How To Write Lyrics That Connect With People

Three key secrets to writing lyrics that move people's emotions.

Ultimate Guitar

Why do some songs persuade stadiums full of people to wave their lighters in the air and sing along to every word with tears in their eyes? And why do other songs bore you senseless, or even make you want to punch the singer in the middle of his big fat stupid face? It all comes down to the emotional connection between the lyrics, the music, and the audience. In this article I'm going to be discussing lyrics, and sharing some strategies to get yours to resonate with people.

1. Write To The Music

One of my core principles of lyric writing is write the music first. The music sets the dominant emotional tone of a song. No matter how keening and tearful your lyrical tale of rejection and unrequited love may be, if it's set to a jolly, bouncy ska tune all it's going to do is make people laugh at you.

It goes beyond the general feel of the song in its entirety. The music you create will have specific emotional moments an angry riff, an uplifting key change, a big crescendo and your lyrics will need to be written to match the emotional structure of the music. Studying music theory can be really helpful here, as it will help you identify with greater accuracy the emotional content of chord changes and intervals, helping you match the lyrics to the feeling of the song. If you write a bunch of lyrics down and then try to write music around them you're making your task much, much harder for no good reason.

That's not to say you can't break the rules, but you can only break the rules if you know them. Radiohead's "No Surprises" is a song about suicide, but musically it is a gentle lullaby in a major key not a dirge as you'd maybe expect. This adds an extra layer of meaning to the lyrics that the protagonist of the song wants to die not because he is depressed, but because he is tired. To be able to re-balance music against lyrics like that you need a very firm understanding of the emotional content of both.

2. Write To Your Audience

This isn't about pitting artistic merit against commercial success. It doesn't matter whether the aim of your songwriting is to move people's emotions, stick it to the man or shift truckloads of records you won't achieve any of those things unless you think very carefully about who you want your music to appeal to.

And it's no good saying everyone that's not possible. Lyrics that one person will love will be hated by someone else, as a result of how the themes, ideas, emotions and vocabulary expressed in the song translate through their own personalities or life experiences. Say what you like about Linkin Park, but they know exactly what will appeal to moody 14-year-old boys who sit sulking in their bedrooms all day because their parents don't understand them. So much so, that their music is loathed by pretty much everyone else who doesn't fit that description. Do Linkin Park care that so many people hate their music? Ask their butlers, they're too busy driving their Lamborghinis to answer stupid questions. As an even more extreme example, the Insane Clown Posse have an extremely narrow, cult-like fan demographic, and emphasise how much everyone else hates their music to foster a siege mentality amongst their fans.

So think about who you want to listen to your music. Are they male or female? How old are they? How well-educated are they? What things are important to them? How do they tend to feel? How would they prefer to feel? If you have answers to all these questions your lyrics will almost write themselves.

And it's not as if you can't be both emotionally authentic and commercially successful. Nobody ever said that the likes of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley or Ian Curtis weren't writing about real issues that affected them all three are now dead as a direct result of the problems they expressed through their music.

3. Keep It Vague

I've written about this in more detail in a previous article, but a big trap that a lot of lyricists fall into is a tendency to make their songs too narrative and specific. Outside of a few folk traditions (usually involving very long songs as a consequence), music is a poor medium for telling complex stories. Music's strength, as opposed to prose or poetry, is that it can give words extra emotional heft by putting music behind them (see point 1). Leave storytelling to the novelists, you're here to make people feel.

So only include the bare minimum of narrative, description and story. This heightens the emotional impact in two ways firstly, by only feeding the audience little snippets of the story, it forces them to re-create the rest in their head, adding details and ideas that are relevant to only them in a way you could never do as a songwriter. Secondly, it avoids alienating the audience by not talking about specific subjects that they might not care about. If you write a song about how awful it is when the Dallas Cowboys or Manchester United lose a game, then anyone who doesn't follow those teams, or even those sports, will be left cold (and if they support a rival team they will want to punch your big fat stupid face). Whereas if you keep the language vague enough that it could apply to any defeat in any sport, it could become an anthem for sports fans everywhere.

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.

