Getting Song Lyrics Right, And In the Right Order

Messing up on song lyrics means losing an opportunity to connect with the audience.

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music, lyrics and microphoneEverything you do in music communicates something to the people listening to it. It goes almost without saying that it’s the words you use, and the way that you sing them, that make the greatest contribution to communication with an audience. Most songs have at least two types of lyrics: 1) lyrics that describe things, situations or people, and 2) lyrics that describe emotions. For a song to be successful, it’s important to get the lyrics right, and in the right order, or you’ll miss a vital opportunity to connect with your audience.

The most common error I see with song lyrics is the describing of emotions before properly establishing a storyline. If you start verse 1 by telling everyone how unhappy you are, you have nowhere to go with your chorus except to tell them more about how unhappy you are.

The result is that your song will sound like a 4-6 minute complain-a-thon. And no one will connect. Why? Because in order for emotional responses to work in music, they need to be first supported by a story or description of a situation that warrants the emotional response.

That’s not to say that your verse can’t be emotional. For some song topics, it’s impossible not to let a bit of emotion come through the story. But that initial setting-the-stage is vital. If you’ve written lyrics that start with, “You’ve broken my heart, you’ve left me high and dry…”, there’s just not enough of a story there to have audiences say, “Hey, I’ve been there, I know how you feel.”

A good analogy is building a fire in a fireplace. What you really want is the flame (i.e., emotion), but you can’t get flames without something underneath, something that can ignite to cause the flames (i.e., the story).

Here are some quick tips that will give you something to think about as you craft your song’s lyric.

  1. Use simple, everyday language. Use the kind of words that you’d use in casual conversation with someone.
  2. Tell the story first. A story, by the way, may not necessarily be a fact-by-fact kind of story. Most lyrics don’t have a “first-this-happened, then-that happened” kind of approach. But your verses should definitely focus on some kind of setting a stage by describing events or people as a primary task.
  3. Describe universal topics and emotions that people, regardless of culture, would identify with. No matter what you’re singing about, you ultimately want whoever’s listening to be able to connect with your topic and its accompanying emotions.
  4. Bridge lyrics should move rapidly back and forth between describing situations to describing emotions. That’s why a song bridge is so good at building song energy.
  5. Avoid clichés, forced rhymings, and other lyrical faux pas. You’ll find that most great song lyrics don’t sound like poetry when you read them aloud. A good lyric often sounds like a simple story being read aloud, using words that have an easy, natural rhythm. Be sure to preserve the natural pulse of the words when you sing them.

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