Guitarist - Songwriter

The Problem With Stream of Consciousness Lyric-Writing

Let’s say that you’re working out a lyric that tries to explain to your listeners how you’re feeling about some aspect of your life. It might be that you’re going through a rough patch, let’s say, and you want the audience to feel something of what you’re facing.

So the lyrics come to you quickly — aspects of what you’re feeling, how intensely you might be feeling them, how you’re coping with those circumstances and feelings… that sort of thing.

When you look at what you’ve written, it looks like a stream of consciousness in which your innermost thoughts are laid bare for all to read.

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But there is a problem with stream of consciousness in song lyrics. Actually, several problems:

  1. Lyrics written as a stream of consciousness don’t offer much in the way of context for the listener. It can be fun to write, but it’s hard for the audience to follow it.
  2. Stream of consciousness lyrics often lack a focus. It’s sometimes hard for a listener to know exactly what is being talked about.
  3. Stream of consciousness lyrics will often lack direction. They often don’t make it clear what’s happening, or in what order those things are happening.

That’s certainly not to say that stream of consciousness writing won’t work for lyrics. My personal opinion is that it works better as a technique applied to a writing style rather than as a method for an entire lyric.

“Because this, then that“: Writing a “logical follower”

Because many musicians are thinking a lot about Leonard Cohen this week, it’s appropriate to take a look at one of his lyrics to get an example of what I mean. His song “Coming Back to You” from his album “Various Positions,” is not really stream of consciousness, but it uses that sense of rambling thoughts as a technique, as he moves from one concept to another.

Here’s what’s important about Cohen’s lyrical style: his lyrics have a strong sense of “because this, then that.” In other words, as you look through the lyric, it may be hard initially to put meaning to every line he writes, but even when that’s hard, you notice that every line is a logical follower to the one that precedes it:

Maybe I’m still hurting
I can’t turn the other cheek
But you know that I still love you
It’s just that I can’t speak
I looked for you in everyone
And they called me on that too
I lived alone but I was only
Coming back to you

As you see, the lyrics aren’t exactly a story — more a description of a circumstance or situation — but each line acts as a logical follower to the line before it. It’s either that every line works this way, or sometimes this will work in pairs of lines, where for each pair, the second line acts as the logical follower.

If you like a lyric that bares your soul in pleasantly disconnected ways, you may find yourself struggling with a lyric that makes sense to you but others find confusing. Here are some tips to help you take that disconnected lyric and help the audience understand it (and you) a little better:

  1. Write a short story that describes what you’re really trying to write about. A story helps you find a chronology, a line of direction, that an audience needs to make sense of your lyric.
  2. Create word lists. Once you have a story, create a list of words and phrases that pertain to your topic, words that can act as the vocabulary for your lyric. Notice the words and phrases that go well together, and re-fashion a lyric out of those words.
  3. Adjust your lyric so that each line, or pair of lines, has a logical follower. This is not an easy step, and it might cause you some impatience as you work. You might want to have 2 or 3 songs on the go so that you can switch to something completely different when you feel frustration setting in.

After that 3rd step, you’ll still probably have a lyric that resembles stream of consciousness, but with the added benefit that the audience can make better sense of what you’re trying to say.

Always remember to use simple, everyday words to create your lyric. Concepts can be complex, but words need to be familiar and easy to grasp.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

3rd_ed_cover_smChapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how lyrics and melody go hand-in-hand in good songwriting. Right now, get a copy of “Creative Chord Progressions” FREE with your purchase of the 10-eBook Bundle.

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  1. Pingback: Some Common Novice Songwriting Mistakes – and How to Fix Them | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

  2. Gary, once again thank you for this awesome lesson. After 3-4 years of being somewhat lost when it came to songwriting, I’d almost given up. Something changed recently and I’ve been writing non-stop. It feels good to be in love with writing words again. I got so wrapped up in how to write a song and whether or not anything I did was good and as a result I missed something so absurdly obvious but critical.

    I can point to two very specific things that helped me get back on track. Your blog was a big reason why I felt like I had what I needed to wrap my head around it again. But there was also this video I watched ( I’ve never been particularly into Sting or any of his projects but when he says “it’s all just rhyming couplets anyway…” something clicked. I forgot that it was that simple somehow. Reading your blog every day helped me to view this idea as a songwriting tool at my disposal, and not take it for granted. And not believe that it comes to me through some intangible magic I am not in control of.

    So I started to do just that – write rhyming couplets. Not for any particular reason other than to do it. And before I knew it, when I picked up my guitar I all of a sudden it was nothing to sing them out loud. And then shortly after that I had a bunch of songs that felt like they took no effort to write and I can’t stress how long I’ve felt that feeling.

    Thanks for the help demystifying. I feel foolish for having forgotten to anchor my work in something as simple as just writing rhymes. And now that i’m back in, articles like the one above are really helping me identify ways to strengthen.

    • Thanks very much for writing, and I am so pleased if this blog has been any sort of inspiration, or has provided a motivation to get back into composing. I haven’t seen the Sting Ted Talk, but I’ll definitely give it a watch.

      Thanks again, and all the best with your songwriting!

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