Turning a thought or opinion into a lyric is easier if you start by writing a short story.
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In 1967, John Lennon turned the information he read on a circus poster into the lyrics for his song, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” This quirky song presents itself as a musical version of a real circus announcement.
Even though Lennon says that he simply took what he saw on the poster and made it the lyric, he did take some poetic justice in the conversion. So the poster’s wording, “Late of Wells’s Circus” became “Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair,” a much more playful lyric, referring to a different line at the top of the poster.
He also wrote, “In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world,” obviously enjoying the rhyme between “way” and “K”, when the poster actually says, “In this branch of the profession Mr. H. challenges THE WORLD!”
Despite Lennon’s tremendous skill in converting the poster into a song lyric, this isn’t the normal way to write lyrics, I think we can all agree. It’s much more normal that we have thoughts, feelings and opinions about something which we want to turn into lyrics. It doesn’t usually work to simply make those opinions your lyrics. It takes more.
So you’ve got opinions, but you don’t know how to turn them into a lyric? Here are 3 tips that will help:
1. It’s All About Form
When we talk about form in this context, we’re talking about making clear distinctions between the various sections of a song. Here’s a list of those sections (your song may not have all sections), and the kind of lyric a listener subconsciously expects in each section:
- Verse: Lyrics should describe situations, people and circumstances, and keep an emotional outpouring to a minimum.
- Pre-chorus: Lyrics turn from verse-like descriptions into something more emotional, something that begins to show the audience how you’re feeling about the events in the verse.
- Chorus: Lyrics should describe emotional reactions to the things mentioned in the verse. In that sense, it helps the listener understand your position on what’s been described so far.
- Bridge: Lyrics typically move back and forth between narrative-style writing (giving a bit more information) to emotional reactions. That back-and-forth helps generate more song energy, and prepares the music for a return to the chorus.
2. Write a Short Story
It often helps, when generating song lyrics, to write a short story that helps focus in on the actual events you’re singing about. That’s because it’s often the case that a song’s topic will be large, like singing about human rights, for example. But “human rights” is more of a category, not a story. You need something more specific. So a story can help you move in closer and target a specific event, person, feeling, or opinion. Writing a story allows you to take aim at a particular emotion by focusing in on something specific. Remember, you don’t have to cover an entire category when you write. Get specific, and you’ll find that listeners will have a stronger emotional response.
3. Create Word Lists
Word lists allow you to come up with the vocabulary for your song. Stick with words that are common, everyday words you might use in conversation. Remember, we have a written form of English and an oral form, and songs should use an oral form of the language. Stay away from phrases that appear mainly in written English (“with regard to”, “in the process of”, etc.)
There are lots of ways you can create lists that will benefit your songwriting, so here’s a post that gives guidance.
More often than not, problems turning thoughts and opinions into lyrics stem from two likely sources: 1) a topic that is too broad (i.e., it’s a category); and/or 2) a topic for which it’s difficult for a listener to generate an emotional response.
In a recent post I mentioned why I felt that Titanic the motion picture was such a success: 1) it narrowed the story down to a love affair between Jack and Rose; and 2) in the midst of a colossal tragedy, we found ourselves wrapped up in that affair as the main subject of the film.
When you’re finished writing a lyric, you need to be able to sit back and ask yourself:
- Is my topic sufficiently focused?
- Is my topic sufficiently interesting?
- Have I used words that someone would use in casual conversation?
- Does it move back and forth between descriptions of events and people, to an emotional release?
Get those four things right, and you’ll have a lyric to which audiences will feel a connection. You’ll have pulled them into your world for 3 to 4 minutes, and that’s the mark of lyric-writing success.
Watch this video for hints on how to craft the emotional content of your lyrics:
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
Gary is the author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle. Read more..