The Main Difference Between Good Lyrics and Good Poetry

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Gary EwerSometimes a poem will make a good song lyric, but don’t be surprised to find that your lyric makes a bad poem. It all has to do with the difference between words that are meant to be spoken (or sung) and words meant to be read.

In fact, the website Omniglot, “the online encyclopedia of writing systems & languages”, offers seven main differences between written and spoken English, four of which you’ll find to be accurate representations of the differences between song lyrics and poetry.

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To paraphrase Omniglot’s description of the differences and apply them to poetry and song lyrics:

  1. Poetry uses complex wordings and representations, while song lyrics makes more use of repetitions, incomplete sentences, and other devices to make the language come across as more natural and relaxed.
  2. Writers of published poetry don’t receive immediate feedback from their audiences, while a song lyric’s strength is its ability to immediately affect the listener and partner with other song components.
  3. Poems can make use of layout, colour and other graphic-based techniques to inject further meaning to their words. While lyricists can also do this, listeners to lyrics are often unaware of the graphical layout.
  4. Most poems will make use of the rules proper grammar, only using slang for effect. Song lyrics will tend to use words and phrases that include a mix of improper grammar, slang, and other things that make the lyric appear casual and familiar.

For songwriters that are known for their poetic lyrics, such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and others, you’ll find that their lyrics are thought-provoking and stimulating. But you will also find:

  1. Their lyrics use mainly common, everyday words that a 6th grader would likely know.
  2. Their lyrics rely on the immediacy of the effect of those words. There’s generally no need to go back over the words (even though doing so can yield deeper secrets).
  3.  Their lyrics will usually alternate between observational, narrative-style words and emotional words, even without the song being in a standard verse-chorus format.

Most problems with song lyrics can be solved by simply reading the lyric aloud, making sure that each line sounds effortless to read and shows a common sense approach to the pattern of pulses and rhythms. Forcing rhymes and being negligent of a word’s inherent inner rhythm will also be problems to avoid.

[The best lyrics pull the listener in by raising and lowering the emotional content as the song progresses. Watch this video for hints on how that’s done]:


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  3. I agree! I see/hear that a lot in Battle rap and this also explains the belief that Battle rappers can’t make songs and songwriters can’t battle rap. The approach to battle rap is very similar to poetry where every line and device counts.

  4. Fine tuning the melody of our latest song, often requires us to re write the words
    of a lyrical phrase, one reason being is that what you originally thought would be a repetitive note for note melody needs to be a complimentary phrase, or even an unexpected one.

    The art of writing great songs, is often taking us on a route that was completely
    unexpected to the ear. If every thing starts sounding too
    common we tend to drift away from the song through boredom , often that surprise
    chord , or change of contour will give the song a lift just when it appears to flag a little.

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