10 Tips for Lyrics Writing

Some useful rules for better songwriting...

logo
Ultimate Guitar
26
This is just some eclectic advice I've come across that has worked for me. I'm now finding songwriting much easier than I have in the past, as a result of practice and experimentation. All of these are soft rules, things that've worked for me might not work for you. Hopefully you find these helpful, but I also suggest breaking some of them and experimenting to get a better idea for what I'm talking about in the article. OK, so onto the most important rule, rule No. 1…

1. The way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

Have lots of ideas. When you're trying to be creative, there is no such thing as a bad idea. Turn your mental filters off until you're have finished writing and have a demo recording of your song. Realize that most of your favorite bands typically write about 100 songs for a 10 song album; that means 90% of the songs they write and demo are never recorded properly or released. Prince used to write an album-worth of demo material every fortnight. You should apply quality-over-volume when deciding what to release to the public, but volume-over-quality when writing and demoing.

2. Get used to recording demos

Make a habit of recording demos. Get used to recording song demos often. I've done this using a four-track app on my phone, traditional four-tracks, and sometimes just Audacity and my laptop's mic. Get used to the method you're using and develop a workflow, so when you are writing and demoing you can do it quickly and easily. Improvise and work with what you have to hand: you don't need new equipment to demo a song.

Get used to demoing vocals. In many ways, vocals are the song: they hold the melody and the lyrics. It is normal to be bashful about recording vocals, and it often feels unnatural and awkward, even when you're at home in your bedroom. But the more you do it, the easier it'll become. Push through it and get the song down, and don't worry about the quality of the take or your singing voice. Record demos even if the song isn't fully finished, or if you're not sure how good an idea is. Realize that who hears your demos is completely within your control. Going back to the mental filters, let your band members, close friends and future-self decide whether a demo is a good or bad.

A further tip: I keep all of my demos. I find it confidence-boosting to see the number of songs I have expand over time, and to track my improvement. There's no good reason to delete them, as MP3s they take up negligible physical or memory space. For me, it helps get old song ideas out of my head so that I can focus on having new ideas for songs.

3. Record lyric ideas as soon as you have them

Have a method of recording lyric ideas the instant you have them. Lyric ideas can be a phrase, a sentence, a rhyme, or even just a single word you think sounds cool. Anthony Kiedis from RCHP does this using a small notepad. I do it using a text file on my phone. It's important that you don't wait till you get home because you will forget what the idea was: you have to do it there and then.

The "don't delete" rule applies here too. Your opinion of your own ideas is not constant, it fluctuates over time. What was an awesome song idea yesterday might seem rubbish now, but in the future you'll sit down to write and be desperate but unable to remember your idea. Just keep everything, I often find myself using ideas that are a year or two old by the time they end up in a song. Use the text file for inspiration: it's great for when you're stuck for ideas, when you want to add originality to your songs, and just for writing better songs. It's really helped me with the other points below...

4. Try unusual rhyming schemes

My songwriting has benefited from using unusual rhyming schemes and structures. Internal rhymes (e.g.: helter-skelter) can make your lyrics sound more cohesive and musical. Multisyllabic rhymes can make solo acoustic guitar songs sound more articulate and interesting. Jake Thackray was an expert at this: the song "I Stayed Off Work Today" for example contains a five-syllable long rhyme (miserably broke-military bloke) and numerous internal rhymes.

If you're feeling confident, try deviating from simple rhyme schemes of AABB or ABAB style. If you have most of two verses nearly written, experiment with swappng lines between verses. For example, the first two lines across two verses (say, ABBB ACCC). This is more difficult to write, but it's good for keeping things fresh and hiding a bland or derivative line, instead using it to create a sense of continuity in a song. It's good for disguising obvious rhymes…

5. Try and avoid obvious rhymes

Obvious rhymes (e.g.: love-above, rock-n-roll-control, fire-desire) are rhymes that appear in countless songs. They can make a song sound dull or tacky. These overused rhymes were the bulk of my songwriting in my first few years of songwriting, and some of my favorite songs contain these obvious rhymes: "Fuel" for example, is my favorite Metallica song.

