Song Lyrics: Give the Listener Some Credit For Their Brains

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle
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Paul McCartneyIf you want lyrics that really connect with listeners, you’ll want to choose a universal theme such as love, politics, social justice, etc. These are issues that speak to almost everyone on the planet. Love, not surprisingly, easily wins out as the most popular song topic. But love songs can turn to lugubrious mush if you do nothing but moan about the state of your love life.

You’ll find that the worst love songs out there are the ones that try to tell the listener how miserable the singer feels. Take this as a basic love song rule: keep belly-aching to a minimum. Rather than singing “I feel so awful since you’ve gone away/ My life is crap, day after day…”, you need to set something up that gives some background. Pull the audience into your situation without being morose.

Or if your song is about love that’s working, gushing constantly about it for 4 minutes can have a brain-deadening effect.

What I’m getting at is this: give the listener some credit for the brain that’s in their head. They need more than emotion. In most songs, the “more” will usually  be some sort of lyrical metaphor, something that makes the listener think.

And in the balance between describing a situation and describing an emotion, your lyrics should be balanced toward describing a situation. In other words, describing situations properly will allow the listener to create their own emotional response.

Here’s a quintessential great example of a great love song lyric that demonstrates the proper balance between situation and emotion:

MAYBE I’M AMAZED (Paul McCartney)

Maybe I’m amazed at the way you love me all the time
Maybe I’m afraid of the way I love you
Maybe I’m amazed at the way you pulled me out of time
And hung me on a line

Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you
Baby I’m a man maybe I’m a lonely man
Who’s in the middle of something
That he doesn’t really understand

Baby I’m a man and maybe you’re the only woman
Who could ever help me
Baby won’t you help me understand…

The balance is perfect, because it doesn’t use phrases like, “I feel so…” or “I’m just so…” The word “amazed” is a curious choice for a love song because it pulls subtle emotions out of the listener. There’s not too many writers who talk about being “amazed” by their love for someone, and it works brilliantly.

And who knows what “hung me on a line” really means in this song, but the image this metaphor conjures up is one where the singer feels pleasantly helpless by the grip of love.

So if you’re finding it difficult to pull listeners into your love songs, be sure you haven’t just spent 4 minutes emoting. The listener needs something situational. Rather than constantly telling the world how you feel, explain the situation and trust the listener to create their own emotional response.

And give the audience credit for the brains they have, and try to create clever analogies and metaphors that make them think. That thinking will result in respect, and will make your song lyric more successful.
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5 Comments

  1. Hi Mr. Ewer,

    I’m a linguistic major and now I’m about to do a genre analysis about song lyrics. My potential research question is: What do writers need to know about the target audience to write successful texts? I’m basically thinking about the perspective of the song writer trying to convey different messages to different groups of listeners, for example, people suffering from marital infidelity, or people going out of love, etc., via the lyrics. What’s difficult for me is that songwriting is pretty much out of the scope of my knowledge and I don’t have an idea where to find supporting articles on this topic. Does anybody here have a clue? Thanks!!!

    • That’s a great question. First, I don’t really advocate specifically targeting your audience in the way you’re implying. There’s a general notion in songwriting that is more important, particularly in popular genres (pop. rock, country, folk, etc.), and it’s this: that lyrics need to sound as if they are being spoken, despite the fact that we often speak of a written and an oral language. I think most songwriters would agree that even though there are differences in the way a country lyricist and a rock lyricist writes lyrics, the bigger concern (that is, bigger than who you’re targeting) is to write in such a way so that the music matches the natural pulse of the words, and that the words connect to the listener, whoever they may be.

      Second, I really enjoy the things that Berklee Professor Pat Pattison has to say about lyrics. If you go to his site (http://www.patpattison.com/news/), you’ll find lots of info there, including videos, the links for which you’ll find in the left-side vertical menu bar on his page.

      Any other thoughts from songwriters?
      -Gary

      • Hi Dr. Ewer,

        Thank you very much for your quick response. I really really appreciate it! Your expertise means a lot to me.

        Actually I’m a linguistic major taking the second language literacy development class, and this genre (which is different from music genre) analysis assignment is to have us choose from a list of potential research questions in our textbook of “Genre and Second Language Writing” and then do a genre-related research from the linguistic perspective. In other words, I’m not going to write lyrics for a song. Rather, I’m going to use an existing song lyric for this analysis and will look only at the text of the lyric. I chose “What do writers need to know about the target audience to write successful texts?” as my research question. Given that I don’t have professional knowledge in this respect, and that it’s not a big research project, I’d like to focus on, based on the research question, how the songwriter conveys different messages intended for different specific target audience to reflect what a specific group of people think, how they feel, and what they’d do and wish for in their particular situation such as marital infidelity. The idea came from the song “The Thunder Rolls” by Garth Brooks. I’m basically looking at country because it’s more narrative, organized in a story-telling fashion. I was originally planning on looking at songs intended for different ages, such as songs written for middle-aged people, and those for younger people, but then I wanted to zoom in on it to make it more specific because I thought it might be easier for me to do that way. Right now, I’m in search of academic articles to support my research.

        I know this might be very challenging for a non-native language major, but that’s what motivates me to do this topic in the first place. I’ve always wanted to do some sort of research about the language-music relationship (in terms of pronunciation and lyrics), but for this specific little genre-related research, hopefully it’s not on the wrong track and the whole thing turns out to be ridiculous.

        Thank you very much again for taking care of my question! If you have more advice for me, I’m all ears for it. My apologies for having you spend too much of your personal time reading my unprofessional nonsense 🙂

        Best regards,

        Hurry

  2. Pingback: Song Lyrics: Give the Listener Some Credit For Their Brains « The … | Sacra Ostaria

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