I’m really pleased to notice (or at least I think I notice) that the quality of lyrics has been becoming an important sought-after aspect of good mainstream songwriting. It seems only a few years back that everyone was talking about chord progressions. The term “killer chord progression” was one I’d hear in many musical conversations.
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I feel confident going out on a limb and saying that no song has ever become great because of its unique, thought-provoking chord progression. That’s not to say that chords aren’t important. How they interact with the melody will make or break a song. But that’s not the same thing as saying that chords stand out as being vital on their own.
But lyrics can and do contribute to the longevity and power of a song. Some songwriters have become great based almost solely on their accomplishments as lyricists. But I know of no one for whom it is said that their greatness is directly attributable to their ability to come up with great chords.
There are different aspects of lyrics that need mentioning:
- Powerful imagery. Imagery means being able to create a fairly complete picture in the mind of the listener by using a minimum of words. “Her icy stare” says more to us than “her harsh stare.” We know what a harsh stare might be, but with “her icy stare”, we picture it — perhaps even feel it — more clearly.
- Salient topics. You can write a song about practically anything, but a good song topic is going to be one that makes a strong connection to the listener and makes them feel that they’re hearing about something worth thinking about. It’s why love songs work so well; everyone’s “been there”, and they like hearing and thinking about it.
- Interesting turns of phrase. A good lyricist will find interesting ways of wording their thoughts. Cleverness can be important in a good song lyric, because everyone has their own unique way of being clever. In that way, cleverness leads to uniqueness of writing style, and that’s always a good thing.
Probably the most important quality of any good song lyric, however, is its conversational style. Even lyrics that seem complex or even abstract project this important casual style of delivery.
A great example of this is demonstrated in Peter Gabriel’s song “Here Comes the Flood” (1977):
When the night shows
the signals grow on radios
All the strange things
they come and go, as early warnings
Stranded starfish have no place to hide
still waiting for the swollen Easter tide
There’s no point in direction we cannot
even choose a side.
As you read the words, the lyrical direction is not immediately apparent. You definitely get powerful images, you get the feeling that he’s talking about something important, at least to him, and you certainly get interestingly artistic phraseology.
And you’ll notice that one other crucial element: each line of the lyric, on its own, sounds casual and conversational, as if they were snipped out of a conversation one might be having about radios, starfish and the like.
Of course, you quickly begin to get the feeling that the lyric is about so much more, and that’s when the lyric, like all good lyrics, exceeds the sum of the parts and becomes great.
You may be developing your own unique lyrical style, but no matter how you do it, it’s worth the time to read through what you’ve written, and take a examine each phrase for its casual, conversational tone.
That casual nature goes a long way to making audiences want to listen.
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