Tips for Writing Great Lyrics
While there is no absolute correct way or perfect formula to writing great lyrics there are a few key points to keep in mind in order to be sure your lyrics come across as well constructed, unique and compelling. More than anything you want to captivate your listener from the very first lines and keep them hooked on the development of your song until the very last notes.
Words are actually music
and the very best songs can be committed to memory and sung with just the melody, rhyme and rhythm of the words. With well written lyrics a songs instrumentation can remain open to endless variations and can be changed in order to fit to any music style or artistic arrangement. In other words, a great song may be clearly remembered by its words alone.
Write What You See – Not How You Feel
You want to show the listener the feeling of your song through description, narrative and the mood of the performance and not by literally telling how you feel. If you just sing about how you feel it’s boring and leaves no room for the listener to enter your song with their own imagination. Use imagery, characters and action as a vehicle for emotion. Like an interesting photo a song’s lyrics should be able to be subjectively interpreted differently by different people and yet remain objectively sovereign in its artistic craftsmanship.
Use the Title in the Hook
For example Bruce Springsteen’s The Streets of Philadelphia uses the title as the hook of the song making it catchy and to the point. Many songwriters use this simple tactic as a way to catch the listener, to make the song memorable and to avoid being complicated. The more you can say with the less amount of words the better but it’s not easy to be both simple, catchy, and unique. It is extremely helpful to use a dictionary and thesaurus as a tool when searching for the right words, it’s not cheating and doesn’t make you any less artistic.
The Importance of the First Lines
The very first lines of the song draw the listener in and you want them to stick. It’s an important part of leading the song in a clear direction and setting up the stage for the rest of the song. You want your first lines to disarm the audience and make them wonder what’s going to happen next?
Aim for Short, Simple and Specific Lines
You don’t want to use complicated words or words that are difficult to say or understand. You want to find the words that come closest to what you mean to express in the most specific, short and simple way. Which can be abstract and yet still engaging.
Build a Storyline around the Chorus or Catch-Phrase
You can write a story or many stories around a chorus or catch-phrase. As the song progresses back and forth between verse and chorus it creates a forward momentum for your storytelling. In other words you come back to the chorus as a way of concluding the drama of the verses. For instance in Bob Dylan’s song Desolation Row his characters all have different stories within the song and they all are either going to, leaving, or living in Desolation Row.
Stream of Consciousness Writing and Using the Unexpected
Sometimes the best lines come to writers when they let go of trying to find the right words and simply write down the flow of words and thoughts that passes through their minds. Later on they can pick and choose from the compiled ramblings which one they find to be the most interesting lyrically. To have a stand-out lyric you should incorporate an element of the unexpected. Something abstract or absurdist in a lyrical line can be emotionally satisfying to the listener because it serves the song, even if it doesn’t really make logical sense.
Make Up Your Own Words or Language
I listen to music in many languages that I can’t understand and yet the voices and words still effect me. Why not make up your own language or words for music? The Icelandic band Sigur Ros sings in an ethereal sounding self-made language that captivates a massive fan base all over the world and no one understands what they are singing about.
Make Several Drafts Over and Over Again
Write and rewrite and write again. Never give up on figuring out the best way to complete the lyrics for a song and yet still always be open to endless expansion and revision. A song is never finished until it’s recorded and even then it’s not really finished. Sometimes a song takes years to write and you are allowed to walk away from it and come back later, often times with a fresh perspective. The great thing about being a songwriter is you can always go back and change your words because they literally live in the air.
Find the Words that Fit Musically
Using words that have a natural built in tempo work more smoothly and are more engaging. Words that have a lot of consonant sounds can be harsh sounding and you don’t want to use words that get caught up in your throat. You want everyone to be able to tap their feet along to the rhythm and cadence of your lyrics alone.
Make a Timeless Theme Unique
For example ‘Love’ is a timeless theme but it can be very boring to write about or listen to because it’s been used so much already. So how can you make it unique and captivating? That’s the challenge of being a writer. Because there is nothing new under the sun you must develop your own way to write about exhausted themes.
Write Without an Instrument
If you usually write with an instrument try writing without one. Instead write the lyrics without considering the music or thinking about instrumentation. You want your lyrics to work as a song even without music. If you write them without music they can become more well-rounded and solid in their cadence and rhyme. Well built lyrics should be easy to remember without the music playing along. For instance Son House’s Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ In Your Face where he is just singing and clapping, it’s unforgettable.
You can write about anything in the world but what is really satisfying is when people resonate with what you are writing and when they can connect with your song. As a simple rule, remember that to write great lyrics, great lyrics are always easy to remember.
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