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A few days ago I wrote a post that offered a step-by-step for writing a song lyric. I hope you’ve tried that, but there’s another way to put your lyrics front-and-centre in your songwriting process, which is to make lyrics part of your initial song improvisations.
If you want to see this in action, there’s a great video of John Mayer giving what amounts to a masterclass on how this is done:
You’ll be struck by the ease with which Mayer can let the words happen, and I encourage you to give it a try. It requires good instrumental technique, of course, because you’ll want to feel free from knowing what your fingers are going to do next.
This is not a contrast to my suggestion of brainstorming titles and phrases as I suggested in “7 Steps For Writing a Well-Structured Song Lyric” because in fact the brainstorming of ideas and song titles can be inspired by this kind of on-the-spot lyric improvisation.
There are many benefits that come from improvising lyrics in this way:
- You get to hear how lyrics (particularly the rhythm of the words) and melody support each other.
- You can develop the mood of your song right away.
- You can test out words and phrases, keeping what works and tossing what doesn’t.
- You get a head start on creating useful word lists.
- You get a strong sense of direction — of what the song is going to be about — by seeing where your mind takes you.
As with any kind of improvisation — melody, chords, etc. — you generate a lot of stuff that’s weak, but you also stumble across phrases, ideas, hooks, and word/music interplay that you know will work.
And as a first step, it’s a great way to feel immediately creative.
Improvising music and words is a great daily activity. If you’re the kind of songwriter who finds it hard to write on a daily basis, improvising melodies and lyrics works well to take the pressure off and let your musical mind do its thing.
So turn on your digital recorder, start playing, and see what your musical mind comes up with!
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I recently read an interesting article written by Susan Reynolds, “Five Reasons You’re Experiencing Writer’s Block,” available at the Psychology Today website. In it, Reynolds make the case that writer’s block is a condition that we’ve created for ease of identification, and that it doesn’t actually exist. She starts this way:
We’re going to go there, right now, even though it might lead to automatic resistance: Writer’s block is a myth.
Her assertion isn’t as radical as it sounds, and in fact, I hope you take the time to read her article because she offers a very clear analysis of what’s going on when you feel “blocked.” Though her essay pertains specifically to writers of fiction and non-fiction, her observations apply every bit as much to the writing of music.
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To summarize her position on writer’s block, Reynolds contends that difficulties in writing is part of what being a writer is all about. It’s a natural condition. Partly through the “creation” of the term writer’s block (“the concept originated in the early 19th Century when the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first described his “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent”), we’ve come to expect that the free-flowing of ideas is the normal condition, and difficulties getting the flow happening is a situation to be fixed.
Reynolds then outlines what she sees as the five most common reasons for difficulties being creative:
- You’ve Lost Your Way
- Your Passion Has Waned
- Your Expectations Are Too High
- You Are Burned Out
- You’re Too Distracted
Again, I encourage you to read her article because I think she makes some very strong points, and her thoughts on each of those headings are very useful for anyone in the creative arts, including, I believe, songwriters.
I have only one quibble: she’s saying that the fact that there are real reasons for creative difficulties (“You are burned out”, for example) means that you don’t really have writer’s block, you are simply exhausted. “Lie back, have a margarita, and chill,” she says. “Once you’re rested, you’ll likely find the desire to write has come roaring back.”
I’m struggling to believe that a case of burnout can be solved by a margarita. To me, burnout is a deeper condition that usually requires implementing some fundamental changes in one’s creative process.
I do like her point that by labeling creative difficulties as writer’s block, we’ve created a condition that needs solutions, when in fact the normal state of things in creative writing (whether words or music) is dealing with creative difficulties. A bit like coming up with a medical term for hunger pangs.
But each one of the reasons she lists for writer’s block, whether they’re a normal part of writing or not, has a more common cause: a fear of failure. It may be true that creative difficulties are a normal part of writing, but a fear of failure can make those common difficulties feel debilitating.
And not only debilitating, but bigger and more daunting than they need to be. Whether a creative block is normal or not, some writers still need help coping with it, and coming up with real solutions that will help them see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this; please add your comments below.
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If you’re not sure what’s meant by a phrase, think of it as a part of a sentence up to a comma or a period, where the sentence seems to pause, either temporarily or permanently, like this 2-phrase unit from Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening”:
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village, though;
In music, you get a similar feeling of pausing at the end of phrases, like with Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”:
When are you gonna come down?
When are you going to land?
Whatever happens in the phrases of a melody is what builds or dissipates musical energy. If each phrase of a melody sounds like the one previous to it, you might get the sense of musical energy staying still, perhaps like the opening phrases of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”:
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
As you know, in “Hallelujah,” the lines that follow those move upward in pitch, and rising pitch is one of the most effective ways we have of building musical energy in a song. There are other ways we can build musical energy of course, including building instrumentation, intensifying rhythm, and so on.
But range is a good one to think about. While the way “Hallelujah” moves constantly upward through the verse is a very common songwriter’s technique, you can also achieve a nice sense of energy build by pausing the upward movement of the melody, and then jumping up again.
Sigrid’s 2017 hit song “Don’t Kill My Vibe” is a good demonstration of this. I mentioned this great song in a previous post (“Properly Preparing the Chorus Hook“), but I mention it here again because it’s a nice demonstration of how temporarily moving a verse melody to lower notes allows the build afterward to be more effective.
You’ll notice that the first two phrases use an identical melodic idea:
You shut me down, you like the control
You speak to me like I’m a child
Most of the time, you’d hear a 3rd phrase that repeats this idea, with perhaps a slow rising in pitch happening at the end of that 3rd phrase; ultimately, you’ll want the verse to connect smoothly to the chorus.
