Paul Simon

Creating an Emotional Response With Song Lyrics

It’s an observation about lyrics that I’ve become aware of only recently: I tend to think of good lyricists as people who either a) make me think, or b) make me feel. Sometimes both simultaneously, (like you might experience with a song like, say, “Crying Lightning” – Arctic Monkeys (Alex Turner) but often one or the other.

I’ve been a fan of prog rock since my early 20s, and for me it’s been about how the lyric makes me think. A good lyric challenges me, daring me to come up with meaning, making me wonder if I’m right, or am I off in the wrong direction. I love the ambiguity of a well written, complicated lyric that keeps its true meaning hidden, at least at first encounter.

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But for my money, nothing beats a lyric that makes me feel. It’s not so much that I have to figure out what’s being said, or what’s going on — it’s more that I just love how it creates emotions within me using very simple images.

Neil Peart (Rush) and Jon Anderson (Yes) come to mind as two of the lyricists who make me think, and Paul Simon is a great example of the kind of lyricist who makes me feel.

In Simon’s “America” lyric, images flood your mind with every line:

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces;
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, Be careful his bowtie is really a camera.

Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat.
We smoked the last one an hour ago.
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.

If you read the entire lyric, you feel the sense of exhilarating freedom gradually giving way to a more serious reality. With every line, you feel giddiness gradually replaced with sombre reckoning.

And behind it all, it’s the story. A song without a story, whether that story is implied, or obvious as it is in “America,” has no hope of generating images in the mind of the listener.

When songwriters send me their songs to critique, or when I do Skype sessions, if there is ever a problem with the lyric, it is most often this: I’m reading a lyric that describes emotions, rather than a lyric that creates them.

Yes, you can feel an emotion from hearing someone else’s emotional response, but there will be an emptiness to your own emotional response since you have no back story.

The best songs set up a situation, or describe a person or circumstance, and then the listener is ready to feel something. Now the listener has something in their mind that can create an emotion.

As you write your song lyric, you’ll make people feel something if:

  1. you choose topics that are universal in nature. This means writing about things that are likely to be something other people might be able to relate to;
  2. you think of your lyric as something that creates images, rather than creating sentences. In good songwriting, images are everything;
  3. you use words that are in common, everyday use. Conversational lyrics have a better chance of touching someone’s soul;
  4. you alternate between describing what’s going on and then the emotions that those events are causing. That alternation is crucial to a great lyric.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. One of the all time great songs, “America”. The lyrics are so evocative of something that makes me feel several emotions at the same time. That’s pure inspiration. Nice article.

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