Anyone Can Write Better Lyrics by
listen to the radio a lot. Every day, as a matter of fact, because
I like to know what's happening in music, and if I can tell you
a secret, I kind of pride myself on being the first one to tell
my friends and family when a new song is going to be a monster hit.
I like the smug way I feel when my wife rushes into the house about
two weeks later and says "Oh God! I heard the greatest song
today!" She then proceeds to tell me a fwe of the words, and
more often than not, it's the very same tune that I picked out of
find this interesting. Not that I can pick the hit: anyone who is
serious about music and songwriting has a pretty good chance of
being able to do that. What fascinates me is the process by which
a song works its way into the public's brain. Music on the radio
has to compete with a huge array of competition, and most of it
is downright ugly. We're talking traffic here, and breakfast, and
screaming kids, and Hockey Night in Canada. Go ahead. Ask around.
Publishers and others in the know will tell you that the average
listener must hear a song at least 10 times before they even get
an inkling tha they might like it, and then maybe another 20 times
before they can recognize even a SINGLE LINE of the lyric.
depressing. Especially if you happen to be the poor slob who wrote
a minute", you say. "If the lyrics are so secondary to
the hit making process, then why did you make such a big deal a
couple of paragraphs back about your wife reciting them?"
Good question. The answer lies in that remarkable something that
happens as our lowly pop tune sprouts like a seed, and begins to
wind its little roots down into your heart.
see, anyone who LIKES a song likes it because of the package - the
rhythm, the arrangement, the tone and style of the vocal an so on.
But when LIKE turns to LOVE, as it sometimes does, it's almost always
because of the words. Poetry is what gives a song its heart, its
soul, and its staying power.
are some things that any writer can do to improve his or her lyrics:
A RHYMING DICTIONARY
Shakespeare didn't use one, but I do, and so should you. The "little
black book" has gotten me out of more jams than I care to remember,
and reading through the entries can give you a ton of inspiration.
Rhyming dictionaries are divided into several sections, each with
its own charms. There are "pure" rhymes, like moon and
June, and "near" rhyms, like blood and love. You probably
already thought of those. Look a little further, though. It's in
the sections with 2, 3, and 4 syllable offerings that the book really
shines. Who would think of "porcupine" and "concubine",
or "ergonomic" and "subatomic", or an internal
rhyme like "unconscious" and "responsive". For great rhymes, check out: Anything by Paul Simon; anything
by Stephen Sondheim.
great lyric tells a story. It doesn't have to be a complicated story,
but it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and like any
good piece of romantic fiction, it ought to have a climax. You don't
need to be fancy. The poetry will come. the important thing in the
initial stages is to establish a point of view, just like any writer
does, and stick to it. Don't, for instance, sit in a bar mourning
over a lost love while looking at a hundred women passing by (none
of whom interest you), and then pick up number 101 because of a
sudden and unexplained change of attitude. Don't do three verses
on how great your wedding day will be and then leave the guy at
the altar for no apparent reason. Don't write a song about a little
girl who misses a dead grandparent and then buy her a horse in the
last line to make her feel better. These sound like easy traps to
avoid, but you wouldn't believe the number of times that you can
start out writing about one thing and end up writing about something
story, like any good piece of fiction, must be logical. If you have
holes in your plot, it will make the listener uneasy. They may not
know why, bu they won't like your song. Of course, the last idea
you have may be better than the one you started out with. In that
case, start over and rewrite the beginning.
For great storytelling: Anything by Harry Chapin;
anything by Dan Fogelburg.
is one of the critical elements of fiction, and poetry in particular.
