More songs are valued or rejected over the longterm because of the quality of their lyrics than any other song element. Take a look at practically any “worst of” list, and you’re usually looking at a list of songs where the lyrics are corny, stilted, or otherwise missing the mark.
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Just because you can tell that a song has a lyric problem doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know right away what that problem is. And more to the point — most of those “worst-of” lists I mentioned are a compilation of opinions by non-musician audiences. They can tell the lyrics are bad. But when it comes to fixing them, that’s when you need a bit more expertise.
The Lyric Checklist
If you’re trying to take your lyric writing abilities to a new, better level, it can help to have a checklist. So if you’ve written a song, and the lyrics seem awkward or otherwise bad, give this checklist a try:
- The lyric uses mainly common, everyday words.
- The lyric tends to use a casual, conversational tone.
- Incorrect grammar and sentence structure is avoided unless it’s the kind we all use in casual conversation (“I gotta have faith..”)
- The natural stress and pulse of the words matches the pulse of the music.
- Forced rhymes are avoided. (This is hard to define, but you see it when a lyric includes something irrelevant to your story: “I love the things you do for me/ Like honey from an apple tree.”)
- Clichés are avoided. (Though they are much more successful as part of a chorus hook: “Let’s Get It On”; “I Say a Little Prayer”; “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”)
- The verse lyric describes people, situations, circumstances, or tells a story.
- Each line of the lyric is a logical follower for the line that precedes it. (There is a flow to the narrative that feels natural and organized.)
- Lyrics, if they tell a story, often get paired with melodies that are mainly stepwise (as opposed to using leaps or sitting repeatedly on the same note.)
- More emotional lines are placed prominently (often higher) in the melody.
- More emotional words and phrases are partnered with with longer rhythmic values.
- The chorus lyric often features a hook — a line that is often repeated — that usually serves as the song’s title. (“Shake It Off”)
- The chorus lyric defines the basic mood of the song.
- The chorus lyric uses simple, basic rhythms that lock into the song’s main hook.
- The chorus lyric describes mainly emotional conditions and avoids adding too much to the narrative.
- The chorus lyric feels fun to sing.
- The bridge lyric often alternates between adding to a story (narrative style) and describing an emotional response.
- The bridge lyric often offers some of the more emotional lines of a song’s lyric.
- The bridge lyric leads back logically to the opening line of chorus lyric. (This should be true unless the bridge is followed by an additional verse).
Think of a song’s checklist as something you’d consult if you feel that something’s gone wrong. If you like your lyric and you feel that your audience enjoys your song, that’s not a time to run it by a checklist.
That list won’t include everything that can possibly go wrong with a song’s lyric. Since good songwriting adheres more to principles than it does to rules, you will need to use a good deal of judgement regarding how strenuously to apply what you see in that list.
Every song is a dynamic, subjective musical experience. Not everyone will hear and process a lyric in the same way. So even as you consult the checklist, be aware that you’ll ultimately want to make edits that “feel” like the right ones for your song.
When it comes to songwriting, even consulting a checklist means making decisions as to how strenuously the items in that list should be applied.
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