Good Lyrics Don’t Describe Emotions, They Create Emotions

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Freddie Mercury - QueenA good lyric needs to be able to connect easily with the audience. Most of the time, that connection is primarily an emotional one. A good example of this is love song lyrics. As a love song progresses, you want the listener to be able to feel what you’re feeling. And because it’s one of those universal emotions that everyone can easily relate to, love songs are probably the most common type of song out there, in any genre. But if you’re using your song’s lyric to describe your own emotions, you’re missing the mark. You don’t want your song to describe emotions, as much as you want them to create emotions.

It’s hard to pick any one song and say that it’s a perfect example of how to write a love song, but certainly Queen’s “Love of My Life” must rate right up there. And mainly because it spends most of the time describing situations and circumstances, instead of describing emotions.

In fact, there’s only one line that clearly describes an emotion, and doesn’t happen until well into the last half of the song:

When I grow older
I will be there at your side to remind you
How I still love you – I still love you

The rest of the lyric describes circumstances, and through those descriptions it creates an emotional response in the listener. Some examples:

Love of my life – you’ve hurt me…

Love of my life don’t leave me
You’ve taken my love and now desert me…

Back – hurry back
Please bring it back home to me

You won’t find a line in this lyric anywhere that says, “I feel so…” or “You’ve made me feel so…” Lyrics like that tend to sound juvenile and whiny if they form the majority of the lyric.

In a good song, lyric alone is not usually enough to create an emotional reaction in the listener. Lyrics need more, and it generally needs to come from melodic contour and harmonic treatment.

So if you’re trying to write a love song, and all you’re doing is describing your own emotions, don’t expect listeners to relate. It’s time to take the song apart a bit and fix it. Here are four suggestions:

  1. Tell the story, not the emotion. The song has to be a story or situation that everyone can relate to. Trust listeners to create their own emotional response.
  2. Use everyday, common words in your lyrics. Good lyrics don’t need to be good poetry. And in fact, a good lyric should sound like a person standing in line in front of you at the Walmart could have said those words, especially when it comes to emotional love songs.
  3. Chord progressions that require the bass line to move up by step, or use a pedal bass (a bass note that stays the same while the chords change above it) usually work well in love songs. Here’s an example I often use to describe this concept:
    Compare this: C  G  Am  G  F  C  F  G  C
    to this: C  G/B  Am  G  F  C/E  F  G  C
    I think you’ll find that the second example just seems to do more to create emotion.
  4. Use an upward leap as an important motif in your melody. Upward leaps are usually construed as a “lunging” of the heart. (e.g., the upward leap on the word “life” from the title of the Queen song.)

A good love song lyric requires the songwriter to trust the listener. Telling listeners why you’re feeling a certain way works a lot better than telling them what to feel.

For a bit more on the emotional impact of good lyrics, watch this video:


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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One Comment

  1. So true. In fact, what you’re describing are simply principles of good writing (show don’t tell) and I think every songwriter/lyricist could benefit from learning more about prose. It’s sort of a walk before you run thing. For what it’s worth, the best book on writing I know of is James Kilpatrick’s “The Writer’s Art.” It’s out of print, I think, but can be found pretty easily used.

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