We like irony because it creates tension and promotes thought. Life
is full of delicious little ironies. A couple of weeks ago, a colleague
sent me a song that had a line about love letters written in black,
blowing around on the floor of the subway. I couldn't, (and still
can't) get the image out of my mind. The contrast between the permanence
of love and black ink, and the very temporary nature of garbage
and subways made a very strong impression on me. When things strike
you as ironic, write them in your notebook. If you want better lyrics,
use those ideas. If you want a better definition of irony, rent
"Reality Bites". My current favorite irony lyric: "It Looks Like Rain",
by Jann Arden Richards and Robert Foster
song lyric has to be the most structured, restricted and frustrating
art form on earth. Unlike the poet, who by her very nature strives
to be inventive and ground breaking, you, the songwriter, have to
get in and get out in under four minutes, tell a story that is recognizable
over the din, make everything rhyme and scan, and steal the listener's
heart. Every single word that doesn't belong in your lyric is just
another pothole in that road. So...do some repairs. Once you have
your lyric on paper, go through it, and cross out every word that
you threw in just to make it scan, or rhyme, or whatever, (and I
mean every single "and", and "but", and "Baby",
and "cause", and "You know I", etc. etc.)
The measly pile that you have left is the beginning of your song.
Now you can start the real work of replacing those words, one at
a time, with words that mean something to your story. Don't stop
until every single scrap of information contributes to the final
goal. Not a single wasted word?: Anything by David Gates
IS A HIGHWAY
back. Way back. Remember your English prof? The one who used to
say things like "extended metaphor"? Well, that's what
your song can be: a comparison that runs on a common thread throughout
the piece. Some of the most beautiful lyrics on earth are extended
metaphors, and the people who write them are among the most talented
of writers. A relationship can be compared to almost anything if
you put the right group of images together. Use your imagination.
Is your love affair like a prize fight? A 3 act play? A comedy routine?
An auto repair shop? A seventy piece orchestra? The possibilities
are endless, and often a little snip is all you need to get you
started. The ideas don't have to be difficult, because you want
to make sure the listener gets the point, but the metaphor must
be crystal clear and logical from beginning to end. You can't start
with a stock car race and end with a horse race. No contest on this one: Desperado, by Don Henley and Glen
second "little black book" that every songwriter should
own is "The Elements of Style". Anyone who ever took a
college writing course is familiar with this tiny tome, and if you're
not, visit your bookstore. Good writers like to show off their love
of the language, and that means demonstrating that you know your
you start to jump up and down, I'm not talking about things like
"I ain't the kind..." or "It don't matter.."
etc., etc. Obviously, such phrases are perfectly acceptable in modern
lyric writing, because they lend reality and a down to earth quality
to the song.
guess the best rule here is: "don't forsake the stylistic content
of your lyric in order to use good English, but don't be lazy either".
Watch your tenses, and sentence structures, and make sure your pronouns
and adjectives and adverbs all connect like they are supposed to.
You will be prouder of your work, and other writers will notice
the extra effort. Promise. Perfect English every time: Anything by Tim Rice
PRACTCE PRACTICE - REWRITE REWRITE REWRITE
I think I sound like a broken record on this one, but if there is
one thing that a successful writer MUST be able to do, it's to have
the tenacity to hang around until everthing is perfect. Your song
can always be better. Your images can always be sharper, your contrasts
more profound, your grammar better, and your point more accessible.
You labor hard on your songs, mostly for no money, because you love
the art form and take pride in your work. Stay on the road, and
be like a dog with a bone. No, wait: Stay on the road like a dog
stays on a bone. No, wait: Stay on your song like a dog with a bone.
ON YOUR SONG LIKE A DOG ON A T-BONE
See what I mean??
See you next time!
Afterthoughts: This is great, David, but just how do we learn to DO all of these
question. The ability (or at least that maddening obsession) to
write is by and large a natural (God given, if you're so inclined)
talent, but ANYBODY can learn to write better than they already
do. There are quite a number of books that will help you learn to
write better. If you're low on general English, check out the bookstore.
You'll find dozens of books with short exercises that will improve
your skills, and stimulate your imagination. If you want books specifically
directed at songwriting, you may find a couple of those as well,
but the best resource is trade magazines, such as "Songwriter".
They always have books and other materials for sale, and many are
you're on the www here, check out song doctor Molly-Ann Leikin.
Her books have lots of cool exercises that will help to get your
brain in gear. E-mail her at email@example.com(c) 1996
David E. Shindler Reprinted by permission.