Good Lyrics are Developed After They Are Written

“There’s nothing worse than bad lyricists trying to sound deep. Like coolness, profundity can’t be faked.”
Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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cohenLeonard Cohen has spoken of songwriting as “cultivat[ing] this tiny corner of the field that I thought I knew something about…” For him, and for any good songwriter, lyrical ideas may happen spontaneously, but it’s what you do with those original ideas that really count. Like a garden, musical ideas need time to grow.

Mind you, many songs make it big even though their lyric might be totally lacking in profundity. And frankly, there’s nothing worse than bad lyricists trying to sound deep. Like coolness, profundity can’t be faked.

But the biggest problem with bad lyrics is not that they aren’t profound. It’s more that, like a garden, the ideas haven’t had time to grow and mature. Would that we could all turn a phrase like Cohen, but coming up with a deep lyric is not necessarily the aim. Constructing a lyric that is 1) true to the emotion of the subject matter, 2) consistent with the temper of the song, and 3) flow in a natural way, aligned with the contour of the melody and song energy, should be the writer’s main duty.

So here are some tips for ensuring that your lyrics don’t sound like they came from your 3rd-grade reader:

  1. Treat your lyric with respect. Don’t treat it like vocal noise that happens while a song is going on. Once you’ve written your lyric, read it often. Even if it isn’t poetic, per se (and good lyrics need not be overly poetic, as such), remember that the words are the primary vehicle for communicating with the listener.
  2. Read your lyric to the rhythm of your song, and get a sense of how the rhythm of your words matches the rhythm of your melody. There needs to be a correlation, a sense of natural flow.
  3. Read your text, inventing spontaneous rhythms. Most of these rhythms won’t work, but some may make an impression on you, and become something that you can incorporate into your song.
  4. Look at the way you’ve said something, and think of other ways to say the same thing. Try to draw connections to other lyrical ideas in the song.
  5. Put the lyric away for a week, and then read it again. Distancing yourself in this way allows you to hear your own lyric with fresh ears, and you’ll increase the chance that something distinctive will occur to you that breathes even more life into your words.

I’ve always felt that it’s crucial not to fall in love with your lyric until it’s done. Only you can know when that is. But, like a flower in the garden, you’ll know when it’s time to pick it and present it.

6 Songwriting E-books“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how to write great songs. It’s just one of a suite of 6 songwriting e-books written by Gary Ewer. (His newest e-book, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting- Chord Progression Formulas” is being offered for free when you purchase any other of his songwriting e-books.) Let these six e-books show you every aspect of how to write great songs! Read more..

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  1. Hi Britney:

    If you’ve been able to hum the lyrics you’ve created to a tune, you’ve probably got a start on what you want for music. So even though you may not “write” music, you’ve already completed a couple of important steps: 1) Created a text; 2) Paired with with some sense of a melody.

    You may want, as you suggest, to take those ideas to a musician who can help formulate your lyric and melodic ideas into a working song. Songwriting partnerships are common, and I think they’re a great idea, because they can open your mind to new creative ideas that are hard for any one person to do. You’ll notice, if you check out the authorship of top-selling songs, that most of them are created by 2, 3, 4 or more writers working together.

    Having said that, it may be useful for you to develop at least a modest ability to write music by learning some basic music theory, and if you don’t already play an instrument, develop some keyboard or guitar skills. Even rudimentary abilities on these instruments may make writing songs easier and more enjoyable for you.

    Finding a songwriting partner can be rewarding, and many of my students have had success by posting messages online or at a local university, which is a great place to find people who want to keep music in their lives.

    Hope this helps, and all the best with your songwriting projects!

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