Lyrics: The 'Less is More' Approach

A definition, guide to using, and examples of the "less is more" approach to writing lyrics.

Ultimate Guitar

Lyrics. They are the infamous topic of a neverending debate (among many in songwriting) and one of the hardest aspects of writing a song to do well. The world of words is a very gritty one, where it is extraordinarily easy to miss a turn and end up lost down a dirt road of uninspriring prose and forced rhyme. My intention with this article,however, is to provide a metaphorical road map in which to guide you through the belly of the lyrical beast.

Remember, this is a guide, dealing with an art form, so it is perfectly exceptable to do whatever you like when the pen meets the paper.

Before we can get on to the actual guiding we should examine the meaning and purpose of the "less is more approach," along with working out a few minor technicalities. First off; think of a good song (lyrically speaking). Now, what makes you enjoy these lyrics? If its their simplicity, then think of another song (there`s nothing wrong with simple lyrics, but this article revolves around poetry rich in metaphors and allegories); but if not, why do you find the lyrics good? Is it a great hook, something you can connect with, word choice, what is it? This author's personal feeling on the characteristic that classifies lyrics as good is something he (I) can connect with. To me, the best lyrics are written from the heart, but manage to reach all the listeners hearts aswell. The "less is more" approach is probably the greatest tool availible for a writer looking to do this, as it allows him/her to express his/her own opinions and feelings, while still being broad enough for others to identify with it.

Now that thats out of the way, lets get down to this, undoubtedly, by now, (considering how much Ive mentioned it) mysterious "less is more" thing. Lyrics generally come in two styles: stories (Lola - The Kinks, Gonna Be A Rock N Roll Singer - AC/DC) or expressions of feeling w/o a setting (theres so many examples of this, but I'll just throw a random one out there: People Are Strange - The Doors). The "less is more" approach is usually applied to the latter. The whole big concept behind it is the bigger a subject matter, the smaller an allegory needed to represent it (seems rather underdramatic with all the build up). If you don't follow, Ill use an example from a writing course I participated in. Arguably the hugest, most controversial and common subject of the general public's thoughts and fears is war (up there with love and relationshps). Now, you could write a grueling song about body counts, battles, shrapnel, politics, and sensless death to get your point across perfectly; but not only would people lose interest mentally, the lyrics might be so complex that they just cant physically understand them. On the other hand, you could sum up the entire mentallity of war with a simple allegory: (keep in mind this was for a critical essay, so its a tad too wordy for a song)

People Turned To Silhouettes Of Ash

Now isnt that just so much more dramatic and easy to remember than a song whos length is on par with Dante's Inferno? Not only that but it allows room for people to attach personal experiences to it.

The Guide

So we've gone over the definition and main use of the "less is more" approach, but theres still more to explore. How do you begin writing a song in this form? Well you need a topic to write about, obviously. The best thing to do next is to brainstorm the general ideas, experiences, and sensory details associated with the topic. Once you get everything you can think of that is related to the topic out of your brain and on the paper, its easier to begin forming lines, verses, and that main all powerful allegory without worrying about not including minute ideas that you had jammed up in your brain before.

Remember to always write with emotion (though try not to be melodramatic) or your words will spill out without any real solid meaning (you cant write touching lyrics if you have no feeling on your subject matter). Let other people read it and ask what they think the meaning is. You know you wrote some great lyrics if they use personal words when answering (i.e. "reminds me of the time my..." "Well its describing my thoughts on..." etc.) and you can be sure it was some damn fine poetry if they think it means what you intended it to be about.

Need some inspiration? Love. Strip away the frilly hearts, advertisers using sex appeal, candlelit dinners in Paris and what is love about? Being with that one person, and that emotion is captured absolutley perfrectly in the song "I want to hold your hand" by The Beatles (just look at the title). What about the Vietnam war? I could list a page full of things you could incoroporate in a song about it off the top of my head, from Vietcong spider holes to scianide-laced rice to helicopter attacks. But what did the song "Run Through The Jungle" by CCR talk about? None of that stuff, yet the namesake's line stirred up emotions and visions of a soldier, running, helplessly through a jungle w/o hope or allies. Its some powerful stuff.

