Justin Vernon - Bon Iver - 22, A Million

Turning Your Poems Into Song Lyrics

Have you ever had the experience of feeling that you write pretty good poetry, but every time you try to come up with a melody and chords that makes it sound like a good song lyric, it just doesn’t work?

There are any number of reasons why that might be happening. Here are some possible ones:

  1. A lyric needs to sound conversational. That means that the words you use and the way you combine them need to sound a bit more casual than what you might encounter with poetry.
  2. A lyric usually uses words that are commonly spoken by most people. That’s why “Saw you last night at the party…” is going to work, while “Like a symphonic unction by Ditters von Dittersdorf…” may not make the requisite connection.
  3. A lyric needs to make an emotional connection. Singing about how no one understands the relationship you have with your latest love is practically always going to work, but singing about the quadratic equation will take some doing.

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There are other qualities of good lyrics, but those are three big ones. Those three characteristics expose a problem that a lot of poetry has, which is that while lyrics need to be sung to be fully appreciated, most poetry needs to work on the page first and foremost. You can read poems aloud, of course, but there is an aspect of good poems that needs to come alive before ever speaking them out loud.

What makes a lyric come alive is its immediate appeal to the human condition. A good lyric makes someone say, “Yes, I’ve felt that before…”, or “Wow, I’m really feeling that right now in my life…”, or something similar.

We think of poetry as often being complex and deep, and song lyrics as having an immediate appeal. But that’s not necessarily true. It is possible for lyrics to be complex while also touching the heart of the listener in an immediate way, and the really good lyrics do just that:

We find God and religions to
Staying at the Ace Hotel
If the calm would allow
I would just be floating now
It would make me pass to let it pass on
I’m climbing the dash, that skin

(Here in this room, this narrow room where life began when we were young last night)

Justin Vernon, “33 “God””

This lyric by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver from the album 22, A Million passes as both poetry and lyric. It’s got the best qualities of both. On the lyric side, it uses mainly simple words, the kind you’d find in a normal conversation. But it uses powerful imagery, all brought together in a complex way.

You can pause on every phrase and savour its deeper meanings. No doubt every line of this lyric touches different listeners in different ways. That’s what a good lyric does. It makes you think, but more than that, it touches you.

If your poems aren’t translating well into lyrics, here are some things to think about:

  1. Have you used words that are meant to create an emotional response? (In the Justin Vernon lyric fragment above, the words that might do that are “find God”, “the calm”, “floating”, “in this room”, etc.)
  2. Is the point of your lyric to address an emotional condition? The answer should be ‘yes’. Your lyric should make a listener think, “I think I’ve felt this before…”
  3. Have I avoided words and phrases that don’t come from casual conversation? That’s not to mean that your lyric needs to sound like a conversation, but the actual bits and pieces — the words — need to avoid pretentious complexity.

You may find that the lyric from “33 “God”” isn’t your cup of tea, and that’s fine. You may want something more immediate in its appeal and its inner meaning. But regardless, all poetry needs to touch the listener, and the listeners will make the decision regarding how hard they want to work at it.

If your poem doesn’t do those three things listed above, it might actually be an excellent poem without being a useful lyric. It’s definitely possible to adjust a poem to make the emotional connection that a lyric needs to do, but then you have a decision to make: keep the poem and work on something else, or sacrifice a good poem to create a good lyric.

Most of the time I’d advocate for the former. There are lots of ways to say things, and if I were you and a poem isn’t working well as a lyric, I’d keep the poem and enjoy it for what it is. Then I’d get busy writing something that’s going to work better as a song lyric.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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