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4 Aspects of Successful Lyric Writing

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This post is part of a series called Songwriting & Composing: From Inspiration to Execution.
7 Places to Find Inspiration for Songs
8 Tips For Self-Critiquing Your Songs

Lyric writing, like melody writing, is ideally a highly personal and individualized matter. Creativity is not about conformity or adhering to strict dogma. That being said, there are some basic rules of thumb that have proven to be quite effective and worth experimenting with as a songwriter matures in the direction of his or her muse.

The old adage that it is wise to learn the rules before you break them is not a stodgy philosophy at all, but rather a nod to those who have gone before us and gleaned some helpful tendencies. Also, on the practical business side of things, it is good to note that an artist writing for himself can afford to deviate a lot more than a tunesmith trying to place tunes on someone else's record. I seriously doubt that the Lennon/McCartney writing team would have written and pitched "I Am The Walrus" hoping to get a cut on an act other than themselves!

At any rate allow me to apologize in advance to those of you who dispute the notion that this craft can be in any way harnessed. The tips in this article are intended to give my slant on a foundation for the art of lyric writing. Far be it from me to suggest that the possibilities of style, form, and direction are not utterly infinite!


1 - The Mechanics

Photo: Phovoir via PhotoDune
Photo: Phovoir via PhotoDune

Form is the skeleton of the body when it comes to songwriting.

Form is the skeleton of the body when it comes to songwriting. Most songs break down into various combinations of verse, pre-chorus or channel, chorus and bridge. If you take a long walk in the woods in the company of your iPod, you can readily learn to identify these sections just by listening.

I used to spend a lot of time at Nashville's idyllic Radnor Lake studying the great songwriters in just such a fashion. While some songs begin with the catchy and noticeable chorus, usually containing the hook or title, most begin with a verse. Here you will usually find the story line, however simple it might be. If there is a bit of a build in the last line or two of the chorus, you can think of that as the rise, pre-chorus, or channel, and its purpose is to feed into the chorus.

The chorus is the repeating part of the song, generally designed to grab the ear and hang on for dear life. It can achieve this memorability by repetition or just plain hookiness.

Not every song has a bridge, but when they exist, the purpose is to touch on an angle not yet touched upon, and to a new melody. I like bridges that feel like a bit of a departure. In most cases they are more thoughtful and less picturesque, if that makes sense.

Speak from one point in time and to one audience.

As you hike down that trail in your town's Radnor Lake, listen to song after song and identify those sections. Even pay attention to the instrumental intro. Note differences between the verses and chorus. Pay attention to the angle of the bridge, the tension in the channel. Analyze the different sort of information between the first and subsequent verses. Look for movement that propels the song forward. Identify filler that should have been discarded.

You will discover tons of variation but in time you will get a feel for what is working, what isn't, and why. Writers with many hits have achieved what they have by finding the balance. I hate to refer to it as a formula because that discounts freshness, but to some degree there are formulas. A human face has a formula, but look at all the beautiful and different configurations of eyes, nose, and mouth!

...listen to song after song and identify those sections.

Rhyme is another important factor in most songs. Successful rhyme or lack thereof is about what feels good to the ear. A verse, for example, may have an ABAB rhyme scheme or an AABB one. The length of the line has a lot to do with what feels best. Long couplet lines in a channel usually conform to AA. Internal rhymes within one line add hookiness and interest as well. In a four line section lines two and four will usually hold the dominant rhyme while lines one and three are unnecessary or at times overkill.

Again though, it all depends on the melody, structure, and the line lengths. John Im's, who wrote Trisha Yearwood's mega-hit, "She's In Love With The Boy" also penned a less playful hit with Reba McEntire's "Falling Out of Love." To the best of my memory, the song contains one rhyme in the chorus with the words 'life' and knife,' and the rest of the song stays very effectively rhymeless. Check it out as a case in point. Conversely, I have heard songs where the determination not to rhyme is very obvious and distracting.

The question of perfect rhymes as opposed to near rhymes is another matter. Some writers are quite happy with simply repeating the same vowel sounds. The closer together the rhyming spots are, the more perfect the rhyme should be. At a greater distance, the ear has less memory of the exact sound it heard. Rhyme can be the topic of study on a different day's walk!

No matter how much you like a line, if it is too crowded, or doesn't flow easily and naturally, perform surgery!There is a big difference between a busy, energetic, chunky line, and one that has way too many syllables. Pre-downbeat pick ups should not have to be miles long either. Also make sure you have open vowel sounds on held notes. Nothing feels worse than a closed-end word like "truck" on a long held note.

One last point on mechanics is that of voice. Speak from one point in time and to one audience. If you are telling the listening audience about the girl you just met, don't hit the chorus by speaking directly to said girl! Pronouns can get messy too. If two males are being mentioned close together and the word "he" suddenly turns up, the listener will be wondering, "Which he?"


