Good lyrics have a strong sense of focus — of purpose and direction. It might help to make that statement the opposite way: bad lyrics wander about without being overly clear about what’s even being said.
To say that a song lyric has focus means that it points toward a specific topic and doesn’t stray needlessly. It means that as you read through your lyric, every line supports the direction that’s been provided by the previous line.
Lyrics become all the more powerful when they’re properly paired with a good melody. That’s what Chapter 5 is all about in the eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.” Polish your songwriting technique with the 10-eBook Bundle.
As you move from section to section, you should still notice not just that strong sense of purpose and meaning in the lyric – you’ll notice the vital sense of continuity. True, there may be lines that you don’t understand. There might be lines where the true meaning isn’t revealed yet, but you don’t get the feeling that it’s been thrown in randomly or needlessly.
Finding the Direction In Your Lyrics
Here’s a great to tell if your lyrics have the kind of focus necessary to keep listeners pulled in:
- Point to any line of lyric in your song and read it aloud.
- Say to yourself, “Because I said this, I followed it up with…” – Now read the next line of lyric.
Those two steps should reveal any glitches in the flow of your lyric. Keep in mind that any time adjacent lines of lyric leave you feeling confused as to direction or purpose, you’ll have audiences who will be confused.
It will be helpful to take a good song lyric and test those two steps. Here are the opening lines of Lorde’s song “Liability” (Ella Yelich-O’Connor, Jack Antonoff):
Baby really hurt me
Crying in the taxi
He don’t wanna know me
Says he made the big mistake of dancing in my storm
Says it was poison
So I guess I’ll go home
You pick up a sense of direction right away. Within a line or two you know what’s being sung about: someone who’s been hurt by someone she loves. Now read each line, and notice that the “because I said this, I followed it up with…” really makes sense. The lyric is strong and relentless as all good lyrics should be. There is a laser focus.
Another way to check the focus of your lyric is to read a line, then ask yourself, “What’s that line doing there?” Then read the line before it. There should be a strong sense of continuity.
This becomes really important in songs where the meaning isn’t so clear. You might be using more complex metaphors and analogies, masking the true meaning of your lyric. The sense of direction and focus still needs to be there.
So it’s time to put the magnifying glass on your lyrics and clean up the lines. Don’t allow listeners to get pulled about aimlessly by bad, directionless lyrics.
Time to fix what’s ailing your songs. Read “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” – It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” – Or get it separately.
Sometimes when I write a blog post that deals with chord progressions, I realize, usually by emails I receive, that the terminology or symbols that I’m using might be confusing or misunderstood. Because chords are such an important part of music in any genre, different ways to describe and name them have developed more or less independently of each other.
“Chord Progression Formulas” gives you a set of simple formulas from which you can create dozens of progressions in mere moments. It shows you the basics of how chords work, and gives you chords that you can use right away in your own songs. Get it separately, or as part of the 10-eBook Bundle.
So if you’re not sure what we mean by “chord inversions”, “minor 7th”, “suspensions” and/or “parallel roots,” I thought I might offer the following short list of chord progression basics to help you as you work out your songs.
- Read “10 Chord Progression Questions and Answers.” Years ago I wrote this short blog post in a bid to help clear up some confusion regarding some of the more commonly used terms with regard to chord progressions. You may want to give that a read.
- Roman numerals. Especially in traditional harmony circles, chords are often identified by using Roman numerals. The reason is that it makes transposing them to any other key a lot easier. This link opens a Wikipedia page that gives some basic information.
- Nashville Number System. This is similar to Roman numerals, and is often used by musicians who work in pop genres. Here’s an article that will give you an idea of how it works.
- Chord Progression Complexity. If you’re looking for ways to make your chords sound more interesting and creative, read this article that I wrote last year: “How to Create Interesting Moments Within Strong Chord Progressions.”
- The Concept of Strong and Fragile Chord Progressions. In my video, “What Are Strong and Fragile Chord Progressions, and How Do I Use Them?”, I’ve defined fragile and strong progressions – what they are, and where they might appear in a song. This is an important concept for strengthening the underlying musical structure of your songs.
