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No matter what genre of songwriting you examine, you’ll find a few commonalities when it comes to lyric writing:
- Good lyrics usually use common, everyday words.
- Good lyrics usually use a conversational style.
- Good lyrics exhibit an ebb and flow of emotion.
- Good lyrics avoid overuse of clichés (with the possible exception of a chorus lyric.)
- Good lyrics have a point of focus, where the chorus, the refrain, or the end of the verse in verse-only designs, display the whole point of the lyric.
You’ll see these features whether you look at simple lyrics with obvious meaning, or more complex lyrics where the meaning might be trickier to discern:
“Learning to Fly”, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, from “Into the Great Wide Open” (1991)
Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing..
“Me, the Machine”, Imogen Heap, from “Spark” (2014)
A blip in the algorithm
A break in the clouds
Soft circuits, jumping
Soft circuits, jumping
The pincode to happiness
I’m switching to manual, switching to manual..
As you can see, the lyrics are clearly different in style, feel and, you might even say, purpose. “Learning to Fly” has a narrative feel, with unobscured imagery and the impression of a kind of story.
“Me, the Machine” is more complex, a little more difficult to parse, and exhibiting less of a clear storyline.
But for each lyric, you notice:
- The use of common words. True, you don’t see the word “algorithm” showing up in song lyrics very often, but that word aside, the lyric of “Me, the Machine” combines words that are quite common (blip, clouds, jumping, pincode, etc.), doing so in a way that might obscure obvious meaning.
- A conversational style. You pick this up more from “Learning to Fly”, but both lyrics combine words in a way that sounds as though they might have been extracted from a conversation.
- An ebb and flow of emotion. Read further in each song’s lyric, and you do clearly see the rising emotions — the attempt to pull the listener into the music. (“Me, the Machine: “I can’t do everything/ And I’ll get over it/ I don’t wanna be everything!/ I just want to feel/ A part of it..”, for example).
- Limited use of cliché. The chorus is where we tolerate clichés a bit more, as we see in “Learning to Fly”: “Learning to fly..”, “ain’t got wings..”, “the good ol’ days..”
- There is a strong sense of forward motion and focus. It may seem at first glance that the lyrics of “Me, the Machine” are comprised of random lines thrown together, but in fact there is a clear sense of flow. Try this: read the final line of the first section (“I’m switching to manual”). Then read the line that comes before it, combined with the final line (“Access denied/ I’m switching to manual, switching to manual”). Then read the line before that one, and so on. You start to pick up the sensible forward motion of the lyric. It’s not random at all. Every good lyric needs a point for its existence.
For whatever genre you write in, you’ll find that the presence of the five characteristics listed above will go a long way to creating a lyric that is engaging and meaningful.
For each song you write, refer to those five characteristics as a kind of checklist. Each attribute should be present, even if in varying quantities.
Remember that no matter what style of music you compose, whether it’s a basic country & western waltz or a complex, abstract “work of art”, the words you do ultimately need to do the same thing: make an emotional connection to your audience and pull them in.
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