But in “Don’t Kill My Vibe”, the 3rd phrase moves downward, not upward:
Try to hold it down, I know the answer
The 4th phrase generally repeats what happened in the first 2 phrases. But the fact that the 3rd phrase moves lower allows the return of the original pitches in the 4th phrase to sound more energetic, as if a build is happening.
Using Range to Build Song Energy, Simplified
If this seems overly analytical, here’s a simplified way of doing something similar in your own songs:
- Create a short musical phrase to start your verse.
- Repeat that phrase for the second phrase.
- Create a new, third phrase that dips lower in pitch.
- Create a 4th phrase that repeats (exactly or approximately) the first phrase.
To make this work well, you’ll want to then write a chorus that sits higher in pitch than what you wrote for the verse.
The benefit to allowing the 3rd phrase to dip lower is that you’re able to simulate a range build between phrase 3 and phrase 4, and that helps you to use range as a way of building energy while keeping the entire verse contained within an easy singing range.
Using range in this way is just one method at your disposal for manipulating the musical energy of your songs. If you want to see how you can manipulate chords to build energy, read “Building Musical Energy With a Dominant Pedal”
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A good lyric tells a story, whether that’s an actual “first this happened, then that happened” kind of lyric (like the stereotypical “A Boy Named Sue” – Johnny Cash), or whether the story happens indirectly, and we piece the details together, like Pink’s “Funhouse” (Pink, Tony Kanal, Jimmy Harry).
A lyric where the story is inferred in an indirect sort of way has its own challenges. In a way, you want a fuller story to be obvious even if you’re simply pulling together a series of descriptions, situations and circumstances.
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But if you find that your lyric sounds disorganized or somehow missing the mark, this is often the reason: even songs that aren’t specifically story songs often need to have a story implied in order to work well.
To that end, the best way to ensure that your song lyric pulls the listener along in a sensible, organized way is to start the lyric-writing process by writing a story.
There are many ways this process can take shape, but here’s one way that should always give you something strong to use as the basis for your lyric:
- Brainstorm titles or song ideas. A catchy title, even if you don’t know what it’s going to lead to yet, can often provide great material for a fuller story. So make a good list of titles that stimulate the imagination.
- Create a list of words and phrases that pertain to the title. Let’s say you’ve come up with “You Don’t Know Me” as a potential song title. Start thinking about what might lead someone to say that sentence. “You thought I’d always be there for you“; “You thought I’d let you down“; “You think that I’d give up on you“… that sort of thing. Eventually, one of these ideas will sound like the foundation for a story.
- Settle on a possible story based on the phrases you came up with in Step 2 above.
- Write a short story based on your idea. Don’t think at all about fashioning it into a lyric — that’s not the purpose here. Keep it short – 1-2 pages. Make it a true story in the sense that something happens with the potential for emotional connection by the audience.
- Write a new list of words and phrases that pertain to your story. Try to use words that you perhaps didn’t even use in your story. This step gives you the vocabulary you’ll use to rewrite your story in lyric form.
- Once you’ve got a good, long list, circle the words that are highly emotive, the ones you’d likely use in a song’s chorus. The other words will be ones you’d likely use in a verse.
- Between your story and your list of words and phrases, start working out your lyric.
Once you’ve arrived at Step 7, you’ll find that you’ve got a strong story in your mind, and the lyric you write that comes out of the previous 6 steps will benefit from the structure and organization that comes along with those steps.
So even if your song doesn’t take on the shape of a typical so-called story song, the fact that you’ve got a story in your mind keeps you from getting lost, and ensures that you’ve got situations and emotions happening in the right order.
A song that has the title “You Don’t Know Me” might only be a series of statements and opinions, but the fact that you happen to have written a story as a first step helps you create a powerful emotional arc that keeps your audience engaged and interested.
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Nothing slows the songwriting process down as much as second guessing every idea you get. Silencing your inner critic, at least temporarily, is a good way of making sure that you give yourself a fair chance to get something written.
You need to give yourself the opportunity to hear what different song components sound like when you put them together. And that process of finding the right melody with the right chords and the right lyric can take some time. So while that process is working itself out, you need to cut yourself some slack.
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Being an objective critic is an important part of songwriting excellence, but you need to approach this sort of thing with balance in mind. To that end, here’re some ideas for taming your inner critic while also being suitably fussy with the music you write:
- Critique your song at predetermined moments. I wrote about this in an article a year ago, called “Evaluating Your Song At Every Step of Writing It.” All I mean by this notion is that you should allow yourself the chance to get enough of something written that it gives you the chance to assess it as a somewhat complete unit. So instead of beating yourself up because the second line of your lyric isn’t working yet, get the section you’re working on finished, then sit back and look at it. Everyone needs that kind of chance to get something working.
- Accept that while composing, some bits of your song can be weak while others are strong. We have a tendency to evaluate our songs as a whole, and even though we acknowledge that bits of lyric, for example, might need more work, we can slide into an attitude that the entire song needs help. I’ve often been astonished in my own writing how fixing one thing can make everything sound better.
- Don’t constantly compare your music to the songs of your songwriting hero. Allow yourself the benefit of the doubt, that your songs are different, unique and special. No one gains fame by being exactly the same as someone else.
- Remember that your song can be great and still displease some people. No one gets a free pass in the music world. Everything you write will have some who love it and some who don’t. The fact that someone doesn’t like your song is not the determining factor when deciding if it needs to be edited or tossed.
- The best way to be positive through the self-critiquing process is to give yourself time. If a song isn’t working and it’s not immediately obvious why, take some time away from the song and start working on something else. After a week or more, go back to the song and listen to it. With the passage of that kind of time, the problems become a bit more obvious and easier to solve.
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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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