- Thinking of Chord Progressions as a Kind of Musical Journey. This recent article,”Chord Progressions: The Journey Away, and the Journey Back Home,” shows you a good way to make longer progressions sound more interesting: by moving from major to minor, and then switching gears to make the trip back to the tonic chord.
As a final bit of advice, I’ve written hundreds of articles on this blog over the past number of years about chord progressions. So in the search bar near the top of this page, simply type “chord progressions”, hit “Return”, and you’ll find many articles, some of which might be addressing the issues you’re facing as a songwriter today.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”.
If you find that you just can’t finish any song you start these days, give yourself a break from writing before the frustrations get too deep. It’s often a good time to involve yourself in music, but from a completely different angle.
If most of the music you write comes about by playing around with your computer (loops, sequences, etc.), it’s too easy to lose touch with other aspects of music: playing it, listening to it, talking about it, and so on.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” comes with a free eBook, “Creative Chord Progressions.” The eBooks in that bundle cover every aspect of songwriting, and it will improve your technique and move you toward being a more consistently excellent songwriter.
So before your creative block moves from being mild to severe, try the following activities. They’ll keep you excited about music, and have the benefit of recharging your creative powers:
- Organize a concert of local singer-songwriter talent. Talk to owners of a local café, bar, or other similar gathering place, about arranging a singer-songwriter talent evening or open mic. Sometimes just hearing and seeing other people performing their own songs can inspire you to get writing again.
- Think of arranging already-existing songs rather than composing new ones. When you compose, the pressure is on to come up with something completely original. But what about taking, let’s say, a public domain folk song — as Simon and Garfunkel did with “Scarborough Fair” — and treating it as if it were your own composition. The melody and lyrics are already there for you to use, and now you simply have to turn your attention to the musical presentation — the production.
- Improve your playing abilities. It can help your songwriting chops to become a better instrumentalist. We all have musical “muscle memory”, where our fingers move to the same shapes and ideas over and over again. The better the player you are, the more ideas you’ll be able to create and tap into as a songwriter.
- Start a blog or a podcast and write and talk about songwriting. Sometimes just getting your thoughts written down helps make you more disciplined, and that kind of organization goes a long way to sorting out the problems you might have been having maintaining a creative songwriting flow.
- Collaborate on a musical project with someone from another artistic discipline. As a student of music years ago, I collaborated with a poet and a choreographer at Dalhousie University, and together we created a short ballet. The poetry was to be recited as the music was played, so I didn’t have to worry about setting the words as lyrics. Working this way felt exciting and innovative, and it was amazing to see people onstage dancing to the music I had written. The project was different enough from every other writing project I had done that it felt inspiring and musically exciting.
When writer’s block hits, it’s usually some form of fear — a fear of failure. A creative block has a hard time taking hold if you frequently change how you involve yourself in music. Routines are good because you can work to get better at what you do.
But when you feel that you’ve become enslaved by your creative routine, it’s time to look at music from different angles. Look for ways to feel musical and creative that get you out of your rut.
Sometimes you can tell that a song needs help, but you just don’t know how to fix it. You need to read “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” It will describe the most common problems you’ll encounter as a songwriter, along with solutions you can try. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
Hooks feature prominently in pop songs because they grab immediate attention. If it’s a chorus hook, it’s not going to be heard until you get to the chorus, but that should happen before the 1-minute mark in most mid-tempo or uptempo songs.
Because songs in the pop genres are relatively short, a lot is riding on the success of a hook. If, by the time that chorus hook finally becomes evident to the listener, you aren’t grabbing attention with it, listeners will abandon your song and go looking for something else.
The hook might be one of the most misunderstood elements in music. Get the full picture, and learn how to use hooks effectively in your own songs: “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base.” Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
The longterm viability of a song depends in large part on the quality of the lyric, but the hook has the important job of pulling in fans and keeping them there.
How do you know if you’ve come up with a hook that really works? Here’s a checklist you can use:
- The chord progression is short, strong and repetitive. Strong means that it sits strongly in a key — there’s nothing ambiguous about it. So C Ab augmented is tricky to use, but C F, or C Bb, etc. are much stronger. Example: “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson)
- The rhythm of the melody is interesting, usually incorporating a syncopation. A syncopation is a kind of rhythm where the majority of notes are happening “between the beats.” Think of the “Don’t believe me just watch” line from “Uptown Funk”, and you get the picture.
