Turn Your Essay Into A Song

Is there is a safe free download that will convert the Open University info I receive in RTF so that I can listen to it as I work outside? I have text to speech on my HP Pavilion laptop but (a) I am unable to slow it down enough for textbook type information as opposed to detective stories etc, and (b) it isn't practical to walk around behind a lawnmower carrying a laptop.
Bill Farman

Text-to-speech (TTS) is easy to do at a simple level, and Texas Instruments started making speech synthesis chips – as used in its Speak & Spell toy – in the late 1970s. TTS then became common in computers during the next decade, starting with the Atari 1400XL home micro in 1983. (The Texas Instruments TI-99/4A did it before then, but only with its optional plug-in speech synthesiser module.)

As you appreciate, TTS is also part of Microsoft Windows, where it is currently used by Narrator to provide screen-reading facilities for people with impaired vision. In Microsoft Office 2010 and 2013, Speak is built into Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and OneNote. There are also lots of separate programs that either use Microsoft's SAPI (speech application programming interface) and Speech Platform software or bring their own TTS system.

If you have Microsoft Office, try the open source Microsoft Word add-in Save as DAISY, which works with Word 2003, 2007 and 2010. This lets you select "Save as DAISY" from the Word menu and then "Full DAISY". This will save your RTF (Rich Text Format) or other document as an XML ebook and a synchronised MP3 audio file created using Microsoft's TTS software and the LAME encoding engine.

DAISY is the world standard for digital talking books, the name being derived from Digital Accessible Information System. It was developed in Sweden in the early 1990s and adopted by America's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. It makes audio files much easier to navigate.

There's a range of programs to handle DAISY files including DaisyWorm for the Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, and Go Read for Android.
Otherwise, you can play back the MP3 file using any MP3 player.
WordTalk is another plug-in for Microsoft Word, and it's available free from Call Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. It allows you to change the voice and the speed of the speech, and save it as a WAV or MP3 file. It works with versions of Microsoft Word from Word 97 to 2010 but you must download the correct version.

There are dozens of TTS programs for Windows, ranging in price from free to $100 or so, and some are listed in 19 free text to speech tools for educators and The best text to speech (TTS) software programs and online tools.

I can't say which is best, but Balabolka is worth a try. It supports a wide range of sources including RTF, PDF and many ebook formats, and offers a wide range of outputs including WAV, MP3, MP4, Ogg and WMA. There are the usual sliders to change the speed and pitch (fast/slow buttons are too crude to be useful). It supports both SAPI4 and SAPI5, so it works with a wide range of voices, both free and commercial. Balabolka is free.

Free alternatives include Spesoft text to MP3 speaker, and Zabaware's Ultra Hal TTS Reader, which saves files in the WAV format.

Some paid-for solutions offer more features and/or produce better results. There's a free trial version of Text Aloud 3 – which can also integrate with Microsoft Word – so you could download that and see if it's worth $29.95 to you.
There are also several websites where you can upload a file for processing and then download a converted version. I tried a few using Robert Frost's poem Fire and Ice, and SoundGecko and Yakitome produced the best results. (I used AT&T's Natural Voices as a reference point (WAV).

SoundGecko uses Windows Azure as its cloud platform so I thought I knew what to expect. However, it actually uses Neospeech – which I hadn't heard of before – and the results were surprisingly good. I found it much better than Natural Reader. I even preferred it to Edinburgh's CereProc which is famous for offering custom voices. (It did one for film critic Roger Ebert, and you can listen to its fake Barack Obama.)

SoundGecko has apps for leading mobiles – Apple, Android, Windows Phone – and can sync files to Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive. It's much simpler to create an MP3 from an RTF text file by using "Save as" from Word, but SoundGecko may appeal if you like the voicing and/or you're listening on a phone. The major catch would be if you needed any of the pro features, which cost $2.95 per month.

One final suggestion: most modern e-readers have a text-to-speech feature, so you could upload your RTF files to an Amazon Kindle (but not the Paperwhite) to listen to your files.

At the beginning, I said text-to-speech was "easy to do at a simple level". The problem is that it's very hard to do well. We have come a long way from flat robotic voices, but still don't have synthetic human voices that provide the right pronunciation, intonation and cadence over a wide range of topics. You just have to find the one you like best.

Most Windows users manage with the standard voice supplied with the operating system. This was Microsoft Sam in Windows XP and Microsoft Anna in Vista and Windows 7. There are three new ones in Windows 8 – Microsoft Hazel (UK female), David (US male) and Zira (US female) – and they are significantly better, as illustrated in this short YouTube video.

In general, you need a big database and lots of processing power to get the very best results. This is why the TTS systems found in mobile phones are generally awful compared with PCs and Macs, whereas dedicated server-based systems such as Neospeech can produce even better results. It really depends on your taste, and how fussy you are. Our most famous TTS user, Professor Stephen Hawking, seems to manage just fine with his robotic voice.

One of the most frequently asked questions in songwriting is: "What's the difference between a song lyric and a poem?" The answer to this question can determine the ultimate success of aspiring song lyricists.


Similar yet distinct art forms:
Poetry & Song Lyrics
by Carla Starrett

Poets in the modern world do not enjoy the elevated social status they did a century or two ago.

Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley were the rock stars of their time. Their poetic skills earned them adulation, celebrity and even the occasional touch of wealth.

These days, poems and poetry are sadly relegated to sparsely attended coffeehouse readings or the obscure pages of small literary magazines.

On the other side of the proverbial coin, there are wonderful opportunities in today's music industry for talented poets - at least those who successfully adapt their writing style to song lyric writing.

Songs are the popular lyrical medium of our time. That’s where status and the bigmoney is for today's poets.