2 - Idea

Photo: EQ8Productions via PhotoDune
Photo: EQ8Productions via PhotoDune

A hook book and penn by the bed can spare you some serious pain!

Early on, most songwriters learn the hard way that the 3am idea from last night can vanish by morning coffee time. This can be very frustrating. A hook book and pen by the bed can spare you some serious pain. A small tape recorder or cell phone app is great for melody ideas too.

I keep my hook book with me at all times. You never know when something someone says will suggest a hook or line. Moods, emotions, conversations, movies, books, and plain old inspiration all present ideas that may strike at unexpected times.

There are some great songs out there that employ unadulterated cliches, but I am not a fan of them overall. At least swap out a word or two and make it your own. Sure you are going to cover familiar fodder at times but try to do it in a new and fresh way that is uniquely your own.

Don't underestimate the importance of your opening line either. It can shock, intrigue, or move to tears. Think of it as your movie marquee and ask yourself this: If your opening line was hanging alongside another ten in a theater, would you choose it for your evening's entertainment?

I have written quite a few songs on pure intuition. This type of lyric writing requires a leap of faith, and trusts that the psyche knows where it's going even if you don't! It is amazing to experience this phenomenon when it goes well. It can feel as though you penned the song in a dream and have an unconscious recall of it. Don't be afraid to dump a title if the song heads off on its own and renders your preconceived title impotent.


3 - Verbiage

My best advice is to show it rather than say it.

I have gotten into the habit of attempting to sum up my lyrical idea in one sentence. It helps me to have a better map of where I am going and assures that the various roads I choose are at least moving me closer to my destination.

Staying with the trip metaphor, strive for fresh imagery. Nobody wants to travel down a road they have seen countless times before. Was the sky a blue sky or was it a Michelangelo sky?

Unless the song is deliberately in a stilted poetic style, don't write poetry. Lyric should be interesting but conversational. My best advice is to show it rather than say it. Someone staring out a dirty window downing their second bottle of cabernet is most likely depressed. Paint your scenario in colors far more vivid than a factual word can express.

Now and then, you may find that you have said everything you wanted to say in the first verse and chorus. You then have a remaining half a tank of gas and nowhere to go. Be sure to have enough of an idea to fill a song without becoming boringly redundant. Unfold slowly, and with tension, leaving yourself additional movement.

Occasionally, when you are in a very honest mood, scour your song for worthless filler that rhymes for the sake of rhyme, or does nothing to advance the song. Get tough and toss it. Words like 'very' and 'surely' are often culprits that could be replaced with far more interesting words.

Tired cliches are signs of lazy writing. The distillation process known as rewriting can have an enormous impact on the success of your creation. Sleep on it before you call it finished!


4 - Emotion

Photo: kentoh via PhotoDune
Photo: kentoh via PhotoDune

Probably the most important aspect of good lyric writing is genuine, well-conveyed emotion. Songs written about a real angst-ridden event tend to have an air of gritty realism that fiction-based songs might not. Strive for that realism by calling on past emotions that you can apply to your current idea.

Take your song idea into a fitting room and try on various perspectives.

Consider various tones and moods in expressing your statement. You can come from an angry or hopeful state and still talk about the same matter. Jealousy, rage, joy, humor, and passion all speak a different language. Experiment with different treatments on the same idea.

While good lyric writing should sound personal, avoid writing about such uniquely personal matters that relatability is lost on the listener. Your collection of butterflies might bore me to tears but how that collection relates to your childhood might not. Write a story somebody else would like to read!

Perspective has a great deal to do with emotion. A recent broken heart is devastating while a long ago heartache waxes bittersweet with time. Either can be potently evocative. Take your song idea into a fitting room and try on various perspectives. Step outside yourself and don't always speak as 'you'.

Last but not least, humor is always a welcome emotion in a song. Combine it with 'laundry list' lyrics and you may end up with a darkly witty song like Paul Simon's "Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover." Sarcastic humor is shown in Brad Paisley's hit "Me Neither", and the list goes on. A humorous song does not need to be a novelty song which would tend to be more limiting. Let humor be one more emotional tone to consider when portraying your storyline.


In Closing

Photo: tratong via PhotoDune
Photo: tratong via PhotoDune

In closing, let me offer a metaphor. I have often thought that the job of a songwriter is rather like that of an air traffic controller. The minutest smattering of an idea is not unlike the airplane barely visible and high in the sky. The job of the writer is to bring it in for a successful landing.

Brilliance or total wreckage can ensue depending on the skill of the controller. The next time you find yourself staring at a blank page, envision a glorious touchdown on the runway!

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