What an innocuous title, right? I mean how hard can it be to write lyrics? I could be unhelpful here, and retort, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ Because while there are only 12 notes in the scale, there are hundreds of thousands of words, and therefore billions of potential combinations.
A better title for this article might be: how to write good lyrics. But then, bearing in mind that most art is subjective, and one person’s meat is another’s poison, perhaps a smarter title still might be: how to write better lyrics. Presuming you already write them, of course!
Part of the problem with analysing all things ‘song’, is terminology, and also, received wisdom. In the US it’s a ‘bridge’, but in the UK it might well be the ‘middle 8’. Received wisdom also says that a lot of consumers of music aren’t that interested in lyrics.
And then I can find any amount of examples online to disprove that.
So, let’s park any pre-conceptions about writing songs right now. What’s going to be laid out here are some techniques to try – plain and simple. This is your basic, generalized guide for how to write lyrics.
Just do it.
Yeah, borrowing from a famous sports brand there, but it’s pretty damn contextual, right? The best way to improve on any artistic enterprise – including mastering how to write lyrics – is to do it.
Malcolm Gladwell posited that if you put in 10,000 hours of work on any subject / activity, you’ll become an expert at it. So fling stuff at the wall and see what sticks.
It’s a bit like exercising. Whilst the thought of the exercise might be off-putting, once you’ve done it, you tend to feel good. But you’ll want to do 10 minutes of exercise every day, not wait until the end of the week and do 70 minutes – it’s not as good for you, doesn’t build stamina, and you’re way less likely to do it. A little and often is the best way!
So, to exercise your lyric-writing muscle, if you set out to do 20 minutes of it a day, you’ll (hopefully) start to notice some traits within your writing. Perhaps you like certain phrases, certain rhyme schemes, or use a lot of the same imagery – like fire, or sunsets, or flying. Maybe you write a lot of lyrics with the word ‘love’ in the title. Or ‘heart’.
Whatever you commit to, commit to it properly. There is NOTHING like practice when mastering how to write song lyrics.
Write about what you know, and do it authentically.
It’s another cliche (yet more received wisdom!), but when learning how to write better lyrics, it’s often a good plan to stick to the familiar.
If you find lyric-writing a proper chore, and you wish someone else in the band was doing it, then maybe they should be! It’s important to have something to say, and to be honest and authentic about it. If you’re not enthusiastic, it will probably bleed through into your work. So, do you have something to say? It doesn’t have to be meaningful to anyone other than you. But it really does help if you know what you’re after, if you know what your target is; if you know who your audience is.
That last one is the beginning of another point really, which is to do with servicing your fanbase and giving them what they want (and the importance of creating content that consumers actually desire) – but for this feature, we’ll stay focused on techniques for improvement.
If you know you don’t generally use fancy words, then don’t suddenly swallow a dictionary and start spouting long words at us. We won’t be impressed – it isn’t you! It’s not authentic… Whilst it’s absolutely fine to use your imagination to describe things, it still needs to be authentic…
So, is it:
‘I could fraternise with you / If you’d only consent / I’d like to disembark quite quickly / A disingenuous lament’
‘I want to be with you / If only you’d say yes / But I need to get away / I can’t pretend I’m not a mess’
OK, so that’s a bit silly, but when people consume music, they are often looking specifically to connect with the material – and never more so than through the lyrics. Moaning about the declining quality of caviar in recent years isn’t necessarily going to attract a big niche of empathy or understanding from most listeners. But if you are an arch-camp musical project like The Divine Comedy, then you might be able to get away with it, because it may just be a stereotypical character that is singing the song. You then laugh at how out of touch with the lives of most people that character is, and the song’s function changes and becomes authentic again.
One of the key factors when learning how to write song lyrics, is to be entirely yourself in your lyric writing. If you’re connected to the material (particularly if you’re then performing it yourself), you’ll do a far better job of selling the song.
There’s the old adage that behaviour breeds behaviour – so if you’re killing it on stage because you’re connected to the material, you’ll do an amazing job of communicating it and therefore your audience will be far more likely to respond positively to it. It may not necessarily be how to write good lyrics artistically (of course, it still may be), but it’s definitely better for your authenticity, which means that selling it in performance is going to be better and easier. Result!
