There are important differences between lyrics and poetry, differences all lyricists need to know.
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If you’ve been writing songs for a while, you hopefully know one thing already: lyrics and poetry are not necessarily the same thing. We hold poetry in high regard and admire the creative talents of our best poets. But even excellent poems can fail as a lyric, and there’s a good reason why.
Poetry often needs to be read several times in order to transmit its message to the listener. And while the best lyrics often have the same requirement of needing many reads in order to make its fullest impact, a good lyric usually has the additional requirement of needing to make a swift, cursory impression. There usually needs to be something powerful about it on an immediate level, a way of quickly touching the heart of the listener right away.
Your lyrics will work best if you use words and phrases that you would typically use in conversation, as opposed to words you might use in a written story or essay.
In researching for this blog post, I came across a website published by Hamilton College (New York). They’ve produced a web page for their students that describes the essential qualities of delivering a good speech, contrasting them with what we expect from a written form of our language.
Their suggestions for giving a speech end up being excellent guidance for writing good lyrics. To paraphrase the advice given in their document, “Delivering a Presentation: Spoken vs. Written Language“:
- Use words and phrases that pertain to people and relationships as a way of generating stronger listener interest.
- Use more personal pronouns such as “I”, “we”, “you”, etc.
- Use shorter sentences and shorter fragments of sentences, to make your lyrics easier to follow.
- Repeat words, phrases and sentences to emphasize important ideas. (This happens naturally in song choruses.)
- Use common, everyday words in order to make a stronger connection to listeners.
- Use casual words, contractions, etc., to better simulate ordinary speech.
- Avoid stodgy, uninspiring phrases such as “as previously mentioned”, “the former”, “the latter”, etc.
Good lyrics have a way of pulling the audience in immediately, of making them feel the story, not just hear it. Good lyrics will make an audience feel that they could place themselves in the story, replacing you as the character, and truly experiencing the emotions and events.
So no matter what poetic devices you make use of — alliteration, repetition, rhyming, using metaphors, etc. — be certain that the words and phrases you choose sound casual, as if you might hear someone saying those words. It’s crucial to making an emotional impact on your audience.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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