My first forays into writing, around four decades ago (a frightening amount of time) were as a lyricist, and I’m still writing songs, now and then; when I can spare a little time. So I thought, why not share with you the ideas that have worked for me. Not everyone will agree with what follows, but these are my tips for budding song-writers:-
Listening to contemporary music, it may not be immediately evident that not every song you write has to be about your love life. When every track on your planned latest album is about your marriage break up, that’s not art, it’s therapy – better keep it to yourself.
Be creative. There’s a whole world of subjects out there, from the personal to the universal – politics, culture, nature, the cosmos. Lately I’ve been dealing with big subjects, including climate change, anthropomorphic mass extinction, and even the nature of existence (I must be getting old):
‘On through the void, avoiding all question
Of emptiness and, any suggestion,
Existence profoundly is lacking direction.’
Lyrics don’t have to be literal; they can be allegorical or fantastical, comedic or satirical.
Remember that your lyrics may influence others. Glorifying crime, normalising the carrying of knives or guns, promoting homophobia and misogyny may well have a detrimental effect on other people’s well-being, and certainly won’t do anything to create the free, fair and safe society we should all be striving for.
Lyrics as Poetry
If you want to write great lyrics, simply fitting words to a tune isn’t enough. The very best lyrics are poetry, rather than prose. If your lyrics aren’t at least close to being good enough to work, without music, at a poetry reading, I would say you’re letting down your craft. Great music deserves great lyrics.
Musician and lyricist are different disciplines; the skill sets overlap, but are not identical. You might be brilliant at the musical side of things, but if you’re not a writer, why not collaborate with someone who is? Look for aspiring writers who may be open to forming a mutually beneficial relationship, where they produce the words to your music. Money need not necessarily change hands. You could come to an arrangement where they are credited with the lyrics, and will receive a percentage of any earnings. If you make it big, you both win. If your musical career doesn’t take off, it will have cost you nothing, and you’ll have carefully crafted words to sing. But if you really want to write the words yourself, then read on…
You might not want to over-burden the singer (especially if that’s you!) with too many lines to learn, but the mind-numbing repetition employed by some artists is enough to drive listeners mad. Avoiding excessive repetition means writing more words. But you’re a wordsmith, aren’t you? Don’t waste the opportunity to practise your craft; to show your skill, and to make your songs special.
You might not want to… oh, hang on; we’ve done that one!
Like poetry, lyrics don’t have to rhyme, but it can add to the rhythm and flow of the music. Just make sure your rhymes work. For me, if you’re struggling to find a rhyme, making up a word, or using slang (e.g. rhyming ‘kinda’ with ‘find her’, or ‘wanna’ with ‘Prima Donna) in most instances really doesn’t work.
Rhyming can be at the end of every line, alternate lines, or a more complex pattern. Although there’s no need to stick to a rigid pattern. Throwing a rhyming word into the middle of a line can work well – the poetic equivalent of ‘off-beat’.
It’s easy to get carried away with rhyming. Recently I’ve taken to using rhyming triplets, finished with a line without a rhyme. This is from a slightly tongue-in-cheek song about the despair felt after returning to the cold, dark UK winter after a long holiday in the sun…
‘In spite of intense emotional pain,
Stifle your disdain,
Embrace the icy rain
As the rain embraces you.’
Too many rhymes can be become distracting and irritating. I think I feel some more non-rhyming lyrics coming on…
I’ve discovered over the years that it’s possible not just to fit surprisingly complex words to music, but to make them work beautifully…
‘There’s magic in the way that life evolves,
No depth of thought, no profound contemplation,
Has yet been found to resolve
The complexities that life involves.’
Don’t be afraid to use complex language, long words, or words that you didn’t know the meaning of. I love finding new words (though I have a dreadful memory, so it’s a struggle for me to hold on to them). One word I’ve discovered recently is ‘melismatic’ – where you sing more than one note to a syllable. It’s something I’ve had the courage to do more of recently (my voice being less than great). Be careful though, because as many pop artists are currently proving, too much melisma sounds ridiculous.
So many contemporary lyrics are written in ‘street speak’; the more they mash up the English language, the cooler the artist – or at least, that’s how it’s presented. But why follow the herd? We all have grammatic flaws in the way we speak (well, apart from the Queen and Jacob Rees-Mogg) but why accentuate them? In every-day speech the errors may slip by unnoticed. When we write, I believe it’s good to polish our language, rather than to shred it. In any case, if you don’t speak like a gangster rapper, why sing like one? Which brings me to…
Finding your own voice
Beware of using language you don’t own. For instance, do you actually refer to your significant other as ‘Baby’, or ‘Girl’? If you do, perhaps you might like to consider whether these terms are somewhat patronising; misogynistic, even. If you don’t, why use them in lyrics? Isn’t it time you made your own voice heard, rather than just copying what you hear elsewhere. Don’t be a sheep.
What comes first – music or words?
Either, of course, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Writing the lyrics first gives you more freedom, but it can be difficult to get started, and there’s the concern over how easily the words can be set to music. It can be helpful to have some idea of the rhythmic effect you want from a tune. Writing words to a tune is certainly much more restrictive. You have to be more disciplined (though that can be a good thing.)
I’ve worked both ways in the past, but these days I tend to work on the music and the words at the same time. Developing both together is a more flexible approach, and for me, it can give a better result than trying to shoe-horn words into a tune, or stretch a tune around words.
So there you are; my tips for song lyrics. Happy writing…
text & lyrics©Graham Wright 2021