It never ceases to amaze me how music can add so much depth and meaning to the words you use. Or sometimes even without words the music itself can strike deep into the emotional core of the listener.
A good example of that can be seen in this video… it shows the opening scene of “The Lion King”, with different background music. You can easily feel the difference in how you react to the scene based on the character of the music that accompanies it:
We also witness the power of music when we hear a motivational speech where gradually some uplifting music fades in and powers up the message. Movies and television shows do this all the time.
As a songwriter, it’s important to know this, and to think long and hard about the music you write to accompany your lyrics. You may be saying something important through the words you choose, but are they being properly supported and hopefully enhanced by the music you write?
One good way to check the effectiveness of your musical choices is to do this:
- Read your lyric simply as a poem, and make note of the emotions those words generate.
- Then sing the lyric as an unaccompanied melody and see if the emotions you pick up from the music seem to match (at least in some way) the emotions of your words.
Doing this is a simple experiment, but it gives you the opportunity to find those moments in your musical choices that might be leaving your lyrics floundering when they could be feeling more powerful.
Sometimes the changes you might make can be simple ones. For example, you might find that transposing your song into a higher key can be all the boost that’s necessary for generating more excitement for your lyric. Or perhaps moving the tempo faster or slower will make a surprising change to the way the meaning of your words is perceived
All this is simply to say that good songs are a partnership of components. No one element of your song will act in isolation from the other elements. And to use an expression you will already know very well from your own life lessons: a song is only as good as its weakest link.
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The whole notion of songwriting without being inspired to write — it begs the question, “Why”? Why write if you’re not particularly inspired to do so?
One reason you might write when not “feeling the muse” is that you’ve got a looming deadline. Perhaps you’re recording, and you need one more song. Maybe you’re taking part in a songwriting circle or workshop, and you need a song to contribute.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
Or maybe you’re providing songs and other music for someone else’s project, like a film or YouTube video.
When deadlines are approaching, you can’t afford to sit back and say, “I’ll get to it when I feel inspired.” On this blog I’ve often quoted the great American composer Leonard Bernstein, who said: ““Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… The wait is simply too long.”
So what is that approach? How do you get down to the business of songwriting if you just aren’t coming up with exciting ideas, and you’d rather sweep the floor than write?
Good songwriting is a conglomeration of good habits. Once you’ve put a process in place — a sensible way to tackle the task of songwriting — you’ll find that your own musical ideas will generate a kind of musical excitement that serves as its own inspiration.
So when Bernstein mentioned “approach”, he was likely referring to a set of habits that will serve you well when specific ideas are lacking.
Here, in my opinion, are four things that a songwriter could and should be doing pretty much every day:
- Make songwriting a daily activity. For at least five out of seven days, you should make attempts to write music. These attempts may just be short tasks, like writing a line or two of lyric, or working out a chord progression for a verse or chorus, but it needs to be done regularly. Don’t feel you have to write a complete song every time you sit down to work.
- Listen to songs daily. Just as writing is an important daily activity, listening can be every bit as important. Familiarize yourself with other songs in your chosen genre, and then expand outward to listen to songs from other genres. The more you listen, the more your musical mind will expand and develop.
- Record your own song snippets and listen carefully. Ask yourself, “If this were someone else’s song, what would I suggest they do next with it?” This kind of objective listening is an important part of becoming better at the art of songwriting. Listening to a short smartphone recording gives you a kind of distance that makes it easier to imagine it being written by someone else, and can help you hear your own songs the way others will hear them.
- Every few days give yourself a songwriting challenge. For example, give yourself a simple two-chord progression (Cm-F), play it over and over, and then set a timer for 3-5 minutes, and see how many melodic ideas you can come up with. Or write a line of lyric, and see if you can come up with ten possible lines that could follow it. Songwriting challenges force you to work quickly, and there is value in requiring your musical mind to generate ideas on the spur of the moment.
