Lyrics don’t need to be clever as much as they need to be honest, and create imagery.
Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle. Write smarter, and tap into your creative mind.
The biggest task before a songwriter is to create music that communicates something to an audience. Your music actually has to do more than communicate; it needs to create emotions in the listener. No one song element acts independently of others, but it’s a no-brainer that lyrics, more than any other song component, gives you your best chance to connect to your audience. The question is: how do you write lyrics so that you make the best connection possible?
I’ve heard radio interviews recently with some up-and-coming songwriters, who were asked the question, “What makes a good song lyric in your opinion.” It amazed me how much the question seemed to cause them to stumble about, unable to give a clear answer.
I’d understand the stumbling about if the question was, “How do you write a good lyric.” But to answer the question, “What makes a good song lyric,” it’s relatively straightforward: A good song lyric is any collection of words that creates an emotional response in a listener.
How you actually do that is up to individual style and procedure. No two songwriters attack the job in the same way, but you can be sure that once a lyric is finished, no matter who is writing them, those lyrics have done two important things: they’ve created images in the listeners’ minds, and listeners feel an emotional reaction because of those images.
Here are five tips that will help you write lyrics that really connect with your audience.
- Don’t use song lyrics to emote without a story first. If you start your song with, “Oh, I really messed things up/ I thought we really had something going…” your audience may not feel it. There’s just no story here, nothing to connect with. The basic guideline here is: give enough of a story first that gives a basis for your emotional lyrics.
- Lyrics should use the same kinds of words you’d use in casual conversation. Use conversational words, not written words. You can test this yourself. Read the lyric sheet of one of your favourite songs, preferably one that really connects with you emotionally. Look at the kinds of words being used. You’ll see that they’re all very basic words that anyone would use in common conversation with their friends. The basic guideline here is: common words connect; rarely-used words distract.
- Lyrics should allow listeners to hear and feel the natural pulse of the words. Be sure that the words you’re using are accompanied by music that allows the natural emphasis of the syllables to occur. Forcing words into music that goes against their natural pulse just becomes a disturbance. The basic guideline here is: words have their best chance at creating imagery and eliciting emotions if they happen naturally.
- Forcing a rhyme causes corny-sounding lyrics. That’s because a forced rhyme usually means that you had to scrounge around to finally find a word that rhymes. That word (if you really had to scrounge for it) is not likely to be a word that you’d normally use. Because a forced rhyme means you’ve probably focused more on rhyming than on meaning, they can kill the emotional power of your lyric. The basic guideline here is: a forced rhyme interrupts lyrical flow and meaning, and draws undue attention to itself. (Example: “You’re love is a dream/ Like chocolate ice cream.”)
- Avoid using too many disconnected metaphors in your lyric. A metaphor can be a wonderful poetic device to use, but too many of them that seem disconnected can make a lyric needlessly cluttered. Be more consistent. For example, if your lyric describes your love life by talking about being lost in a forest, go with that metaphor, and think of other forest-type images. Don’t over-do it, though. This can also cause corny lyrics if you’re not careful. The basic guideline here is: Pull your lyrics together by unifying the metaphors you use.
There’s a wonderful old pop song from the 50s, called “Beyond the sea”, which was a No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959 for Bobby Darin. Take a look at the lyric, which describes love by using metaphors that are all related to the sea: ships, golden sand, stars, etc. That lyric epitomizes everything we’ve been looking at here: a simple story told with casual, simple words, with metaphors that all point to the sea and related ideas. A great lyric.
And for an example from today’s music, check out the simplicity of “Feel So Close” by Calvin Harris. (Lyrics here) Nothing deep here, and could be criticized for being rather mindless. But it’s current place in the Top 10 of the charts shows the success of a simple lyric.
Follow Gary on Twitter