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

33 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I don't agree with writing the music first all the time. It dictates the length of the song, the structure, the flow of the lyrics. That's how you end up with songs that are mediocre, great music, empty lyrics. The best way to write good songs is to not rely on one method but to change it up and try new things, get creative.
    You can always do some changes to the already-written music as you write the lyrics along
    i think another important thing to keep in mind is 'don't try to be who you are not' while writing lyrics.. if you are not the lovesick emotional person, don't force yourself to write a love ballad. strictly my opinion though..
    I would that add personal lyrics (that are vague enough to not describe your situation exactly) resonate with people. For instance, if you write a love song, other people can find they like it, because the images conveyed by that love song resonate with them.
    Honestly, when I clicked this article, I expected it to outright go against the advice given in the article about staying vague.
    Write what you feel, try not to force it, put some love into it. Simple as that.
    If this was all it took to write great lyrics, we would be flooded by great songs. We aren't, and in fact the level of writing of your average songwriter is quite low. I think James here is giving a number of good pointers that are not to be overlook if you want to be a great writer.
    Aldo Chircop
    Very useful analysis. Straight to the point while outlining some fundamental issues which easy to overlook sometimes.
    I disagree with this line: "No matter how keening and tearful your lyrical tale of rejection and unrequited love may be, if its set to a jolly, bouncy ska tune all its going to do is make people laugh at you" Try listening to Kristina She Don't Know I Exist, As The Footsteps Die Out Forever, or A Better Place A Better Time by Streelight Manifesto/Catch 22. They're all set to quite upbeat tunes and are songs about unrequited love, terminal illness, and trying to stop a loved one from committing suicide, and work quite brilliantly in my opinion. Sometimes juxtaposing the subject matter with the music is more powerful than setting a sad song to a sad tune and vice versa.
    I was actually listening to Streetlight Manifesto while reading this, and I agree with your comment. Though, the article isn't wrong, either. I believe there are no rules when writing music. But there are a lot of guidelines you really should follow. As someone above mentioned, when you know the methods, you can do it your own way. When you know the rules, you can break them.
    Write to your audience?? no thanks, I write for me, I doubt syd barret or jim morrison were trying to write for an audience.
    if you write about how you feel and mean it, your audience will find you, if you worry about choosing your audiences you will stunt your own creativity
    Who are you to tell someone what is and isn't good or proper lyric writing that will "connect" with people? Can you speak for these people? It's not something that can be "taught", it's something you develop over time..... or you don't. Most people don't. Likewise, someone can write a great song lyrically that no one ever listens to. This article is pretty much meaningless.
    Danjo's Guitar
    The only thing I really disagree with you about is writing the music before the words. Thats not a bad way to do it, in fact its what I do, but there are loads of artists who write the lyrics first. That ones is really personal choice I think, no way is harder or easier.
    I'm not really sure if there should be rules when writing a song. I think it should all just flow out, no matter how vague or blunt it is.
    and now after reading this i'd like to hear some examples of songs you have written that aren't terrible, and i'd love to hear an example of an emotionally lifting key change that you come up with, and when they suck, i'd love to hear you tell me that i'm not your key demographic. Write to music (oh i was going to write to pictures when writing a SONG. and loads of sad songs are in major keys!!! spare us your highschool wank about major = happy and minor = sad.) Write to your audience ( how about you just write a song and then see who likes it then pander to someone keep it vague (keep what vague, this is useless information, and in no way whatsoever helps people write songs) just a vague incite into why this article is terrible
    With "write to music", I think the article writer was trying to say that it's easier to do the lyrics "after" coming up with the music... as opposed to writing the lyrics first. Not sure about the rest of it though, it's all personal taste and opinion really...
    i know that was what he was saying but again, this article doesn't help anyone!!!! take these 2 conversations for example. Convo 1 person a "you should write music first then lyrics" person b "but i like to write lyrics then music" person a "fair enough Convo 2 person a "you should write music first then lyrics" person b "thats what I do anyway chief" person a "fair enough" This guy needs to address his audience more!!! if you are already happy with the way you write songs then you are going to ignore this article. If you are soooo incredibly dim, and find this article in any way helpful then i feel sad for humanity. I can see what the author was trying to do but he doesn't add any incite, or cool tips. This article is almost as bad as his "too ashes" hunk of junk song This article is really bad its makes me sad im not glad to ashes to ashes
    I think that while it's important to write to your audience, you should be honest with yourself and cut any useless words that are only there to pander. When people read your lyrics, you want to invoke some sort of emotional reaction out of them--not have them look over the lyrics and just "approve" like, "Well this looks good. The writer seems to be following this checklist of rules." I for the most part agree with the "don't be too specific" part. Also, people should try not to write so pretentiously. Don't use a $10.00 word if you don't have to, and don't try to confuse people in an attempt to sound "edgy."
    Pretty much everything that Nickelback does and people hate them for doing that and yet people here rate this article as being really good.... Go figure right.
    i like this makes alot of sence but i feel like your audience should be like minded people i dont pretend to understand people i understand most the people most like me there for i write to myself and there for them
    Also, don't force anything. If something doesn't fit, or sounds awkward when put to music, there's probably another (possibly better) way to say it. I still struggle with this.
    One of the biggest things that has helped me with my lyrical drought (so to speak) is confidence. This doesn't have as much to do with quality- though the things I have been writing lately blow my older stuff out of the water- but I think it's something that helps a ton. If you keep second-guessing yourself, you'll probably never be that great of a writer. This applies to almost anything in the music field, as the more confident I become at any given instrument, the better I seem to write for it. Anyway, pretty good article; though I can think of exceptions to all of those rules, they're not bad ones to follow.
    the deacon
    cool stuff james, as always! my bias is to let the songs you write come through you however they may. sometimes they begin as melodies and sometimes they begin with a song title that i write too or a story i want to tell. so each method(melody or lyric), can generate the other.
    I LIKE the vague part. I like letting the listener think for himself instead of some sappy specific piece of someones life. Its boring. Good article.
    I think No Surprises isn't much of a rule breaker really. It's that calm sort of out-there feeling right before death when all the really harsh emotions are gone. Not the only song I've seen like it. A Warm Place and/or Hurt from The Downward Spiral come to mind.
    meh - too much arguing on this replies. the article is sound, gives sound advice and will help many write lyrics that better connect with more people. Thanks for your contribution James. Zulu