Take a look at pop song lyrics, and you’ll see everything from straight-ahead, easy-to-follow, to something more abstract.
The easy-to-follow lyrics might be something like “Thinking Out Loud” (Ed Sheeran, Amy Wadge, Julian Williams):
When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks?
The more abstract might look more like the lyrics for Yes’s “Siberian Khatru” (Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman):
Sing, bird of prey
Beauty begins at the foot of you, do you believe the manner?
Gold stainless nail
Torn through the distance of man as they regard the summit
However you choose to write your lyrics, and whatever the final form might be, there’s a natural progression that happens. In general, that progression is the moving from descriptive, narrative-style to emotion-based reactions. But there’s more to it than that.
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Take a look at the following, and use it as a kind of checklist for your own song lyrics. Not every song will work this way, but if you’re having trouble with your lyrics sounding too random, or otherwise disorganized, you might find it will help:
- Lyrics near the beginning of a song (the verse, for example), should describe people, places, situations or circumstances. It’s impossible to completely eliminate emotion, and that shouldn’t be the aim. But the verse needs to be all about the scene, not the reaction.
- Lyrics near the beginning of a song should keep the emotional outpouring contained, spending most of its time laying a narrative foundation. Verse 1 should attempt to make it clear (either obviously or abstractly) what the song is about.
- As lyrics move through a verse, getting closer to the chorus, the emotional content might start to increase. It pulls an audience in enticingly to have the emotions start to build; it makes audiences want to hear what happens next.
- Lyrics in a chorus need to connect to the verse by offering an emotional reaction to the content of the verse. This is a crucial connection. The chorus needs to sound like (or “feel” like) the obvious result of whatever the verse has been talking about.
- Emotion at the end of a chorus doesn’t need to gently dissipate. You can end your chorus on an emotional high, and let Verse 2 be what brings things down again.
- Bridge lyrics work well when they alternate quickly between narrative and emotional reactions. Most bridge lyrics “reveal all.” You’ll build more emotional energy with the quick back-and-forth of “then this happened, and so I felt this emotion..”
The most important thing to remember about lyrics is that audiences want to hear emotional ups and downs. They don’t want all emotion all the time. If your lyric is simply an emotional outpouring from beginning to end, you dull the effect you’re trying to create.
So in your verse lyrics, be patient. Tell people what you’re writing/singing about. There’s lots of time to grab the listeners’ heart.
A well-paced lyric that has this sense of progression will pull in listeners and keep them listening.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.