How To Write Lyrics About Almost Anything

A quick step-by-step guide to turning just about any event or idea into effective lyrics, with a worked example.

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I have a friend who is a really talented composer and multi-instrumentalist. He's always showing me his latest tune or composition, and they're pretty damn great. He's desperate to succeed in music, but in the two or three years I've known him, he's made no progress at all in getting his first album together. I asked him why, and his reply was something like I can't come up with a theme for the lyrics. It seems everything has been done and I can't come up with anything original.

He's not alone. As I discussed in my last article, lyric-writing is a major blockage in the creative process of a great many musicians and is holding them back from their potential. In this article, I'm going to outline a process that will let you get decent lyrics out of just about any subject, no matter how unpromising it may be.

Stage 1 Pick a Subject.

This is easier than it looks. There's no need to come up with something profound or world-shaking at this stage of the process. This is where a lot of aspiring poets and songwriters go wrong, they work from big things, big themes, and then try to compress them down into a couple of dozen lines of words. That's really really hard to do. Far better is to come up with something small and bring the ideas out of it. Just pick anything that is in any way interesting, or that happened to you recently.

The other week I went to a barbecue. Let's write a song about that.

Stage 2 Find the emotionally significant aspects

What is it about your chosen subject matter that has an emotional impact? For a barbecue, I guess you could talk about the togetherness of being with your friends or the pleasure from good food, but if you do, you went to a better barbecue than I did. The host was not the greatest cook, and managed to burn everything to a cinder. We had to feed most of it to the dog and do more food in the oven instead.

So what are the key emotional triggers about that little story?

Dashed Hopes that the food didn't turn out the way we wanted Disappointment Barbecues are usually way better than that Sacrifice/Waste Those sausages weren't cheap, and we ended up feeding them to the dog. Humiliation For a man in his garden, failure to successfully BBQ is on a par with admitting you like figure-skating in terms of machismo.

Those are some good themes that have produced some great songs over the years, let's run with those.

Stage 3 Write the music.

Now you have your emotional themes, you can get to work on the music. Disappointment, waste, humiliation, all give strong pointers to the kind of song this is going to be (hint: it's not a bouncy ska number).

Stage 4 Detach those lyrics!

I discussed detachment in my last article. Basically it involves stripping the original subject matter out of the song and leaving the images and emotions it creates. This is key to writing good songs about mundane things, because it hides the origins of the song whilst maximising the things that make lyrics work well imagery, imagination and emotional impact.

So, with the emotional themes we've established, what are the images from the disastrous barbecue that we can work into the song? There's some good ones here:

-Things starting out frozen -Burning flesh -Flames -Ashes -Hunger -Wasted effort and money -An animal consuming charred meat

All good things that can be worked into the lyrics without giving the game away. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a song about a terrible barbecue that sounds like, totally profound you guys (It helps if you imagine this song sung by Eddie Vedder or Aaron Lewis with a painfully earnest expression).

To Ashes

Scraping back the layers of frost The things we hoped, the things we lost Things we bought at such a cost To Ashes, To Ashes.

We know that things can't stay the same Reduced to nothing in the flame Must we always play this game? To Ashes, To Ashes.

Looking back on what we had The dreams we had that turned so sad I know your hunger burns so bad To Ashes, To Ashes.

In the flames we found our flaw Everything that we fought for Sacrificed to the beastly maw To Ashes, To Ashes.

Everyone I've played that song to has assumed it's about a failing relationship and is full of deep and profound themes. I don't deny it. If you want to hear it you can sign up to my mailing list and download my demo version. If you do, you'll realise why I'm not going to be writing any articles about how to sing any time soon, but in my defence, my ridiculous, talentless impression of Scott Stapp isn't any worse than Scott Stapp's ridiculous, talentless impression of Eddie Vedder (though I'm quite pleased with the cheesy guitar solo).

To get more on the theory behind lyric writing, sign up to my newsletter and get my free guide on lyric-writing From Subject to Song, covering this process in more detail, and also containing more on lyrical detachment, creating effective imagery, and how I managed to write a keening, mournful folk ballad about a metal detector.

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About the Author: James Scott is a London music producer, writer and audio engineer, and the author of Writing Effective Lyrics in Rock and Metal.

23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    hippie_guy
    love the barbeque thing ) really funny example and makes the idea easy to understand
    Ty Morgan
    Fantastic article, James! The fact that you walked through the process really opened up some creative blockages for me. Can't wait to start applying this technique!
    TheDuckMajor
    time to show this to my brother and get him to write real songs rather than the repetetive "i wish we were still together" bullshit.
    the deacon
    yeah what's up with that? good article james. connecting with feelings and emotions is key to good writing
    dwainfish
    Hahaha..super enlightening! But what dumbass goes on an advertising spree in the comments of one of the more creative columns I've read on this site?
    FalkFreak
    Thanks for making my songwriting progess way simpler! Your my personal hero! ))
    gorkyporky
    What about concept lyrics? How would one apply this to a story, but keep it so that its still clear what its about?
    Aleksi
    I suppose those lyrics aren't bad but knowing what they're about has totally spoiled them!
    nikolitjo
    This all makes sense, yeah, but I just love the "this whole 'detachment' thing is great" comments...I mean, come on, that's all it's really about, detachment, how can you just not notice it by actually listening to music? But fair enough, I guess it can sometimes become clearer when explained through words
    W4T3V3R
    Not being funny, but those lyrics are average at best. They are mundane lyrics anyway you look at them, you have to remember lyrics have to communicate with your listeners. "Scraping back the layers of frost" This line is irrelevant for someone listening to the song, if you're telling this as a story you've started at the beginning then jumped to the end on your next line... "we know things cant stay the same" and "must we always play this game" point towards a relationship not a barbeque so you have misconveyed your reasoning for writing the song. Lyrics are about getting an idea across, as well as them having meaning to each person. But the point is that everyone relates to a same general idea, not completely different ideas as you've done here. If people don't grasp why you've written a song, you have failed. "I know your hunger burns so bad" this bit made me lol so hard. See what i did there? Its amateur language. Colplay write better stuff than that mate. The last verse is the only decent verse, but the "To ashes, To Ashes" bit is a good writing tool. I'd say you have no place writing an article on lyrics but thats just my thoughts.
    JPD026
    if you cant figure out how to lyrics then you cant or suck at writing lyrics. you can't make such an open and emotional thing step by step like that. its not art if its forced like that or in anyway that is not the composer.
    gypsyblues7373
    "we know things cant stay the same" and "must we always play this game" point towards a relationship not a barbeque so you have misconveyed your reasoning for writing the song.
    It points towards a relationship? I think you just proved the author's point about people assuming a song is about something that it's not
    NemX162
    These are great tips, but they definitely produce a e]very specific kind of song. Sometimes you want to tell a specific story.
    Mr.-Bungle
    Holy crap, this makes so much damn sense, and I sung the song in a Raise against fast punk style, then did it in an amazing Brandon Boyd Incubus style. It can work any way. The whole detatchment thing is awesome. Ty so much for this article.
    Jearl
    I'd be more interested in that song if it were actually about a bbq because there aren't many songs about that. this article is more like "how to make your lyrics like every other song." not saying it's bad. I'd just rather hear something original.