Taking a look at the lyrics of the current top hits in North America, it’s easy to conclude that lyrical quality just isn’t that important. “You think I’m pretty/ Without any make-up on/ You think I’m funny/ When I tell the punch line wrong…” are the opening lines of “Teenage Dream.” Or how about this rumination? “You know I know how/ To make em stop and stare as I zone out/ The club can’t even handle me right now…” from Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me.” So how important are quality lyrics to the success of your songs?
It’s easy to make the assumption that the more easily the lyric is understood, the better chance your song has to become a hit. But that’s not necessarily true.
You likely know songs where you’ve completely misheard the lyric, making it more or less unintelligible, and yet you love the song just as much. “Slow motion Walter, the fire engine guy.” (“Smoke on the water, fire in the sky”)
Lyrics can be anything from straight-forward, with a dead simple meaning, to a lyric that requires a healthy does of interpretation in order to gather what the singer’s singing about at all.
But there’s usually one characteristic that most successful lyrics have in common: while lyrical meaning may or may not be complex, the actual words used are usually in the vocabulary of the average 14-year-old.
It’s hard to know what The Beatles’ “I am the Walrus” is about, but that didn’t stop most people from loving it. And most of the words are actually common, everyday words.
So does that mean that whatever lyrics you choose will be irrelevant to the success of your song? Not at all, because it’s your main way of communicating your message. They have to be worked out in partnership with your melody, chords and the general mood they generate.
Here is some advice for making sure that your lyrics are the best they can be:
- Write your lyric out, and circle words that carry a lot of emotional impact, words like “love”, “need”, “face”, “heart”, etc. At least half of the words you’ve circled should be featured prominently has higher notes in your melodies, or as words to which you’ve added vocal harmonies.
- Examine your lyric closely. Every word should be in the regular vocabulary of a teenager.
- The natural rhythmic pulse of a word should be reflected in the rhythmic treatment of the word within your song. If the pulse is on the first beat, that word needs to be placed on a strong beat.
- Lyrical clichés will kill a song. So avoid the standard bloopers, including overused phrases (“I’m down on my knees and beggin’ you please”), over-the-top analogies (“We built this city on rock & roll…”), and forced rhymes (“Instead of holding you, I ran and hid, indeed I did…”)
- Be sure your lyrics tell a story or describe a situation. In other words, don’t just tell the emotion, but give the background.
- The best lyrics don’t just speak to listeners – they make listeners feel like they could be singing the song. Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” is a perfect example of a lyric that anyone can identify with.
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