Adapting Poems Into Song Lyrics

There are many examples of poets who have turned their personal poetry into successful song lyrics.

Most everyone’s heard of lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s famous co-writer. One of these talented fellows without the other may have labored in the shadows of obscurity.

Yet, by combining their specialized talents, they were able to write hundreds of great songs, and extrmely popular songs. In the process, they become millionaires!

The lesson is clear: ambitious 21st Century poets who wish to connect with the popular culture and mass audiences will want to learn how to write lyrics.

Which leads to this question: Can poets successfully turn their talents to writing song lyrics?

Answer: For talented poets willing to adapt their writing styles to the craft of lyric writing, the answer is definitely yes!

Song Lyrics v. Poems. The Similarities

To understand the differences between a poem and a well-crafted song lyric, it’s helpful to first understand the similarities.

In general, the same virtues that make a good poem - effective imagery, compelling themes, emotional evocativeness and originality - also make a good song lyric.

  • Both poems and song lyrics rely on the potent use of language.
  • Both engage their readers and listeners emotionally.
  • Both require a skilled use of word sounds and rhyming.

Poetry and song lyrics both benefit from well-applied poetic devises, such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, personification, onomatopoeia. And both rely on effective use of descriptive imagery.

Song Lyrics v. Poems. The Differences

Despite the many similarities, poetry and lyrics are not the same thing.

Here are some important differences between a poem and a song lyric:

A poem is designed to be read on the page—a lyric is designed to be sung by the human voice and heard with music

Just think about it for a moment. When you’re listening to a song, you don’t have the luxury of going back and re-reading. You can’t stop to dwell on every line.

A poem can be dense in ideas and structurally complex. It is designed to connect with a reader.

A successful lyric needs to connect with a listener. Since music moves the lyric quickly past the listener’s consciousness, the lyric needs to communicate with immediacy, clarity and focused impact.

A song lyric conveys its power through music and sound. Lyrical images and descriptive phrases need to connect with the ear, as well as the brain.

The meaning of a song lyric can be ambiguous, as with many of Bob Dylan’s great songs. Still, the great majority of successful song lyrics succeed because they’re clear and elegantly stated—even to the point of repetition.

After all, refrains and repeated choruses are key structural devices in the art of songwriting, and have been for hundreds of years.

Both poems and lyrics need to capture a listener’s imagination. Yet lyrics need to be easily caught through the ear. A song lyric filled with abstract words and dense, obscure phrases will be simply be unintelligible to most listeners.

A poem stands alone — without music. A lyric must work well with the rhythm and structure of music.

For most creative situations, the easiest method is this: The composer first writes the music. Then the lyricist writes lyrics to exactly fit the existing melody.

Or, as legendary songwriter Paul Simon says, “Write the melodies. Live with them for a while. Then write the words."

On the other hand, experienced collaborators can learn to work in the opposite direction. If the lyricist clearly understands melodic structure, a skilled composer will probably be able to write music to the lyricist’s existing lyrics.

In terms of song structure, lyric writing is a specialized craft. At a minimum, a good lyricist must understand the basics how to create viable verses, climbs, choruses and bridges.

In learning how to write lyrics, the bottom line is this: If you want your lyrics set to music, you must write them so a collaborative music composer can successfully adapt them to music.

A poem can be read silently. A lyric must be sung.

A lyric writer needs to also consider the singers who will perform his work. Certain words and phrases are smooth to sing. Others can be difficult or awkward.

Phrases like “recalcitrant octopuses eat tart grapefruit” are not likely to attract many major league recording artists.

Read your lyrics aloud to see if they are easily “sing-able.” If your word sounds do not flow and sing well, there’s apt to be a problem. If your lyrical phrases prompt awkward stops and stumbles, there’s definitely a problem.

Get into the habit of vocalizing your lyrical lines. You’ll begin to hear the difference.

Poetry can be of almost any length. Lyrics must be concise.

A poem can go on for pages, using concealed images that reveal themselves only after careful re-reading.

In a song lyric, the music moves quickly and every word counts. The best lyric writers use as few words as possible to set a scene and evoke a feeling. Few songs that gain radio play these days are longer than three or four minutes.

Learn to express yourself clearly. Use concise, effective language.

Song Lyrics & Free Verse Poetry

While perfectly appropriate as poetry, free verse (no strict form, rhymes or meter) is rarely set to music with good results.

It can be done, of course, and inovative songwriters like Laurie Anderson have built impressive careers by doing so.

Still, 98 percent of all successful lyrics conform to popular song structures. They offer clear rhyming schemes. They also include clearly delineated verses, choruses, refrains, hooks and/or bridges.

Learn Your Craft!

To learn how to write lyrics, you'll need to learn the craft and educate yourself on basic songwriting structure.

Try This Exercise: Analyze several of your favorite songs. Take the time to notice their specific structures.

When you can clearly discern their individual structures, decide which structures you prefer. Try to figure out which aspects of the various songs most appeal to your particular style and taste.

Then try writing your own song modeled after a song you admire.

As you begin to hear songs with analytical ears, start reading some good books on the subject of lyric writing.

After all, dentists don't become good dentists without a lot of study. Plumbers don't become good plumbers without considerable knowledge and experience. So why should it be any different for lyricists and songwriters?


Note:If your goal is to learn how to write lyrics, there are many great books on the subject of Lyric Writing. Some of the best publications can be found here: Great Books For Songwriters.

SongLyricist.com also recommends Grammy-nominated songwriter Pamela Phillips-Oland’s "The Art of Writing Great Lyrics” and Pat Pattison's "Writing Better Lyrics.” (These books are listed in the column to the right.)


Visit the Lyrics Only listings at Songwriters Resource Network to find music composers, publishers and industry connections!

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