Get some tech ready to help you.
Whether you write on a computer or a notebook, have a program ready to assist you with rhymes and alternative or more interesting words to use. It doesn’t suit everyone to use tech like this, but a website like www.rhymezone.com is free and will make any number of suggestions for rhymes, near rhymes and synonyms – the bread and butter of how to write lyrics. Also, there are some options right here if you’re stuck for songwriting ideas.
It’s ok to become a moon/spoon/balloon rhymer, as long as your material is still authentic, but sometimes seeing a word that rhymes with your first line will fire you up to pursue a certain lyrical direction – or at least inform possibilities for the next couplet.
Those first lines.
They are so important. First impressions count. If you know what you want to write about and have already nailed the chorus lyric, how you get there can be just as important. You’ll be wanting to grab the listener with something… well, attention-grabbing.
Short sentences can be very effective:
‘I lied / He cried / We were both / Terrified’
Well, I’ve no idea where that’s going, or what’s previously taken place, but I kind of want to know…
Similarly, very specific story-telling can be very compelling:
‘The laugh lines around her eyes / Told a story of loving compromise / But the clothes she always wore / End up screwed up on the floor’
Instructions can grab a hold, too – we tend to be programmed to listen to instruction:
‘Everybody, clap your hands / Get those feet moving, too / We’re about to get wild / No telling what we’re gonna do’ .
We’re all familiar with past tense; anecdotal stories of what has happened. This happened, that happened, I’m heartbroken etc.. Well, how about experimenting?
Try writing something in the present tense, so that it’s actually happening in real time, as we listen. It’s another way of making a treatment really compelling:
‘I’m reaching for your hand / But you’re pulling it away / I want to show you something / If you’ll only let me say’.
Or you could try future tense, too – very good for aspirational / wishing lyrics:
‘I’m hoping that you’ll fall in love with me / Whenever you remember what we’ve seen…’
‘I’m gonna think bigger than before / I’m gonna march right up to your door…’
Go a little bit crazy!
David Bowie famously wrote down loads of lines of lyrics, cut them up and then picked them out of a hat at random to create bizarre associations and images – and then crafted them into song shapes from there. They may not have actually meant anything to anyone other than him, but they sounded like they did, and he performed them like they did.
We all tend to fall into the same patterns of thinking and use the same word orders and phrases. So if you want to know how to write lyrics with a twist, then here’s a way to achieve it – by letting fate be your songwriting partner!
Deliberately choose unusual language or source material.
There’s a reason that acts with names like Chvrches and *NSYNC have emerged. When you search for them online, there’s no chance of another band showing up!
And it can be the same for a unique lyric. Toni Braxton memorably sang the Dianne Warren-penned Unbreak My Heart where the character that the lyric was aimed at was also invited to ‘uncry these tears’. There’s a wiggly red line showing up on my computer to let me know that these aren’t real words… and yet I know exactly what they mean. Warren invented language to make the song’s point. Amazing!
OMD scored a big hit in the 1980s with Enola Gay, which is the name of the aircraft that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima! Soon after that, they had 2 hit singles about Joan of Arc, called Joan of Arc and Maid of Orleans. What are the odds?
Tubeway Army asked Are Friends Electric? and Coldplay, in Fix You, suggested that ‘lights will guide you home and ignite your bones’. Really, guys? What does that mean, please? Does it even matter?
And finally, and absurdly, ‘I really, really, really wanna zig-a-zig-aah!” Thank you, the Spice Girls.
But it’s all memorable stuff, and therefore sticks around!
Play with language.
It can also be fun, hooky and interesting to play with listener’s expectations when you’re thinking about how to write song lyrics.
Try adding words on to a sentence, one at a time, to keep changing the meaning as each is added. For instance:
‘I really want you
I really want you to
I really want you to go
I really want you to go further’
Each line can be seen to convey a different meaning or intention. It keeps the listeners on their toes! And they will want to see how the lyric resolves…
Sayings and idioms can form a staple of how to write good lyrics: they are immediately recognisable and the listener will enjoy their familiar feel. But what if you were to subvert them?