One alternative is to set the listener up to expect an obvious rhyme, then go somewhere different. A rhyming dictionary (online or paper) provides an alternative that is good if you're a beginner songwriter or find yourself in a rut. Don't over apply rhyming dictionaries though: they can make lyrics dull and bland. Also, re-wording lines so you're not backed into corner on the next line and forced to use an obvious rhyme can help.

Sometimes if I find myself with writers block when it comes to writing a second verse, but I have a first verse I'm really happy with. In this case, repeating all or part of the first verse can work as an alternative to adding lots of "filler" material in the second verse. It can be better to repeat a line you care about, rather than come up with a new one that's empty of meaning.

Speaking of empty of meaning...

6. In praise of nonsense lyrics

Nonsense lyrics are when words are used to create a vibe in the song. Neil Fallon from Clutch is excellent at this. T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan also, built a career on nonsense lyrics. This can involve word association, a play-on-words, or just a word or phrase you think sounds cool. When listening to lyrics, people respond to them as emotional triggers. Nonsense lyrics can play on this. Metal bands often use hyperbole to make lyrics sound intense; this can be to the degree that the original subject matter is obscured (Meshuggah are a good example). Obscured meanings are fine in songwriting because the audience project their own emotions on to it. Nonsense lyrics can be creatively liberating, can add originality and quirk to your songs, and can help you write better generally.

7. Non-rhyming lyrics - use sparingly!

This is a bit controversial, but I think there's an attitude in some circles that using lots of lyrics that don't rhyme is somehow artistic and profound: I disagree with this. It's often used a crutch for bad songwriting. When used sparingly a non-rhyming line can be used to jolt the listener's attention. This can be good if you have a line you really want to use. But overuse of non-rhyming lyrics makes a song sound jarring, meandering and aimless.

If you can't think of a rhyme, there are several things you can try. Half-rhymes can work really well, words that sound phonetically similar can work too. This is because as you sing, you tend to vowelize words, making consonants less important. Also, your accent and the way you pronounce words changes whether and what rhymes work. There's a video on YouTube where Eminem talks about words that rhyme with orange that exemplifies this point. Learning to write rhyming lyrics is a very important part of songwriting. You'll be rubbish at it at first, but will get better if you keep trying. You'll become better able to express yourself through songwriting. Using rhyming as a creative outlet in of itself adds an extra dimension to your songs.


8. Don't be afraid to break grammar to make a line fit the right number of syllables

This is for when you have a line that you're happy with, but when you sing it there's an extra syllable that gets in the way. I often hear this in pop songs on the radio. It's a mystery to me why these big artists needlessly shoehorn in syllables and stall the whole song when it can be easy to fix. To get round it, you can reorder the grammar in the line, or add and take out words. Often, removing a "that" "the" or "and" makes no difference to the story you're trying to tell. You can also change where emphasis to fit the melody. Singing is not the same as writing prose. Lyrics can work in a song even if the grammar isn't perfect. Lyrics are there to convey an emotion and carry the melody. If the lyrics fit the melody well, this increases the emotional impact and makes the song more enjoyable and listenable. Grammar can be sacrificed to achieve this.

9. In praise of swearwords

This happens to me sometimes: I get an idea for a melody, but the only lyrics I can think of are swearwords. The song sounds like something from Tenacious D or South Park, and every second word is a swear. If the same thing happens to you don't worry (even Mozart wrote "Leck Mich Im Arsch"). This can be a sign the song is half-finished. Subconsciously you fill in the holes with swearwords to keep the rhythm going. Often you'll come up with a really good alternative lyric that fits the same melody a few months down the road. What was a comedy song gets reworked into something you can be proud of. Alternatively, you can just keep it a comedy song, get it demo'd and move on to the next idea: another one in the bank!

