Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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There’s nothing like writing lyrics that can make a lot of songwriters feel that they’ve lost the ability to put English words together. And of the triangle comprised of melody, chords and lyric, it’s the lyric that can do the most to make songs sound lame and out of date. But if you’re not a poet, conveying thoughts and feelings can seem daunting. What’s a bad lyricist to do?
Suggestion number 1, of course, is obvious: partner with a lyricist. I think songwriting partnerships are the way to go, and a quick peek at the writing credits for most hit songs will indicate that there are very few songwriters out there working in isolation. A lyricist takes the pressure off you to create a good lyric.
But there’s another issue here. It’s not important or necessary to be a poet to write a good lyric. Poetry, when it works, is wonderful. But there’s a problem with poetry, which is that most poetry does not flow in a way that’s useful for a song lyric.
Song lyrics need to be comprised mainly of everyday words, conveying common emotions with common words and phrases. With your lyric, you want to connect to people’s hearts. You want them to feel the emotion that you are describing. If you’re trying to do that by using complicated metaphors delivered with complex poetic devices, you run the risk of leaving your listener behind in a cloud of irrelevant snobbery.
So if you want to try to improve your lyric writing skills, you need to strike a balance. Lyrics can be too banal, and the listener needs more than that in order to feel something. Lyrics that are too poetic have the same effect: the listener feels nothing.
Here are some suggestions for improving your lyrics:
- Be focused. Even if your lyrics describe several different emotions or events, be sure that your song focuses on one overall universal emotion or theme.
- Don’t over-describe. Using descriptive words is necessary, but keep it simple. “The aching pain in my languishing heart..” may be overkill; try “the pain in my heart…” and get on to describing its effect on you and your life.
- Think of form. Whether you’re using free verse, or some sort of rhyming scheme, choose one and let it be the form for that song. What’s really important is consistency.
- Don’t force rhymes. Forced rhymes are the worst culprits of bad lyrics (“Your best friend Harry/ Has a brother Larry..“).
- Opt for common words. Lyrics of hit songs tend to use words that people standing in the grocery checkout would know and use daily.
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