Songwriting and Lyrics

The Non-Poetic Nature of (Most) Song Lyrics

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If you think of song lyrics as being poetry, you might be missing what’s really going on: a good song lyric creates emotions in the heart of the listener, and tends to do this with simple, everyday words, not usually with highbrow poetry.

In a sense, all song lyrics are a kind of poetry, and you can successfully argue that point. But there are three key differences between lyrics and poetry, in the common usage of those terms, that songwriters in the pop genres would do well to consider:

  1. The emotional journey of poetry can take a long time to develop — too long, often, for typical pop song formats.
  2. Lyrics need simple, conversational words that connect quickly and easily to a listener.
  3. The reading aloud of a poem often allows the reader a certain kind of rhythmic freedom, while music tends to lock the lyric into a somewhat more predictable sense of rhythm.

In my experience, if you find lyrics hard to write, you’re likely to be faltering on one of those three simple distinctions. To say it simply, you’re probably trying to write poetry of a traditional sort, when you really want to be writing something that’s emotionally clear, constructed with simple everyday phrases.

There is also this: pop songs typically move up and down in emotional intensity, and do so in a rather predictable way — a certain number of bars (or beats) of lower energy, then a certain number of higher energy, then back down again. Non-lyric poetry doesn’t necessarily work that way.

One of the best ways to know if you’ve written something that’s going to work well as a lyric (particularly in the pop genres) is to try reading your lyric aloud as if you’re having a conversation with someone. If it sounds conversational, you’ve likely nailed it. If it sounds more like something meant to be read than spoken, try rewording it.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. I think Toto’s AFRICA was written upon’s Red Ryder’s earlier WHITE HOT – obviously a similar subject matter but above all, the rather unique & poetic use of abruptly juxtaposing wildly different subject material, making the listener mentally search hard to try and connect it all. Dont seem to work in pop hits – but both became enduring classics….

  2. When I was 17 I discovered John Prine singing his original songs on a tiny stage in a small bar in Chicago. He had not yet been “discovered” yet. His lyrics completely changed my ideas about what a song could be. Such simple words, but such big ideas so succinctly put.

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