10. Anything can be a source of inspiration for song lyrics

You do not have to be a tortured artist to write a good song. Anything, even the most everyday thing, can work as a premise for a song. I've written songs on very personal subjects, and on subjects as banal as what I ate for dinner. Anything can serve as inspiration for a song. Often if you're inspired to write a song, it's because it means something to you at some subconscious level. It can be spun into an extended metaphor, or if it just stays literal that's fine too. In some ways it doesn't matter: idea can be stupid, but the process of putting a lyric to a melody and chords is not stupid. This comes back to point No. 1 and is perhaps a good way to wrap up this article. You can write and demo songs outside of your chosen genre, you can write a comedy song if you're normally serious, a sad song if you're normally happy, a ballad if you normally play angry music. Have as many song ideas as possible and the process itself will become more fluid. The key to writing a good song is to get all the bad songs out first.

26 comments sorted by best / new / date

    t_johnstone891
    Great article! Even some of the greats like Zeppelin had some pretty dump lyrics and they didn't do too bad.
    Grancypor
    Good advice! And you're definitely right about quality-over-quantity: I recorded about 50 demos I thought sounded great at the time, a week later I only liked 9. Forcing songwriting just to record something is the worst thing you can do.
    mfergel
    Banana banana banana terracotta banana terracotta terracotta pie Banana banana banana terracotta banana terracotta terracotta pie Is there a perfect way of holding you baby? Vicinity of obscenity in your eyes Terracotta terracotta terracotta pie Is there a perfect way of holding you baby? Vicinity of obscenity in your eyes Terracotta pie Hey Terracotta pie Hey Terracotta pie Hey Terracotta pie Hey
    Jazz1992
    I'm curious to see the lyrics of that song you wrote about what you had for dinner.
    jeremywiener001
    Great article! I think that if anyone can write the lyrics and sing the melody in proper english and still make is sound good, extra points to you sir!
    selkayann
    While there are some great points here, I totally disagree on no. 7. To me, some of the best lyricists of all time use non-rhyming lyrics very freely. Nick Cave is a great example, but they don't have to sound like poetry. Roger Waters, Thom Yorke and others found great ways to still make it sound good. I just find that it liberates your lyrics if you write exactly what you want to.
    tbsluongo
    Should I be writing my lyrics before writing guitar parts? Or vice-versa?
    dingotron
    Second verse slump is a real thing. Good tips. Helps to read as much and as often as you can. Refrences from old books and movies are great "go to's" in moderation. Be open minded musically. Lyrics can be great whether over driving guitars or synth. I listen to and play predominantly punk type stuff, but often find myself amazed at how Keith Buckley writes and delivers such insane, intelligent lyrics in the songs of Every Time I Die.
    kmitchell74
    one thing that helps is having depression!
    theman6
    Yes and no You have a lof of themes you can unload in some good lyrics, and that's a positive thing However with depression you're pretty much with no energy or motivation whatsoever to sit down and write
    KungFuRooster
    Pretty good article. I think your sense of the true melody is what should dictate your rhyme formula. Also, rhyme dictionaries are amazing tools if you know how to use them. The fact that you consult rhymezone.com a lot does not make your rhymes lame as this article suggests, the opposite happens in my experience. Like kmtichell^ said, you don't have to be a depressed tortured soul to write songs, but it sure helps. If you don't feel strongly about your subject matter, then how are your songs supposed to impact someone else's emotions? Especially one of those modern millenial cell phone zombies? Make it as honest and as real as you can, because it's easy to tell when it's a bunch of bullshit. I love that about music. All the hacks and posers confess right to your face because of music's expressive nature.
    jbayone
    3. Record lyric ideas as soon as you have them My biggest problem, though when I do record a clip with my phone or jot a line or verse down, I'll end up forgetting about it and/or can't remember how I wanted to fit it with a song.
    crazyhands22
    I second number 5. If I hear one more song that rhymes "fire" with "desire", I'm gonna puke.
    theman6
    Been really needing this lately, it's nice to find something like this right now I still don't personally enjoy using swears though, but I agree with everything else