And as I mentioned, you start to notice that your own musical ideas — the snippets of melodies, chords, lyrics, etc. — will create within you a kind of inspiration that keeps you excited. This kind of “internally-sourced inspiration” is much more powerful than any other kind, and it puts you in the same mind-space as many of the world’s top songwriters.
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Like so many things in the creative arts, imagery is difficult to define with any kind of precision. Of course you could say that imagery in songwriting is, simply, anything that creates images in the mind of the listener.
But to me, there’s more to it, because practically anything you write will create images. In “You Belong With Me”, Taylor Swift wrote:
You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset
She’s going off about something that you said
‘Cause she doesn’t get your humor like I do
And you get images in your mind right away. But while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that lyric, it’s not what we usually mean by imagery. So what then?
Specifically, I’d say that good imagery has that particular quality of creating a maximum of images in a listener’s mind with a minimum of words. In that regard, there’s an efficiency in good imagery. With a few well-chosen words, a good lyricist can generate multiple, perhaps complex, images.
Most of the time, we value a good lyricist’s ability to do this sort of thing without really realizing that that’s what we’re valuing. In other words, the good lyricists have a way of painting a full and comprehensive scene with just a few well-placed words.
Often it comes down to word choice, because the words you finally settle on will give us deeper meanings — some important subtext — that paints that fuller picture.
Fat man sitting on a little stool
Takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you
His choice of “his eyes take a walk all over you” says more than “he couldn’t take his eyes off you.” It gives us the man’s attitude. He sounds a little “greasier” — a little smarmier. That’s what I mean when I say that with a minimum of words we get a fuller picture.
“Tunnel of Love” is also a great example of other things that good imagery does, which is to use metaphors and similes to further amplify meaning. You get the feeling that most of what he’s writing about is a metaphor, and then you start to wonder if it’s possible that even that opening line is actually a metaphor for something else: perhaps the “fat man sitting on a little stool” is Springsteen’s way of describing the challenges of living in a relationship. It’s fun to wonder.
And in the end, good imagery does that — a lot! It makes you question what you’re seeing as you take in all the images the song lyric generates. You then realize that you can use the singer’s instrumental choices, modal choices, chords choices and more to help you understand those images. When imagery works, it makes songs fun to think about.
The best way to improve your use of imagery in songwriting is to find those lyricists that you like, and ask yourself what it is that you like about them. Learn from them. Analyze what they say, and how they say it. And then see what you can do to emulate their technique in your own writing.
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I watched an interesting and very good analysis video of The Beatles’ “Now and Then“, called “Comparing John’s demo to the final Beatles track” (David Bennett Piano). As you likely know, the song was composed and performed in demo version by John Lennon back in the 70s, and the analysis video takes a closer look at the original song, with particular attention to an additional section of the song that didn’t make the final Beatles version.
That missing section is called a pre-chorus in the analysis video, though it doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to what most pre-chorus sections in songs do:
- A pre-chorus typically exists to help create a stronger connection between verse and chorus.
- It usually builds musical energy to meet the higher energy levels of a chorus.
- More often than not, it needs the verse before it to help make musical sense.
In “Now and Then”, I wouldn’t actually call that a pre-chorus. It sounds more like Lennon had a larger view of the song, and probably thought of it more as a “first this section, then that section” kind of design. With that pre-chorus in the picture, the song sounds like a three-part construction, with what you might call a “Melody 1”, “Melody 2”, and “Melody 3.”
Writing a good hook is arguably one of the most important aspects of a good pop song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base”, is available at “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Online Store.
But what you call sections, in the end, doesn’t really matter in my opinion, and Bennett is in my opinion absolutely correct to say that Lennon’s pre-chorus negatively affected the flow of the music. The decision to leave it out was the right one, and the newly-created instrumental bridge works really nicely.
And the reason Lennon’s original pre-chorus doesn’t work as well as the other sections is that it doesn’t distinguish itself enough. It sounds a bit too much like the verse and the chorus, and the result is that the music flounders a little. Remove that pre-chorus and suddenly everything tightens up. The end result is that “Now and Then” — the Beatles’ version — is brilliant.
