Songwriting with guitar

5 Cures For the Lame Lyric

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It could be argued that the quality of a song’s lyrics is going to be the most important aspect of any song you write. If you look at the many decades of songs in the pop genres, the ones that stay with us and become part of our musical history are the songs with great lyrics, and usually partnered with a great or good melody.

To say that another way, it’s hard to name any great song for which the lyrics could be described as lame, but has survived because of its great melody or chord progression alone.

A lyric can be “great” without being a head-turner. Lyrics are great if they convey a thought, opinion or image, and make a connection to the audience’s emotions. So great lyrics are not about complexity; if anything, they tend toward simplicity in their design, captivating us with images that come about through the use of basic, everyday words and phrases.

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I used the word “lame” when describing a lyric that doesn’t work, because “lame” is the word most songwriters use to describe their bad lyrics. “Lame” seems to mean that the lyric sounds awkward or forced, and it’s a problem many songwriters face. More than any other song element, good lyric-writing can take years to hone.

If you find that the lyrics you’re writing these days sound similarly lame to you, here are some ideas, in no particular order of importance, to troubleshoot them and make something that works a little better.

  1. Always convey complex thoughts by using simple words. It doesn’t matter how intricate or nuanced your thoughts are on a topic; the words you use to convey those thoughts need to be common, everyday words.
  2. Don’t become a slave to the rhyme. Not every lyric needs to rhyme, and one of the aspects of lyric-writing that most increases the lame factor is the forced rhyme. So approximate rhyming will do nicely most of the time. Lyrics can lose focus if you need to create a line whose main task is to rhyme with whatever came before it.
  3. Find the natural stresses and pulses of a word or phrase, and use them. As you set your lyric, say your lyric as if it’s a poem. Make note of the syllables that need to be stressed, and those that don’t. As you add melody, lyrics will sound natural and pleasing if those natural stresses are preserved.
  4. Be sure you’re making an emotional connection. Lyrics that sound like the artistic equivalent of your high school chemistry notes just won’t work, unless the song is about how much you hate or love your chemistry class. And even then… So be sure that you’re singing about something that an audience can connect to, and have a hope of feeling something similar.
  5. Like chords, lyrics need to progress. The lyrics of a verse need to set the scene and describe things, or else your listeners won’t have anything to which they can have an emotional reaction. (Example: “We headed to the party/ Could tell there was something wrong…”) Once you’ve laid that important foundation in the verse, you can use your chorus to have an emotional reaction. (Example: “Why, why, why is it always me?…“)

Of all those points, I wonder if point #4 is the most important one. No matter how clever you’ve been at developing imagery, or describing people and situations, none of it matters if you haven’t made an emotional case for your song. That typically happens in the chorus, and song lyrics avoid being lame if they fluctuate between setting a scene and then making an emotional connection.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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