What about all these personal experiences? Well Neil Young could probably of written a tribute to some guy he knew when growing up. He could of thrown together a blocky song, using names, real experiences, and reasons, but instead he stuffed it all into one line: "Old man, look at my life." Everyone can still realize its about someone important to the writer, but a layer of depth is added because of the mystery and the fact that people can fit that song somewhere into their own lives.


Want to improve your ability to use this approach? Well besides the usual rinse and repeat rules of getting better at lyrics (read poetry, write everyday, read more poetry, broaden msical horizons, even more poetry, etc.) try writing alot of haikus (and the many subvarieties) as it requires compressing thoughts down into to tiny lines.


So remember, these are just guidelines to writing. Nothings wrong with being wordy and writing detailed stories (check out: Castles Made Of Sand - Jimi Hendrix for a good example) but I just thought Id enlighten those who are not familiar with this concept. As a sort of quiz thing, try guessing the artist's intended meaning and attatching your own personal meanings to the following songs (youll know what the 1 line is):

- Stairway To Heaven - Led Zeppelin - People Are Strange - The Doors

PS. This was the first article Ive submitted to UG; I know my writing style is somewhat confusing at times (I seem to lose my train of thought often) and I did get sloppier as I was nearing the end, so any comment, questions, or constructive (hopefully) criticism would be appreciated.

20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    1st post! good article man, i consider myself a good writer but i've never been able to write lyrics. but i find that it is pretty much impossible to teach someone to write lyrics. i'm only seventeen, so i don't think that i've had enough life experiences to be able to write good lyrics. but again, good article. keep it up. by the way stairway to heaven can be about so many different things, making it the great song that it is.
    original_rocker: well i have written lots of songs, but every time i read over them i feel like throwing it away..! duz ne1 get wot i mean?
    i get exactly what you mean. thats why when i write a song i hatre to look back at what it says i just like to sing it
    A haiku is a short, witty verse form of three lines. It doesn't have to rhyme; the only requirement is that the first line have five syllables, the second must have seven syllables, and the third have five (5-7-5). Example: My mob connections Broken by a nosy cop I will have revenge
    yeh i know whatcha mean,but then a couple of my friends will read em,if i let em and they usually say theyre cool,so that makes it a little better!nice article too
    well i have written lots of songs, but every time i read over them i feel like throwing it away..! duz ne1 get wot i mean?
    This entire article should have been summarized as follows: Write lyrics that capture specific emotions, but be general enough that your audience can plug in its own experience/interpretation and relate.
    to the post of above 15 and i guess i consider myself a good writer, and at 15 ive had plenty of life expierences to write about...yeah nice article, i didnt finish it all, mainly cause im already set on my style and how i go about writing, but nice article
    the fendernator
    im going to write an acoustic song about a girl who walks up a high staircase. that stair case might lead to heaven or sumfin
    I've been writing for about 6 months, and I've got a variety of styles I like to write in. I didn't read past about halfway through your article because like falloutboy said, I am set on how I like to write. I consider myself a very versatile writer, with many different styles (as said before). I also consider myself good only because a lot of UG tends to like my work. Good article, it should put a lot of newbies on the right track.
    The Hurt Within
    yeah you've hit on the fundamentals to original gonna post this to all the newbs that ask is this good..when most of the time no it isn't...cos its got no depth or originality....nicely written....i've been writing for 4 years and thats pretty much how i write (using the brainstorm method). Okay it wasn't as focused as it could be but its got the basics... peACE
    Good intro.. the seoncd bit dragged on abit. The main contex is ok and your express your idea's well. Gave me 1 idea about writing lyrics. Keep writing your articles though, it was a well done job.
    i agree when ever i read stuff that ive written and read it im like wtf did i write this and i dont no if im ready to share my songs with anyone else some of them can be personal. but i guess that when ever i read it i fix a little bit of it so i guess i just have 2 get usto reading them. good article but blabbered on a bit