Lyricist - Songwriter

You Love Lyrics, But Can’t Start a Song That Way?

If for you the lyric of a song is the most important feature, you’re definitely on the right track. Those songwriters who become most well-known and who have the most powerful legacies are the ones for whom lyrics are the most poignant part of the final product.

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I think that if lyrics are important to you that it’s worth trying to develop a lyrics-first process. There are reasons for this:

  1. It allows you to focus on the words without dealing with any musical clutter.
  2. The rhythms of your eventual melody will more naturally fit the rhythms of your words and phrases.
  3. The chords you choose can support the mood of your lyric far easier than doing it the other way around.

But sometimes, starting a song with lyrics is just too difficult. You feel that everything you write sounds like a mishmash of thoughts and ideas with little form and certainly no sense of rhythmic organization that would be useful in a song.

Sound familiar?

Here’s the main reason for your difficulties: You’re noticing that good song lyrics are not necessarily good poetry.

Some songwriters, like Leonard Cohen, could write an amazing poem that would work really well as a song lyric, but most of the time poetry strays too far into the realm of written language, and doesn’t have the necessary casual nature of the oral version of a language, as most good song lyrics do.

And because you try to write in a casual nature, your words sound and feel disorganized and unfocused. What can you do?

Some tips:

  1. Maybe don’t try to write the lyrics first. Sure, a lyrics-first process is great, but not if it’s causing you to feel frustrated, which is the first step to writer’s block.
  2. Try a topic-first process. Simply think of what you want to sing about, and then move immediately to either chords or melodies. Put something together that sounds like an instrumental, and then start throwing in words and phrases that partner up with what you’ve written. Pull a lyric together little by little.
  3. Let the music tell you what it’s about. Paul Simon is the kind of songwriter that often writes the music of the song first, and then let’s the music tell him what song is going to be about.
  4. Focus on the lyrics as a final step. Once you’ve got the music of your song written, and you’ve got smatterings of lyrics thrown in, you can spend as long as you like polishing those lyrics, and making them more and more powerful, more and more meaningful. You might spend a week on the music, and a full year on the lyric.
  5. Use story writing to get you through the tough spots. Any time you feel stuck, and the words aren’t coming, sit down and write a short 1- or 2-page story about the topic of your lyrics. Through that part of the process, you’re likely to come up with words and phrases that hadn’t occurred to you before, maybe even an entirely new angle to the story.

Just because you find lyrics to be the most important part of a song does not necessarily mean that you must start with them. When a song is finished, audiences rarely know (0r even care about) in what order you created the various components.

There is no one good way to write a song. And through a lyrics-first process gives you some advantages, the most important part of a song is what is sounds like in the end, and it matters little how you got there.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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