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It’s an undeniable fact that the world’s best songs, and hence the world’s best songwriters, are judged primarily on the strength of their lyric. Put simply, there are no songwriters out there who have made a name for themselves as a songwriter, who write weak lyrics. They either have that part of their craft under complete control, or they partner with a good lyricist. You could counter with the statement that no one known as a good songwriter does anything in a “weak” sort of way. While that is true enough, a song without a strong lyric is a song without a strong message. If you have any desire to be known long after you are gone, a strong lyric sheet plays a vital role.
Good lyrics do not have to be profound. A good lyric doesn’t have to have a poignant message that causes the listener to blink and say, “Wow, I never thought of that before!” And a good lyric doesn’t need to offer a unique play on words, double entendre, or metaphor.
A good lyric simply needs to present appealing images to the listener in a clear, coherent way. And it needs to use language that feels natural, using a vocabulary that’s in common usage by the common folk.
If you want evidence to support the importance of lyrics, do an online search for “bad songs” or “worst songs”. You will find that those lists are specifically targeting bad lyrics. Corny phrases, over-the-top analogies, forced wordings… bad lyrics are responsible for most of what we call “bad songs.”
If lyrics are something you find difficult to get a handle on, it’s not a problem you can ignore. Bad lyrics can be a show stopper, so you must solve the problem. Many of the world’s greatest composers who considered themselves to be lousy lyricists solved the problem in a very intelligent way: they partnered with a lyricist. Bacharach & David, Rodgers & Hart, George & Ira Gershwin, Leiber & Stoller… these are all fantastic songwriting partnerships that brought together composers and lyricists, allowing them to become among the best in the world.
If, however, you simply need advice to get your lyrics working for you, check out the following tips:
- A good lyric is not (necessarily) a good poem. When you write a lyric, you’re usually trying to touch the heart of the common folk, the kind standing in line at the Walmart. So stop trying to write PhD-level lyrics. Use the common folk’s vocabulary.
- Avoid over-the-top analogies and phrases. In other words, always match your word choices with the profundity of your message. Most of the time, a message is simple, straightforward and obvious. Create lyrics that match that simplicity. (A great example of an over-the-top lyric might be Starship’s “We Built This City“) (This song, by the way, often tops lists of “the worst song ever”, but I personally think it’s undeserved. There are songs out there that are much worse… don’t get me started.)
- Let verse lyrics describe situations, and chorus lyrics describe feelings. Ignoring this simple time-honoured guideline is responsible for many a disorganized and unstructured lyric. If your song doesn’t use a chorus, each verse needs to be a somewhat complete thought.
- Don’t force word rhymes. A forced rhyme is a word choice that seems to be more about making a word fit. You’ll know it’s really working if you focus on the meaning of the word rather than the fact that it rhymes. If you can’t get that to work, go for near rhymes, or simply a similar-sounding word. It can take a bit of work.
- Favour concise, brief descriptions over wordy ones. “The photo that is on the wall…” sounds like a phrase created to fit a certain desired rhythmic scheme. But it’s a clunky phrase. “The photo on the wall…” says it better, and pulls the listener forward to something more important: what you’re about to say regarding it.
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“A great example of an over-the-top lyric might be Starship’s “We Built This City“”
And yet, it’s received almost 900,000 views alone.
Plus, the top quote there is “I don’t care what anyone says. This song is kick ass and unlike today’s music, 80’s music had a way of getting you through a rough day, week, month. Always made you feel better.”
100+ thumbs up.
I always think songwriters can’t completely decide which of their songs get picked up by the listeners.
Yes, I always wondered, actually, why “We Built This City” has received such a horrible rating by musical pundits. As I say, it is a pretty good example of over-the-top lyrics, but it’s got great energy, and in my opinion the melodic and harmonic structure is really quite good.
I’ve been reading your blog on and off for a couple years now. I try to use your advice when I can to improve my songwriting. Would you consider critiquing a song of mine?
Really great tune, I really enjoyed listening to it. Sorry I’m a bit late getting to it. I’d be happy to give a more in-depth critique once I’ve listened a few more times. The song’s got great energy, and I really enjoyed it. I’ll respond in detail to your email address.