Most song lyrics fall into one of two categories: 1) poetry, or 2) common narrative. My experience is that songwriters often worry too much about trying to create something poetic, when it’s not really necessary. You don’t need to be a T. S. Eliot or a Longfellow to write a lyric that gets the job done. So if you aren’t a poet, don’t worry about it. It’s far better to come up with something that works on a more germane level, something that sounds more like everyday language. And the most important aspect of any lyric, whether poetic or casual, is finding its natural pulse.
It really is amazing how successful a lyric will be if you simply make sure that the natural pulse of the words matches the natural pulse of the music. Every combination of words has an innate rhythm, and that textual rhythm is comprised of strong and weak syllables. And of course, music is arranged in alternating strong and weak beats. So it’s a natural to match the pulse of your lyric to the pulse of your music.
I say that it’s natural, but I see it happen frequently where song words feel stilted and forced. That contrived stiffness usually happens when syllables, which normally get little emphasis in everyday speech, get forced onto musical beats that are strong. Or when strong text syllables get placed on the weak part of a measure of music.
The solution is simple: read your song lyric to yourself over and over again, and find its natural pulse. Take the following as an easy example:
“If I told you that I loved you/ Would you take me in your arms…”
The best advice here is to say this to yourself over and over in as many different ways as possible. You’ll no doubt notice the obvious natural pulse:
“If I TOLD you that I LOVED you/ Would you TAKE me in your ARMS…”
But it can be interesting to find other possible rhythms. This text is straightforward, but you’ll notice that you can change the meaning and emotion of a lyric by considering where you place the emphasis:
“I’m the one who LOVES you…” has a different implied meaning than “I’M the one who loves you…”
And you’ll make a far more poignant impact on your audience if you stick to words that are in common usage. Uncommon words, or using overly poetic devices, to describe basic emotions can work to alienate your listeners.