Making Lists Can Help You Create Better Lyrics

If you find that your lyrics tend to wander about without a sense of focus, here’s a great idea for tightening them up.


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Christmas WordsYou might think that writing lyrics is a bit like writing a story. But there are important differences between writing prose and writing lyrics. The chief difference is that while stories are primarily concerned with recounting a story, lyrics have a special responsibility for creating emotion-based images in the minds of the audience. Sometimes those images will occur to us spontaneously as we write, but you can add a better sense of focus and organization by creating lyrical lists.

Lists of words that relate to your potential song lyric can have two purposes. The first is merely to help get you in the mood by creating words and phrases that pertain to your song topic.

You should take the time to read the Wikipedia article about the writing of “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”). The song was written in the heat of the summer. Mel Tormé, the writer of the melody, writes about Bob Wells (creator of most of the lyrics):

“I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil”, Tormé recalled. “They started, “Chestnuts roasting…, Jack Frost nipping…, Yuletide carols…, Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ Bob (Wells, co-writer) didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written.”

This creating of word and phrase lists get your mind focused on the topic, but in the case of “The Christmas Song”, they can lead to the actual lyric.

The second purpose of lyric lists is to extend your topical vocabulary. We know that the subject of love is still the most common and popular topic for songs. But writing about love is a tricky tight-rope. When it’s done well, it speaks to the heart of any feeling person. But done poorly, a love song can be corny and boring.

Creating word lists can solve this problem. You may actually wind up developing lots of phrases and words that you’ll not use in your song, but they’ve done an important job: just as with “The Christmas Song”, those words will help get you in the right mood.

To create lyric lists, don’t simply try to generate words and phrases that are synonymous with each other. Make sure that you approach a topic from all angles.

For example, if you’re writing a song about the love you feel for your family, you want to be sure that your list includes everything – the good and the bad. So as well as words that provide a positive image of family life (..goodnight kisses, we always eat together, trips to the park, Mom knit me a pair of mittens… that sort of thing) you’ll also want to include the challenges ( stayed out too late, hurt my feelings, forgot my birthday…)

By the time you’ve created your lists, you’ll find that your song is starting to get a bit of a focus, even though your phrases are many, and seemingly without organization. Now on a blank sheet you can start to pull together items from your list that create a flow, both in storyline and imagery.

One other piece of advice: Don’t throw out your word lists once you’re done. Keep them around, because you’ll find them useful the next time you write a song using the same topic.


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