At a minimum, a song lyric is working if it connects to the listener on an emotional level.
Every song communicates something to an audience, and not everyone will necessarily pick up the same message. For example, you may hear a song where the lyric is all about a cat attacking a dog. Your friend may think it’s a metaphor for the songwriter’s complex relationship with his mother. You, however, may feel it’s simply a light-hearted song about the songwriter’s pets.
The truth may be neither of those, and the fact that different people pick up something different is not usually a failure of the lyric. That’s what makes music interesting to us. We love trying to dig down into words and phrases, find possible hidden meanings, and then try to decide if those hidden meanings are relevant to the larger message.
At a minimum, a song lyric is successful if it connects to the listener, usually on some emotional level. That connection is the ultimate aim of any good lyric; so a lyric has succeeded, even if two listeners pick up entirely different meanings in what they’re hearing — as long as there was an emotional connection to the lyric.
Before continuing, why not watch a short instructional video, “Controlling the Emotional Impact of Lyrics”:
In addition to making an emotional connection, a good lyric does all or most of the following:
- Uses imagery to communicate the message or story (i.e., evokes thoughts, emotions and images by using metaphor, simile, and other poetic devices.)
- Is enjoyable to listen to (i.e., it compels the listener to keep listening by the entertaining way it’s put together.)
- Is structured to move back and forth between less-emotional descriptions followed by emotional responses to those descriptions.
- Uses a conversational tone (i.e., often works better when read (sung) aloud.)
- Is supported and enhanced by other musical elements (e.g., instrumentation, chords, melody, etc.)
You’ll notice that I didn’t include “needs to be an interesting topic” in the list, because the topic itself can be very ordinary — even mundane — and it can still work very well. I mentioned in yesterday’s blog posting the song “Got My Mind Set On You,” written by Rudy Clark and most famously recorded by George Harrison. The topic and lyrics are uninteresting on their own, but it’s the instrumental setting, the melodies, the chords, and the excellent performance that bring it to life, and help it connect to the listener.
Not every song will use all five of the features listed above. If you doubt the quality of your song’s lyrics, the most important questions to ask yourself are:
- Am I making an emotional connection with the listener?
- Is my lyric moving back and forth between a narrative-style description and then an emotional response, as we typically see in verse-chorus songs?
- Is my lyric using common, everyday words, put together in ways that sound natural?
- Am I describing something that has the potential to be understood and felt as a universal situation or truth to which most listeners can relate?
Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’ve succeeded until you hear the lyrics along with everything else. Remember that the effect of lyrics can be either enhanced or compromised by the melody that delivers them to the listener.
When all is said and done, getting that partnership of lyrics, melody and chords right is what songwriting is. Every song you write is a new opportunity to fine-tune your abilities in that regard, so don’t get bogged down in one song. Make some serious attempts to get a lyric right, but move on to your next project sooner rather than later.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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