Becoming a Better Lyricist: Making an Emotional Appeal

When songs sound “corny”, bad lyrics are almost always to blame. Here are some ideas for improving your lyrical abilities.

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SongwriterEvery language has a written form and an oral form. In songwriting, you’ll want to focus on the oral form. That’s quite simply because your listeners will be hearing your words, and not so much reading them. That part, most songwriters understand. The challenging part about writing a good song lyric is finding a way to say something clever and imaginative by using common, everyday words. Yes, there are those songwriters whose lyrics read like high-quality poetry. But if you really want to make an emotional connection to your audience, and you’re not primarily a poet, plain conversational English will make that connection quite nicely.

But is it possible to use unadorned English, and still stimulate a listener’s imagination? Yes, and in fact, it’s likely that you’ll have better luck than trying to concoct poetry if poetry is not your thing.

It may not be so common these days, but back in the days of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, a clever lyric was a necessity for a good song. A 1945 Duke Ellington song, “I’m Beginning to See the Light”, shows the kind of “simple wittiness” and flair that was a mainstay of song lyrics at that time:

I never cared much for moonlit skies
I never winked back at fireflies
But now that the stars are in your eyes
I’m beginning to see the light

These days, good lyrics are a bit harder to find. Cleverness is not the quality you see so much anymore, but the one thing that most hit songs have in common is their ability to touch the listener’s heart, and put them right in the centre of the emotional action. Like this lyric by Adele (“Someone Like You”):

Never mind, I’ll find someone like you.
I wish nothing but the best for you too.
Don’t forget me, I beg,
I remember you said:-
“Sometimes it lasts in love
but sometimes it hurts instead…”

So the witty play on words is not there, but as a chorus lyric it works very well, going for emotional impact rather than indirect imagery. In the 1940s it’s unlikely that that lyric would have succeeded. But today, words that make a direct emotional appeal, particularly in the chorus, will be what works.

If you want to improve your ability to write this kind of lyric, you might try this simple exercise:

  1. Create a lyrical line that expresses a common emotion. An example might be something like, “When I see you near me, can anyone tell I love you?”, or “Ever since you left me, my heart’s in such mess…” or something similar.
  2. Begin creating lines that express something similar to, but not necessarily synonymous with, the original line. For example, lines that go with the “When I see you near me” line above might be something like:
    1. When you call me on the phone, I get so excited.
    2. If you call my name, can anyone see me blush?
    3. When I see you at the party, you’re the only one I see.

What you’re doing here is expanding on the original thought, and coming up with new ways to express the same emotion. As you create these new lines, you’ll find that you’ll finesse the song’s storyline. Each new way you find to express the same emotion will make a strong impact on a new segment of your audience.

And the only two things you really need to keep in mind is 1) use common, everyday words; and 2) focus on conversational rather than written language.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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3 Comments

  1. The problem with songs in my native language (Indonesia), is that the majority of them are in written form, Gary. We use one set of language for daily conversations, and another set for songs/poetry. That’s because the daily language here is very rough and brash and quite impolite if you say it in public.

    For example, the word “I” in written form is “saya” or “aku”, but the oral form is “gue” (a metropolitan slang word). “Aku” can also be used in oral form, but is usually said between lovers, child to parent, or by very polite people.

    That’s one of the most significant differences I find between Western music and my national music here.

    Thanks for the article, Gary.

    • Thanks for the comment, Endy, that’s really interesting. In English, of course, the written form of the language these days is not so dramatically different from the oral form. But it’s different enough to put a bit of emotional distance between the singer and the audience. And most of the time, that distance can lessen the impact of the message.

      Thanks again,
      -Gary

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