- The backing rhythm of the accompanying instruments helps to bring the hook to life. Yes, a hook can and should sound enticing even if you sing it on its own. But there is an important instrumental factor that contributes musical energy. Careful though: if you leave all of the work of generating musical energy to the backing instruments, a hook has a way of sounding quickly irrelevant.
- The melody moves, often incorporating a leap. You can have songs where the hook features a static melody line (“All You Need Is Love” — Lennon & McCarney), but most of the time your hook will benefit from a melody that moves a little, often using an upward leap. Example: Maroon 5 – “Sugar“
- The hook sounds like the natural follower of whatever happened in the verse. If you use the analogy of a song verse as climbing a mountain, the chorus hook is the mountain peak. And it needs to sound that way. The audience needs to hear something building. It might be the melody rising; it might be instrumentation building, or even an obvious direction coming from the lyric. Then the chorus hook needs to be exciting, even breathtaking. Example: John Legend -“All Of Me.”
- The hook sounds great when it is repeated. And that’s one of the most important characteristics of a good hook; you want to keep hearing it.
In the final analysis, what really matters is: do you like it? Listen objectively, and ask yourself: Does this hook excite me? Does it make me want to keep listening? For any good hook, if you need to ask someone if it’s any good, it probably isn’t.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” is a complete set of eBooks that shows you how to write great songs. Written clearly and concisely, with sound samples to demonstrate the concepts.
If you’re trying to create chord progressions that stray pleasantly away from the standard I-IV-V-I kind, you need to read “Creative Chord Progressions.” Right now, that eBook is FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
I learned something important about teaching very early in my career: if you want people to understand that new thing you’re teaching them, you need to start by giving them something they already know. I’m going to tell you more about that because it has a direct application to developing a unique songwriting style.
Teaching in a Nutshell
Let’s say you want to teach a class about some aspect of plants — why most plants are green, for example. You could begin with a discussion of photosynthesis, but that would likely leave many students scrambling to understand all the related terms: chlorophyll, carbon dioxide, chloroplasts, etc. A lesson that starts that way would leave students feeling that they’re in over their heads, and they would quickly lose interest.
The better way to go is to start by observing the things they can see with their own eyes, using terminology they’re already using in their everyday life: green, fade, dark, light, etc. So you might show them that not all plants are green, that there are different shades of green, that blocking the sun from a plant makes the green fade, and so on.
By starting that way, you encourage the student, because they already know these things, and they feel more inclined to stick with you — to trust you.
Deeper, More Creative Songwriting
Now let’s shift back to songwriting. Let’s say that you want to write the kind of music that really makes people think, that goes beyond what they might hear on the Billboard Hot 100. If you want to keep your fans and then build on that fan base, you need to present your music as carefully as a good teacher might present a lesson on something as complicated as chlorophyll:
- Offer your audience something they are familiar with. The Beatles’ groundbreaking album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is known for its innovative ideas and genre-stretching songs. But innovation is offered in small doses. The title song is, at its core, a good ol’ rocker, but with innovative elements thrown in: french horns, audience sounds, an interesting segue to the second tune, etc. But it’s an easy song for listeners to get their heads into.
- Keep innovation from taking over the song. Innovation is like a spice; use too much, and it’s all you’ll notice, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A little bit of innovation goes a long, long way.
- Make innovative elements in your song relevant to what the song’s about. The strange harpsichord part in “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” helps the audience feel the strange scene being described in the lyric, so it has an important place. It’s relevant.
- Use innovation in an “ebb and flow” kind of way. If you start with something tricky for an audience to comprehend, move then to something easier for them. Then move back toward the abstract, then again back to easy. That ebb and flow approach will encourage your listeners, helping them to trust that you aren’t leaving them behind.
Just as a good teacher moves toward the unknown in small, carefully measured steps, you can successfully pull your audience along with you in a more thought-provoking direction if you move carefully, helping them to understand your musical motives and goals.
Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks. They’ll help you polish your technique, and make you the best songwriter you can be. Comes with a Study Guide, tons of chord progressions, and information covering every aspect of how to write good music.
I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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