I hope you take the time to listen to David Bennett Piano’s analysis, because it’s a good one, and his analysis of what’s going on regarding keys and modulation is important to understand.
But what I mainly intended to mention in this post was something to do with musical editing. I’ve made the point before that some of the best editing that’s done in the creative arts is the removal of things you thought would work.
In my own writing, I almost can’t think of a time when something I edited or changed in some way wound up being longer. Practically always, as musical composers, we include more than we usually need.
And so when songs get a little long, your audience can get a bit lost, wondering where (in a musical sense) they are. Especially in the pop genres, more songs will suffer from being too long than being too short.
There’s no rule or obvious guideline as to how to know when a song is getting too long. For some things you just have to trust your instincts, and don’t fall in love with your song too soon. Be courageous to change it, to leave something out that you may have sweated over for days or weeks if it makes the final product stronger.
If you’d like to learn more about pre-chorus sections and what they typically do in songs, please read my post, “Taking a Close Look at a Song’s Pre-Chorus.”
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If you look at a lyric from a typical pop song, you’re not usually looking at something that’s deep or complex. Usually that’s by design: the purpose of most pop songs is to create emotions within the listener, and it’s hard to create emotions when the words and their contextual meanings are intricate or convoluted. Words that often appear in casual conversation are the most common ones to use in song lyrics.
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But there are exceptions. There are songs that have been chart toppers where the meaning of the lyric is elusive. Sometimes it’s a case that the lyrics, line by line, are making perfect sense, but what’s actually being talked about is less obvious when you put it all together, as in the lyric to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971):
There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is goldAnd she’s buying a stairway to HeavenWhen she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closedWith a word she can get what she came forOoh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to Heaven
Or Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” (1977):
To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Though my life was in a rut
‘Til I thought of what I’ll say
Which connection I should cut
Sometimes, as in the case of several John Lennon songs, the lyric might be purposely abstract, simply to throw a wrench into the brains of listeners prone to over-analysis, as in “Come Together”:
He wear no shoe shineHe got toe jam football He got monkey finger He shoot Coca-Cola He say I know you, you know me One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
In a weird sort of way, the songs where the meaning is not immediately apparent can often still work, and can even, in combination with the melodies, chords and performance style, create an emotional reaction in the minds of the listeners.
How can a complex lyric do that, if the overall meaning isn’t obvious?
The Power of a Single Line
If you take a song that seems lyrically dense, but then simply go line by line, your brain becomes more likely to create significance to the lines that, on their own, seem quite clear. So in “Come Together”, when Lennon sings “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free“, we find ourselves nodding vigorously and agreeing.
And not only agreeing, but valuing the meaning of that line all the more, simply because we understand it: it’s a moment of powerful clarity in an otherwise jumbled up collection of words and lines.
I love complex lyrics — the ones where I can tell there’s something there that I’m not seeing right away, but I know it’s there. It makes me want to go back and listen again, and hopefully to eventually come up with a theory of what the songwriter had in mind.
And I may be wrong when I finally decide the meaning, but for me, the fact that I could be wrong doesn’t necessarily diminish my interest in the song. And most good songwriters accept that different people will derive different meaning from lyrics, and they’re usually fine with that.
So this is not a plea from me to encourage you to write complex lyrics that, taken together, form nothing more than garbage, with a few lines that make sense. I’m suggesting though that if you like writing lyrics that are complex, realize that your audience will start to focus on single lines if the entire lyric is beyond them.
Once you’ve written a lyric where you realize that the fuller more comprehensive meaning may be elusive, read back through your lyric and see what you think listeners might choose to focus on as single lines. Do those lines have the potential to create emotions in your listeners. I find myself wondering if “Come Together”, without those moments of clarity (even just that simple line, “Come together”) would have succeeded?
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5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics
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I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.
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