The best lyrics are the ones that stimulate the listener’s imagination in very simple ways.
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A good lyric isn’t necessarily the one that tells a story or describes things using the clearest terms. It’s more the one that stimulates the imagination of the listener, where groups of words conjure up images in the minds of your audience members. More often than not, the words you will want to use will be common, everyday words. In that sense, it’s not so much a grasp of language you need as a grasp of how to emotionally manipulate your audience.
Songs use different kinds of imagery. For some, the point of the lyric is to relate a specific event by telling a story (“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, or “Barrett’s Privateers” by Stan Rogers), and the imagery is given more with similes (comparing two things by using “like” or “as”) and very simple metaphors.
So in that sense, the lyric tends to create similar images in everyone’s mind. When Stan Rogers sings, “Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs,” the impact of the lyric is strong and uniform.
But for the majority of songs, the kind of imagery you’ll want to create will start with a mood that’s created and supported by the performance style, tempo and instrumentation. The lyrics then direct the imagination by a mixture of clearly-stated thoughts and emotions, combined with partially-revealed ideas.
A perfect example of this kind of lyric can be seen in the beautiful song “Wandering“, written by Ben Folds and Darren Jessee, from Folds’ EP “Speed Graphic” (2003). The metaphors are achingly poignant, and it’s not clear at times who is speaking.,
It’s a great song with a lyric that is well worth analyzing. Try this: Listen to the song a few times, then try a lyrical analysis. Make note of how melody, chords and instrumentation enhance various words throughout the lyric. If you’re interested, you may want to see how your thoughts and opinions compare to what others have said about this lyric.
“Wandering” is a great model for powerful imagery created by simple lyrics. The lessons for songwriters here are:
- Use common, everyday words. Complex terminology will often work against the emotional impact you’re trying to create.
- Your choice of instrumentation, chords, tempo and melodic shape all need to support the emotional message of the song. Nothing in a song works in isolation.
- It’s not necessary for everyone to “get” a song. Some may feel the song is about something that you never intended, and it’s not wrong or even pretentious to allow that to happen. It’s all part of what art does. You get to say what the song is like, but you never get to say how someone hears it.
- Good lyrics often combine clearly-stated thoughts with more ambiguous ones. The clearly-stated thoughts move the listener in the right direction, and the ambiguous ones allow them to explore.
- Love still makes the strongest impact. After centuries of songwriting, love is still the topic that sounds fresh and new, and still makes the greatest impact on the listener. Whatever you write about, the listener has to be able to fit themselves into your story.
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