When lyrics sound like they’re not working, you’ll want to check out the up-and-down of the emotional content. Good lyrics start by being observational and narrative in nature, and then move to being responsive and emotional. And that holds true no matter what genre of music you call your own.
Beyond that, the next most noticeable problem isn’t the use of clichés, and it’s not the choice of topic. Beyond that, lyrics aren’t working because the natural pulse of the words you’re using isn’t being honoured by the natural pulse of the music.
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You’d think this one would be obvious, but many songwriters struggle with it. Let’s say you start the songwriting process by working out a chord progression. You then add rhythm instruments (guitar, keyboards), and you establish a rhythmic feel.
Then you create a melody that locks into the backing rhythms, and it all feels natural, and it all feels like it works.
The next step is usually to add lyrics (which might also be happening as you create your melody). And that’s where, for some, the problems happen.
The words you choose need to lock into the backing rhythm, and, if melody happens before words, also needs to lock into the rhythmic feel of the melody.
Dealing with the rhythm of the melody shouldn’t be a problem, since you have the luxury of changing the melody’s rhythms in order to suit the words you’re choosing. But the backing rhythmic feel of your song, the feel that’s created by rhythm guitar, bass, drums, etc., isn’t easy to change, and it’s far easier to modify your word choices.
So let’s assume you’ve got the backing rhythmic feel/groove of your song established, and now you want to make sure the words you write will work with it. There really are just two important steps:
- Say your words over and over, and keep a beat. Tap your foot, slap your knee… do whatever you can to feel the beat, and then say your words to that beat.
- Make note of how the words and musical beat interact and coexist. It needs to feel natural. Once in a while, a word might seem forced, but most of the time the stresses and accents of your words should work with the stresses and accents of your music.
Lyrics don’t need to be profound in order to be good; it really just depends on the song. When lyrics are bad, it’s usually because they sound like they’ve been beaten and bent in order to fit the rhythm of the melody.
There’s a natural feel to the words you sing when the natural pulse of the words is matched to the natural pulse of the music. When the feel is all wrong, nothing much else matters. Dealing with pulse issues is job number 1 when it comes to lyrics.
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