Most songs aren’t specifically “story songs”; they don’t use lyrics that say “first this happened, and then that happened.” It’s usually the case that listeners will infer the story by the various lines within the lyric.
It sounds complicated, but most song lyrics work this way. When we hear the lines of a lyric, our brains piece together a story that allows those lines to make sense.
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When I work with songwriters one-on-one and we’re dealing specifically with lyrics, the most common problem I encounter is that the lyrics sound like a jumble of emotions and reactions, and the story either seems to be similarly jumbled, or even nonexistent.
If this describes the problems you’re having with writing lyrics, here’s a simple way to avoid the problem: start the lyric-writing process by writing a short story that sums up what you want the lyric to be about.
If you were to take the lyric for Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, you’ll see that the story isn’t at all a “first this happened, and then that happened” kind of story. It’s a story that we piece together by considering the emotions and circumstances of the lyric:
It might seem crazy what I am about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way…
Each individual line of the lyric isn’t what makes the lyric work, it’s more the emotions those lines generate. Each line leads logically into the next one. And behind it all, the all-important story.
The startling reality is that the story behind the lyrics — a story that we infer without directly hearing it — can be different for different people. The story behind “Happy” could be almost anything. It’s obviously about a man who is willing to look negativity in the face and determine to be happy no matter what the circumstances.
But the actual details of the story could be practically anything. A man who’s lost someone close to him, determining to look on the bright side. Or maybe someone who’s just gotten the big job he’s been looking for. Or… anything.
The details of the story aren’t important. That’s because when details are lacking, your listeners will fill in the blanks with their own story.
But to keep your song sounding organized and properly sequential, it’s often best to start the lyric-writing process by writing your own story — the events that would lead you to write the lyric you’ve written.
The benefit to writing the story is that it keeps things organized in your mind. The lyric will have a stronger sense of form, and it has a better chance of building stronger, more effective emotions.