For example, take a saying like ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’. It’s a highly contextual contemplation of being guilty of the same thing that you’re about to accuse another party of. Essentially, ‘don’t be a hypocrite’.
What happens if we change the word ‘stones’ into ‘parties’? ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw parties’. Suddenly it’s become (arguably) a social commentary on the upper classes throwing opulent, decadent soirees where the hoi-polloi can see them. And all we did was change one word. It makes a clever pun with very little effort on our part.
Having fun with lyrics doesn’t have to be clever at all. Knowing how to write song lyrics is as much trial and error and practice as it is following your instincts or stealing from others…
Err… what was that now?
Yep, I said it. Talent borrows, genius steals. Why put yourself through hell to get to the gold when somebody else has already done it? In other words…
You can’t really copyright a title, unless it’s so idiosyncratic that it’s obvious you’ve nicked it. So, have a look online, or go to a record store and pull up the greatest hits collections of some of the best-selling artists of all time. Look down the track listing of these collections and take note of the titles that resonate with you, or that you can imagine could do with an update!
Let’s pick one now. How about the Bee Gees, they’ve had a lot of hits. I can instantly see Words, To Love Somebody, Too Much Heaven and Love You Inside Out. All of these could spark off new and contemporary lyrics. Too close to being original? Add or subtract words to them: More Words, Love Somebody, Way Too Much Heaven and I Love You Inside And Out. But I don’t think I’m gonna touch Fanny (Be Tender With My Love).
I’m going to say this more than once. Not really. Repetition is a great way to get your message across. Whether you repeat a phrase or section to the same tune (to potentially really hammer it home) or whether you change each melody, it can make something stick like glue:
‘I want it all / I want it all / I want it all / And I want it now’: I Want It All, Queen
OK, so this example is not rocket science, but ideas like this, where the lyrical repetition coupled with an ascending melody helps to build tension and add to the pay-off for a piece of music just works.
That’s why your chorus lyric needs to be great, or clever, or memorable (and hopefully all three) – because during the course of a song it’s going to keep coming around.
‘Oh Micky, you’re so fine / You’re so fine / You blow my mind / Hey Mickey / Hey Mickey’: Mickey, Toni Basil
And never underestimate how production can enhance a lyric. This whole cheerleader vibe thing that Mickey has going on helps turn the song into an anthem – something the great unwashed can chant along with in all of their tuneless, enthusiastic glory. And while we’re talking about huge and pompous anthems, Queen kind of wrote the book on that with their double A-side single from 1977 We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions.
If you’re smart, like Brian May was when he wrote We Will Rock You, you can reverse-engineer moments like this. He wanted to write a song for the audience to perform. Stamp stamp clap. Stamp stamp clap…
Of course, all of these lyrics are going to be attached to melodies, and the ultimate aim is to get each to add to the other. A searching, questing melody deserves to have a simpatico lyric. Likewise, a haunting backing track deserves a spectral lyric to enhance it. So it pays to be sensitive to the music you’re setting them to.
If you’re someone who writes lyrics first (in a Bernie Taupin / Elton John scenario), it’s smart to think of the arrangement to help the composer out.
How to write song lyrics…
In the end, as has already been said, it’s best to just start. You’ll discover that you will develop your own voice, just because of the way that you form sentences, and the way that you have favourite words and phrases. Write from the heart, do it often, do it more!
How to write music lyrics? It’s as much a state of mind as it is an art form. Who exactly is to say what constitutes a great lyric versus an average one? People win awards for specific songs, but do you always agree with the award winners?
When you play a song, or share a lyric that you’ve written, make sure of one thing – that you’re happy with it. Don’t be afraid to refine and revisit it. If you’re showing work or marketing your music and thinking,’Yeah, it’s a shame about the bridge part though’, then it’s not ready. Lyrics are important. Best to get them right. Even if they just go:
‘Da da da I don’t love you you don’t love me
Da da da I don’t love you you don’t love me
Da da da I don’t love you you don’t love me
Da da da I don’t love you you don’t love me’
Da Da Da by Trio.
It was an international hit, people!
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How did you find these? Got any songwriting tips of your own to help out your fellow songwriters? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks For Reading – Stay Creative!