They say that lyrics can make or break a song. And this is certainly true: Have you ever experienced a line you simply can`t get out of your head? To me Lou Reeds` “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side!“ is one of my all-time-favourites. It is one of these magic lines that trigger my imagination, opening up a whole new world inside my head. Doo-de-doo-de-doo, just listening to these syllables boosts me up with the energy to start something wild, something new. So, when you are reading this blog post, you probably want to take a risk yourself and try to write your first own song. I am sure you are wondering if there is something like a proven strategy to come up with great words for great songs. Sorry, to let you down, there isn`t. But if you keep on reading you will get to know a couple of different techniques for different songwriters and learn some tricks of the trade that may come in handy for everyone.
“Something`s got me started”: How to start writing lyrics
There are many different ways of coming up with ideas for a song. Many songwriters take their own favourite songs as a starting-point. This also helps you to narrow down what kind of song you would like to write. So, why don`t you try to ask yourself which kind of music you love to listen to: Hip-hop? Reggae? Blues? Samba? Which topics do the songs usually deal with? According to the genre`s conventions there is a huge range of possible themes and traditions, from romantic folk ballads to highly provocative battle-songs. Some common themes for songwriters:
- Love and affection: being in and out of love
- Nature: a mood, a place, a season
- Social issues: news, war, poverty, the world around you
- Strong feelings: grief, outrage
- Soft feelings: happiness, being at ease
- Alternative realities: a dream, our future, humour
The idea is, however, to learn from a model text, choosing a couple of song lyrics you really do appreciate. At first it is enough just being a copy-cat: Start to imitate your pet songs, because you want to understand their arrangement. The next step then is to rewrite them, rendering them more personal, adding your own style, your own flavour.
This is one way of getting started. Of course, there are also plenty of different approaches. Let`s, for instance, have a look at the relationship between words and music. Some musicians first compose a song and then add the text, whereas others start with the words and come up with the music later. The third group, the singer-songwriter, combines both strategies and thinks up the lyrics in the process of composing.
Collaborating with a musician, I fall into the first category: I work with a composer being in charge of the music and my job is to find words that fit the mood. This teamwork really has a lot of benefits. I think in a way this is an easy approach because I don`t have to start from zero but can draw on a ready-made song, on a given melody, already being offered the overall emotion.
Clustering and Freewriting: Getting a feeling for your song
So, when you are as lucky as me and already have the music to work with, you should make yourself familiar with what you`ve got. At first, I listen various times to the chord progression and the melody and try to connect with the overall atmosphere, with the feeling the music conveys. Is it romantic, full of dreams, is it desperate, full of aggression or is it an easy-going, light and charming melody? And then I start picking up a pencil.
I often draw a word cluster or do some general brainstorming, jotting down all the words and ideas that pop up even if they sound stupid or off the track. When you try to trigger ideas, it is vital not to judge them too early because at that moment it is more important to get into the flow than to produce ready-made products.
After that I stand back and mark all the evocative words or imaginative expressions I like. This often gives me a couple of keywords I later want to use in the chorus. Of course, it is still raw material, no rhymes, nothing too original. Perhaps you are a genius having more talent, coming up with 30 witty hook-lines a minute. I don`t, but nevertheless I sometimes get to them. The hard way: Sweating and revising what I have got so far for a million of times.
If you don`t like clustering ideas and can`t think of anything to write about, you could use another strategy called freewriting which might work better for you: Sit down, grab a pencil which you then may not put down for three minutes. Write down in complete sentences everything that is on your mind, no matter if you think about a book you are reading, or the things you see outside of your window, the results of the latest soccer-match or simply writing off your chest that you can`t stand doing this stupid exercise.
“All you need is love”: The chorus is the heart of your song
However, when you found the topic of your song you probably want to work on the overall message. Make sure you know what your statement is. Ask yourself, boiling everything down: what is the major idea behind my song? It is crucial to stick to one central idea only. Beginners tend to overdo it, dealing with three subjects at the same time. This weakens your song so try to prevent this focusing on one message only.
Having a look at the Beatles might make my point clear for in every song they usually deal with one central topic only:
- Let it be
- Message: Have trust, everything will be fine, you don`t have to push it
- Eleonor Rigby
- Message: people are often lonely and isolated
- While my guitar gently weeps
- Message: I am sad and gloomy, a feeling we call “Weltschmerz“ in German
The structural heart of the song is usually the chorus. It sticks in the mind because it is often repeated. Hence, you should use it to bring across your message or the feeling of your song in a very evocative way. A lot of songwriters use metaphors here or a pun of words just like in all those catchy advertisement slogans. Probably you can`t text the chorus at one go but even if you don`t know how you should know what you want to say. And always bear in mind not to put too many ideas in the refrain, but keeping it focused.
