If starting your songs with lyrics intimidates you, here’s a step-by-step process that will help.
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The vast majority of the great songwriters from the past several decades are the ones that put lyrics front and centre as the most important component. That’s not necessarily to say that the lyric they write is fantastic poetry, though sometimes it is. More often than not, writing a great lyric means finding the words that flow, that stimulate the imagination, that roll easily off the tongue, and that give us a new way to think about something.
And sometimes that means the final result is great poetry. But most songs that become hits use lyrics that are not so much poetry as… lyrics.
If you aren’t a poet, you can still write fantastic lyrics that really connect with people. What follows is a step-by-step approach for writing a song that starts with the lyric. If you’re always starting your songs by vamping on a set of chords, starting with the lyric can be an exciting new way to write. And you’re probably going to love the results. Grab a pencil, and let’s start:
- Get a working title for your song. It may seem odd to start this way, but a title can get you thinking in the right direction. And though you’ll likely change it as the song materializes, it can help focus your musical mind.
- Create a list of words and phrases that relate to the topic. Don’t think of this (yet) as being a list of lyrics. Basically, you’re just coming up with vocabulary. You’ll notice that a “feel” or mood starts to happen as the list grows.
- Create two categories of word lists: Positive and negative. This will be an important part of generating lyrics that stimulate the listeners’ imagination. For example, if you’re writing about too much hatred in our society, you’ll want to create words that relate to a more perfect life: love, harmony, hand-in-hand, children, tomorrow, peace, etc. In the negative list, add words that make those positive words hard to achieve: hatred, pain, anger, out for my/our/yourself, greedy, hit, etc. Again, don’t think of these as lyrics; think of them more as words that focus our attention and get us identifying what the song will be about.
- Create a “Possibles” list. A Possibles list includes words and phrases that jump out as having a good implied rhythm, or roll off the tongue easily. You can start to assemble words together that are on your two existing lists, and so now you get to start thinking in terms of creating a lyric. For example, “The air was filled with anger/ no peace or love to find…” or something similar. You may not ever use it, but you’ll notice that you’re beginning to sense a mood, and kind of lyrical structure happening.
- Concentrate now on your “Possibles” list, saying each word and phrase over and over. See if you can work them into even longer lines or phrases. Each line you create should start to feel like a lyrical line. Get creative. See what happens when you mash up a positive with a negative word. (“Pain today, peace tomorrow…”)
As I mentioned at the start, part of what makes a lyric good is that it often gives us a new way of thinking about something. So at this point, you need to be sitting back and asking yourself, “What do I want my audience to take away from this song?” If the song is about world peace, the answer to that may be profound and possibly life-changing.
But your song may simply be about someone you met at a party, and that it was a really good time. Those can be great lyrics as well, because when all is said and done, you want to write words that connect with people, and most great songs aren’t actually profound as much as they simply feel “real.”
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