It’s important to realize that what you’re dealing with in songwriting is getting an audience to feel something, more so than telling a story. True, your song will involve telling a kind of story– a lover who tosses you away, or perhaps a plea to the world for more kindness — but what it comes down to is making your listeners conjure up an emotional response.
In that sense, lyric writing isn’t much different from what novelists or short story writers do: use words to communicate to audiences. In music, however, you’ll find that the melodies, chords and instrumental treatment (i.e., decisions relating to production) can often communicate more to an audience than words actually do.
The best lyrics are the ones that partner well with the melodies and chords to which they’re attached. You’ve got to get the balance just right. That’s what Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook demonstrates. Get it as part of the 10-eBook Bundle, or also available separately.
The biggest problem that most songwriters face is coming up with a lyric that’s focused, to the point, and concise. After all, while novelists get 80,000 words or more to relate their story, a song might use 100 or so (though considerably more for hip hop). How do you make sure you’ve said what needs to be said with so few words?
Here are some tips and ideas for making sure that your lyric is short enough to avoid being an aimless rambling, focused enough to keep the listener engaged, and poignant enough to have your audience feeling something.
- Examine your lyric line by line. Once you’ve got what you think is a lyric that works, go through it carefully: read a line, then say to yourself, “Because I said that, I then said this…” Then read the next line. You need to have a strong sense that one line leads logically to the next.
- Try rewording lines of lyric. For every line you write, try finding different ways to say the same thing. Sometimes that might involve re-ordering some of the words, and at other times it might mean coming up with an entirely new way of saying it. You may find that what you’ve said in your lyric is the best solution, but this idea has a way of surprising you with something that you weren’t expecting.
- Avoid being overly wordy about unimportant things. If your song is mainly about how you felt being at a party, you may discover that you’ve spent an entire verse talking about how you were planning to get there. Minutia is unimportant, unless it sets a scene. A great example is Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” in which he uses the verses to describe the protagonist’s background, and the chorus to switch point of view to that of a close friend, begging him to stay strong. The details in the verses are what makes the chorus so powerful.
- Compare the duty of the verse to the duty of the chorus. Read through your verse, and then compare it to what you’ve written in the chorus. What did your verse say? What did the chorus say in response to the verse? Audiences will automatically do that, even if they don’t know it. They want the chorus to be some sort of point of focus for what the verse has given them, and it’s important you offer that.
- Keep your song lyric pointing to one specific issue or topic. Novels can take lots of side trips to supporting stories, but song lyrics often don’t have that opportunity. You need to decide what your song’s topic is, and then write a concise lyric that stays the course.
The best way to hone and improve your lyric-writing abilities is to study good lyrics. Read them over, and try to get a sense of why the lyricist wrote what they did. Make note of imagery, poetic devices, rhyming schemes… everything you think makes the lyric work.
To get you moving in the right direction, try reading through these examples. Then take the time to listen to each song, and see how the words partner up with other important song elements:
- “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell)
- “By the Rivers Dark” (Leonard Cohen)
- “This Kiss” (Beth Nielsen Chapman, Robin Lerner, Annie Roboff, recorded by Faith Hill)
- “Eyes Wide Open” (Gotye)
- “All Caps” (Daniel Dumile Thompson, Otis Lee Jackson – MF Doom)