More than Words? Writing lyrics to a tune may seem simple at first glance. How difficult can it be to toss together some rhymes? But the reality is that you want to avoid some key pitfalls when writing lyrics. In this article you will learn some insights into the world of songwriting, especially in regard to writing lyrics.
Step One: Avoid the 3 Basic Blunders
What makes one song great and another just, well, bleh? Shoving aside multi-million dollar companies that can make mediocre music still hit the Billboard charts, to be a successful songwriter you need to learn good songcraft. And good songcraft means avoiding some key songwriting pitfalls.
You heard me right. Avoid being cheesy. Unless you are planning on writing kid’s songs or jingles, avoid the incredible urge to write hackneyed lyrics like “I love you…oo…oo…oo”.
2. They don’t get me!
On the flip side of the songwriting cheeseburger is the artist that writes incredibly esoteric or nonsensical lyrics that no-one else understands, and that don’t seem to have any clear meaning. Those of you (like myself) who learned in an avant-garde environment that encouraged writing songs that no-one understood between rounds of atonal screeching will appreciate where I am coming from… Know your audience and write for them.
3. Missing the Hook
Yes, your song needs a hook. This is a phrase or line that the listener cannot get out of his or her head. Usually it is the title or chorus line. Sometimes it is actually an instrumental riff but for now let’s focus on developing the hook in the lyrics.
Listen to this Taylor Swift tune and see if you can figure out the hook.
Even if you don’t like this song, you can’t help hearing the lyrics “Bad Blood” playing over and over and over and over and over… well, you get the point!
Step Two: Choose Your Words Carefully
Not all words are created equal. Some words are best just spoken because they are not singable. In general, words that have too many consonants like “Albuquerque” are less singable than the words “sigh” or “you” or even a mouthful like “beautifully”. Aim to avoid words with lots of vowels, or those that end in “oh” , “oo” or “ah” sounds.
Exercise 1: Name that Hook
As we mentioned before, the hook of a song typically is the part of the song that is most memorable for the listener. Sometimes it may be an instrumental riff or a specific sound, but most of the time the lyrics make the hook. You will usually find the hook in the song title. In fact, if you write a song title and then realize that another part of the song is being repeated over and over, it is normally best to rename your song after the hook!
Imagine if Thriller had been named A Tune About Zombies. The title is accurate, but the hook is the repeated Thriller line.
- Read one of the examples below out loud
- Try to guess the hit song behind the badly written lyrics
- Once you guess, compare the word choices of the actual lyric with the fake lyric
- Notice how some words are more singable than others
- Listen to the rhythm of the actual song
For example: “Accurate aquamarine, infant, I have feelings for your person”
Answer: Madonna’s True Blue
You’ll find the answers for this exercise are at the bottom of the article.
- “Personally I have an affinity for the rear end, rear end, rear end, no treble.”
- “At this point and time all parties have not-so-great bodily fluids containing red corpuscles.”
- “This is my altercation tune.”
By doing a direct comparison between these badly written lyrics and the well-written lyrics from these hit tunes you should be able to:
- Learn how to make a song easy to sing by audience and performer
- Observe the rhythms and simplicity used in a hook
- Identify the hook in your own tunes
- Work on writing and rewriting a song until it has a good hook
Exercise 2: Line Re-write
Let’s take that hook improvement a step further. Below are three examples of made-up lines that are not singable. Use these lines for the exercise below:
- Read the example out loud
- Identify words that are difficult to sing
- Find synonyms for these words
- Rewrite the line until it is singable, being sure to keep the overall meaning of the line intact
- Improvise a melody for your new line
- Record yourself and listen to your word flow
- What can you do to make this line better?
My enamored feelings for the anthropological biped exceeds the capacity of my cardiovascular system
When I observe your aquamarine ocular prisms my intestines quiver nervously
Outside the blizzard conditions are quite harrowing but I find this fireplace quite comfortable
You might wonder why you are playing so many word games. We’re not writing a poem are we? The reality is that songwriting and poetry are closely linked. Most poems are meant to be enjoyed out loud, spoken by the poet. Although we are used to reading poems in a book, in many ways poems and lyrics are actually one and the same.
Exercise 3: Find a Favorite Poet
Just as a songwriter should study great musicians, as a lyricist you should also study great poets. At least once a week find a new poet. Read several of his or her poems out loud. Explore the lyricism, rhythm, and meaning behind the words.
If you have time, try improvising a short melody under the lyrics of your favorite poems. Experiment with melody, harmony, and rhythm as you make the words of the poet your own.
Step 3: Take a Song-Writing Challenge
Nothing is more motivational than working with other songwriters under a crazy deadline. There are many different songwriting challenges from those like the 50/90 song challenge (fifty songs written in ninety days!) or those created in songwriting workshops or with a writing group.
Here are five writing challenges for you to try:
- Write an entire song in an hour
- Brainstorm a song for thirty minutes. Be sure to explore specific emotions and experiences, not just general thoughts like “love”
- Write a story about something that happened to you yesterday. Use this story to write a song
- Deconstruct your favorite tune by substituting your own lyrics into a popular song
- Meet at least once a month with other songwriters and share your latest lyrics
- Explore jingle writing by writing at least one catchy song per week about a household item
Exercise: Song Three Ways
For this final exercise, take a song of yours that is near completion. Then challenge yourself to rewrite it in three entirely different musical styles. How would you change your tune if it was a rap or a ballad? If you needed to make it a catchy pop tune or wanted to convert it into some serious rock?
How can you do this? Firstly you will need to rewrite the lyrics to reflect the style. A dark metal tune will most likely differ significantly in tone and emotion from a popular tune. You are most likely going to want to explore more creative rhyming schemes for folk tunes than a repetitive dance club mix. And you might have to double the rhythm and the words if you chance your romantic love song into a hip-hop hit.
While it is good to specialize in one particular genre, it helps to have a working knowledge of multiple musical styles and songwriting techniques. Then you can apply what you have learned to your lyric writing. If you hope to make songwriting a vocation and not just a fun pastime, then being versatile is key. Use the Open Your Ears series to discover new musical genres to explore in your song writing.
So, who are your favorite lyricists and poets? How do you develop good emotional lyrics? Share your techniques and tips in the comments below.
Answers to “Name that Hook” Exercise:
Example 1: “Personally I have an affinity for the rear end, rear end, rear end, no treble.”
Answer: All about that Bass by Meghan Traynor
Example 2: “At this point and time all parties have not-so-great bodily fluids containing red corpuscles.”
Answer: Bad Blood by Taylor Swift
Example 3: “This is my altercation tune.”
Answer: Fight Song by Rachel Platton
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