For many songwriters, it’s the lyrics that are the toughest to write. A lot of the difficulty comes from not having a clear understanding of the nature of lyrics. And that nature changes from song to song:
- Some lyrics rhyme, some don’t.
- Some lyrics are comprised of sentences, others seem to be more fragments of thoughts.
- Some lyrics look and operate like poetry, others don’t.
When you sit down to write lyrics, you could be excused for not having a clear idea what you should be aiming for. So let’s spend a little time looking at various characteristics that we associate with good lyric writing, and see what we can do to make your lyrics sound a little less lame!
To Rhyme or Not
There is no rule that says that lyrics must rhyme. Some of the world’s best songs use lyrics for which there is no rhyming scheme at all, or where you have to really stretch to find rhymes, such as with Bon Iver’s “For Emma.”
Rhyming offers a kind of structure that entices listeners and pulls them in. Once we hear that a rhyming scheme is in use, we find that the first of a rhyming pair of lines makes us want to hear the second line.
The challenge with rhyming is to avoid forced rhymes. A forced rhyme describes a situation where the rhyming word sounds awkward, not a word you might normally find, but is used chiefly to fulfill the need to rhyme: Walked down a long and empty road/ Saw nothing to comfort me, not even a toad.
Good lyrics do not need to rhyme. There are other qualities that are far more important. In most cases approximate rhyming will often suffice if you want rhyming lines. “For Emma” might be best describe as approximate rhyming.
Song lyrics can be written to look like a short story, or might contain fragments of thoughts, or anything in between. Listen to Paul Simon’s “America” (a great example of a song that uses no rhyming scheme), and you’ll see a lyric that reads more like a story.
But John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” contains fragments of thoughts for which there is no obvious story. Even without a clear story, however, there is an obvious mood and attitude that comes from the way those thoughts are put together.
With any song lyric, the most important quality is readability. As you read the lyric, the words should sound natural and easy to understand, even if the way the words are put together sounds complex or even strange. The way the words are put together should honour their natural pulse and rhythm.
In your own songs, a lyric will sound lame if it sounds as though the words are fighting against the rhythmic groove of the music. (Paradoxically, I’ve always had difficulty with the lyrics of Kim Mitchell’s “Patio Lanterns”, because the sentence structure seemed so strong. But it’s a great song, and I think ultimately the clarity of the lyric wins out.)
Poetry Or Not
Song lyrics are not generally poems. Poetry can work as a good song lyric as long as it uses easy-to-understand, everyday words. Some lyricists work to write lyrics that will stand as poetry even without its association to the music.
In your own songs, don’t worry so much if your lyrics might work as poetry. While poetry needs to work on its own, remember that in a good song, lyrics are part of a partnership that includes melody and chords, as well as other related elements.
The Best Qualities
To ensure that your song lyrics avoid being lame, check the following list:
- Does your lyric have a conversational tone? (It should)
- Do you use common words that everyone would know? (You should)
- Does the rhythm of your words match the rhythm of the music? (Yes is the right answer)
- Do you avoid clichés and other lyrical faux pas? (You should)
- Does the chorus hook contain words and phrases that are fun and easy to sing? (It should)
Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle, and get today’s FREE DEAL