If you’ve got the gift of gab, you’ve an an ability to engage others in conversation and to keep them interested. If you think about the people in your life that you love having a conversation with, the following statements are probably true:
- They find interesting things to talk about.
- They can speak eloquently.
- They know how to balance speaking with listening.
A lot of this applies to good songwriting as well, but in a slightly different way. For music to make an impact, the actual topic isn’t what makes it interesting. It is more a case that good songs touch us in an emotionally important way.
In other words, the best songs sound relevant to our lives. On the face of it, a simple love song may not be all that interesting — it’s simply talking about why the singer loves someone.
But the words that are used, the imagery, and the relevance to our own life (i.e., when you get that “oh, I’ve felt that way myself!” feeling) is what makes the topic interesting.
So that’s how a song is — or isn’t — interesting, so let’s look at the other two characteristics in that list.
To speak eloquently in a conversation involves finding the right few concise words to convey a thought or image.
In lyric writing, eloquence usually involves creating poignant imagery. The best lyricists are able to describe a deep and complex thought with a minimum of words. How it should be done differs from songwriter to songwriter.
When Bob Dylan wrote the words to “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, the eloquence comes from the casual wording. By deliberately choosing words that come from everyday conversation, he’s saying, “This is for everyone.”
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Letting An Audience Respond
I’ve written before on this blog that songwriting is like having a one-sided conversation in the sense that the listener doesn’t get a chance to answer back. But the essence of “allowing the audience to answer” needs to be present.
How do good songwriters do this? Sometimes it’s in the lyric itself, where two sides of a topic are presented. Perhaps Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a good example of this kind of lyric, where we get to hear to sides of a “he-said-she-said” scenario.
But often it’s subtler than that. Good conversation means wording ideas in such a way that they invite others to express their thoughts, even if they don’t avail themselves of that opportunity.
Good songwriting does the same thing. It expresses thoughts, opinions, feelings and ideas in a way that avoids being overly preachy, allowing audiences to accept the lyric for what it is without demanding that the listener automatically accept the lyric as unarguable truth. It’s a tricky line to walk.
That’s not to say that you can’t be controversial in your lyrics. But in the end, what really matters is that you’ve written a song lyric that has potential to create emotions within the listener. The best way to do that is to move back and forth between describing situations and then expressing an emotional response.
Once you’ve done that, you’ve probably fulfilled most of what the best lyricists do in their songs. And making sure the topic is relevant to your audience is the first step to finding something interesting to say.
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