through the sound of the language, through how the words are broken into lines, through metaphor (rather than explanation), and through the poet's ability to say what they do more concisely, eloquently, and rhetorically than what we expect from prose. Now, before you jump up and say that prose does this also, and that not all poetry does these things----I agree with you, especially for 20th century poetry, and in many cases even for the poetry we are studying together. The information below often will apply just as well to short and long prose pieces as it does to poetry. I am hoping, however, that the information below will help to de-mystify poetry and give us all a foundation that we can rely on when we are confronted with a poem that is less accessible than we would like.

How to Read A Poem

Poetry often is meant to be performed, sometimes even with music. So, even if you are not in a private place, or if you feel funny about "performing" a poem by reading it aloud in an aptly dramatic manner, you can at least read it aloud and try to imagine what tones of voice you should use at various lines. So, read the poem through once, check to make sure you have a handle on what it's saying, and then read it two more times experimenting with various voices and poses. Are some lines ironic? sneering? passionate? How does the meaning of various lines change when you change the tone of your voice? Once you have nailed down how the poem should be read, then go one-by-one through the questions below and see if the poet has employed any of these devices in the poem to add to the poem's significance (in other words, what you can make it mean):

  • Tone or Voice: how would you describe the poet's "voice" in the poem? Is the poet speaking in a character? In a sense, all writers speak in a character, so even if you feel that the voice in the poem is the poet's own voice, it is still worthwhile to see what the tone of the poem is. Is the poet speaking in a "public" way, or in a private and personal way? Does the poet assume that s/he is speaking for all people, or is the purpose of the poem to communicate a single, special way of seeing something?
  • Metaphors and Images: make a mental list of the images that the poet piles up in the poem. Sometimes, it's not what the poet says that is interesting so much as the images that they use to set up their way of looking at the world. There's a sonnet of Shakespeare's, for example, that talks about love, yet stacks image after image of business, banking, and accounting to do so. These images--in one reading of this sonnet--change what the sonnet means, because it almost forces us to ask why the poet has chosen the language of business to talk about love. In your poem, how would you describe the poet's use of images.
  • Rhetoric (The art of speaking in public eloquently and effectively): we don't take classes in rhetoric any more, and so it's not natural for us to look for it in writing. Poetry, however, is very rhetorical, in that the sentences often are very elaborate and artfully set up to attain maximum effect. In your poem, does the poet play with words and the structure of sentences much? What are they trying to accomplish by doing this? Does it in some way add to what the poem already means for you?
  • Structure: like essays, poems are made up of pieces. --Each line is a piece: are there places where the line breaks of the poem add to your experience of it? --Each stanza or couplet is piece: are there places where individual stanzas are interesting, wonderful, or meaningful in themselves? --If this is a longer poem, you should read it as made up of shorter poems put together. How has the poet structured the smaller parts of the poem? What do they add up to?
  • Ambiguities: Are there any moments in the poem where key words can mean more than one thing? One fun way to deal with ambiguity is to think of the poem as a word-puzzle: how many solutions can you find? How many readings can you construct? Does the title help you to nail down which seems most correct?
  • Tradtion or Convention: Is there a tradition or set of conventions that the poem is writing within or against?

Presenting the Poem

Step One

  • Read your chosen poem through silently several times to familiarize yourself with its core ideas and images. The more you understand the poem, the more your audience will understand it. Allow yourself to see the images created by the words in your imagination. Likewise feel the emotions. The more strongly you identify with or own the poem the easier it will be for your audience to follow. 
  • As you read your poem silently listen for its musicality, meter, or beat.
  • Look up any unfamiliar words in the dictionary for their meaning and pronunciation
  • The key to perfecting poetry reading is practice. Before going to sleep, read your poem to yourself 2-3 times ...every night before the presentation if possible.
  • Visualize as often as possible you giving the ultimate recitation You can visualize anywhere: on the bus, walking home, waiting for mom to serve dessert, etc.

Step Two

  • Read the poem quietly aloud to yourself following the guidelines given by the punctuation, listening for its musicality or beat.?If you need them then there are tips for interpreting punctuation here.
  • Read slowly. Allow each word its space. The temptation is to rush. Resist it.
  • Once you've 'got the flow,' stand up and read the poem with passion and authority.
  • Try to read the poem just prior to bedding down for the night and upon rising in the morning. The more you can bracket your sleep with a poetry reading, the faster your brain will incorporate it, and the faster your "dream" will become a reality.

Step Three - How to read Poetry Aloud

? Now that you're more confident 'play' with your delivery. Experiment with vocal variety. For example, what happens if you stress this word rather than that word??You can find more about playing with vocal variety here.
? Rehearse in front of several friends before going 'live'. Have them give you feedback on clarity, (Could they hear and understand your words?), meaning (Did they understand the images and feelings of the poem?), speaking rate (Were you speaking too fast or too slow?) and voice (Too loud, too soft, too high, too low...)
? Incorporate the feedback and present your poem.

Extra Tips on How to Read Poetry Aloud

Practice using the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words and hard-to-pronounce words. To read with conviction, a reader needs to know at least the dictionary sense of every word. In some cases, a reader might want to write out a word phonetically as a reminder of how it should sound. It should be emphasized that learning to read a poem out loud is a way of coming to a full understanding of that poem, perhaps a better

You do not need a 'dramatic' voice to be successful. An assumed voice will seem artificial and strained.

Remember to breathe. Holding your breath heightens tension, which in turn heightens the tone of your voice. Use the natural pauses in the poem to take a breath, for example on a full stop or period.

If the occasion is emotional (for example,the poem is part of eulogy, wedding or retirement speech), print your poem out in a large font so it is easily read. Marking the pauses, breath or stress points using a high-lighter, will also help you remember what you rehearsed.

Stand tall and relaxed, just as you would for delivering a speech.

And just in case you need them, here's tips for managing public speaking anxiety

The beauty of learning how to read poetry aloud is that now you have the skill and confidence to give a gift of immense value to your audience. The right poem read well expresses with grace and clarity thoughts and feelings that are often difficult to find appropriate words for in ordinary prose.

In closing, it is very easy to learn how to read poetry with meaning and in such a way as to keep audience captivated.

Home | Audio | DIY | Guitar | iPods | Music | Links | Site Map | Contact


Creative Commons License