“Don`t stand so close to me“: Breaking down the message
Congratulation! You came up with your message, the general feeling of your song and you somehow put it in the chorus. Now you should work your way through the stanzas. They could be examples illustrating the chorus. You want a song about happiness, look around and describe things and persons that make you happy. Have a look at Pharell Williams for example: In the first stanza of his song he talks about sunshine, taking a break, hot air balloons and in the chorus he asks everybody to clap hands with him because he is so happy. Very easy, very effective.
Many songwriters keep a journal they take with them wherever they go to jot down street scenes, random thoughts, beautiful words, graffiti on the wall, pieces of conversations they have overheard. This tool is highly recommendable when it comes to narrow-down overwhelming feelings, turning them into concrete little scenes.
Another good example for breaking down a message is Sting`s: “Don`t stand so close to me“, a song about sexual tension between a student and her teacher being described by everyday situations for example at the bus stop (“wet bus stop … his car is warm and dry“). Sting also gives us a clue about who inspired him to write this song (“that famous book by Nabakov“).
So, to sum up, as a rule of thumb a conventional way of structuring a song is to
- Tell your listeners a story from beginning to end
- Make a general statement in the refrain, summing up your message
- You can also show the many aspects of one event in the stanzas
- Making it as specific as can be
- Offering different surprising, creative variations on the subject
- You might also like to play around with different techniques (monologue, dialogue, speaker)
Of course, there are many exceptions to the rule. Plus, many songs do not only consist of stanzas and chorus but they often also use a bridge, an intro or an outro. It is up to you to come up with new ideas challenging conventions. But when you want to write your very first lyrics sticking to traditions and easy patterns might facilitate your job. Being an advanced songwriter, you might be driven by the wish to break the rules, which leads us to another controversial issue:
“I pray for love to God above“: Songwriters chasing rhyme words
Now you wrote some stanzas and a chorus. It is your first draft and it needs to be polished. Sure, you should check the number of syllables so that they somehow get along well with the bars, measures and the melody. Furthermore, beginners sometimes forget to plan pauses. Don`t kill your singers! You need to give them a chance to breathe every now and then.
Everybody is still alive, fine, so we should start the process of polishing. You get your message across alright but do your lines sound good to you? Do they sound forced or is the tone more or less natural, almost conversational?
Perhaps you want to change around some words, go and look for synonyms. Also you want to get rid of predictable expressions just like “broken heart“, “dream come true“, “never let you go“, “more than words can say“ … you name it.
And what about rhymes? Yes, they are nice. They get your lines being remembered more easily but they are not obligatory. Don`t bend around a verse just to fit in a rhyme. If you do so, this might literally kill your song. When you want to use rhyme, try to find a fresh one to not bore off your listeners.
Rhyme dictionaries can come in handy here. If you want to use rhyme, there are many ways to do it. Alternatives to the common chase for end rhymes are internal rhymes for example, but you can also work with assonances or alliterations. A rather nice list of different types of rhyme and their substitutions can be found here:
“I can`t get no satisfaction“ Dare not to be too perfect while writing songs
Don`t be too perfect or you will never get no satisfaction. The nice thing about combining words and music is that sometimes the most terrible over-used lyrics work `though. “I can`t get no satisfaction“ is a great hook-line, no doubt. But what about “hey hey hey- that`s what I say“? It`s the pits, isn`t it? But, nevertheless, it works, it does a nice job in the context of the song. So, don`t be too hard on yourself. Stay pragmatic: If it works and you feel fine it`s alright.
Mein Name ist Sigrun Dahmer und ich bin lizenzierte Schreibberaterin, Autorin und Rhetoriktrainerin aus Köln. Hier, auf meinem Blog „besser reden — besser schreiben“ finden Sie viele aktuelle Tipps und Tricks aus der aktuellen Schreibberatung & Rhetorik, um in Beruf und Alltag erfolgreicher zu kommunizieren. Viel Spaß beim Stöbern! Wenn Sie eine Frage zum Thema haben, versuche ich gerne, Ihnen weiter zu helfen. Melden Sie sich einfach per Kommentar, Kontaktformular oder über Social Media bei mir!