Five Secrets to Write a Great Song

I learned everything I needed to know about song/lyric writing in the 5th Grade, I just wasn't aware of it. Let me remind you.

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I learned everything I needed to know about song/lyric writing in the 5th Grade, I just wasn't aware of it. Let me remind you. It's elementary.

It's not that songwriting is so simple, it's incredible hard to write a great song. Song lyrics however follow the rules of good writing. I'm talking about rules that apply to a song, a joke, a speech, a newspaper article, a play, or a book. They're all the same.

Ready? Here are my Five Secrets for Writing a Great Song.

1. Have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

They don't have to be in that order though. Like a thriller you can have the last scene first and then flash back to the rest of the story.

2. Make use of time.

This is like a beginning, middle and end but within the context of the piece. Example: "Yesterday - I met you, Today - I hurt you, Tomorrow you will probably call your lawyer for a restraining order." Or it can happen within one evening as in "I Saw Her Standing There" by Lennon-McCartney. He sees her, She sees him, They dance through the night. It sets up your verses perfectly, 1-2-3. Genius right?

3. Use visual stuff, get furniture in the story, paint a picture for the listener.

In "City of New Orleans" by Steve Goodman, he puts you right on that train with "Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders, three conductors and twenty five sack of mail." I can see it in my mind. I can taste it I can feel it, "Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle, feel the wheels rumbling neath the floor." Add a show stopper line "The sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their father's magic carpets made of steel" and you have a work of art.

4. Don't make me think too hard.

I get sidetracked very easily when I'm listening so stay on point. If I have to analyze a cryptic second verse, I won't be able to concentrate on anything after that. Example: "She said, you look like a electrician on the seventh journey into my soul." What? Well maybe it sounds cool, but what the hell does it mean? Why an electrician, why not a prophet or a trail guide... Oops I just missed the third verse and now I'm totally lost. I wonder, did I remember to lock the door to the car?

Last secret (for now).

5. Write about one thing.

I can't deal with your entire life story, just tell me what you did to get in jail, that's the good part. I once heard a guy give a fascinating introduction to a song and then the song was totally forgettable. He should have put that intro into the song.

If you follow just these basics, your lyrics will make much better sense as stories, ask any Fifth Grader.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    shouldnt it be: 1. Steal melodies 2. Dont get caught 3. Become famous 4. Sue the original for stealing 5. Profit ?
    i feel this should be titled "Five Tips for Writing A Great Pop Song".
    not exactaly. regardless of the genre I can really see those tips applied in many songs. maybe Pop uses them more frequently, but these are aspects found anywhere, to a certain degree.
    All of the examples are like a child being told to write a song. So I guess the author really did learn everything from fifth grade. Secret and cryptic song lyrics keep people coming back. Ever heard of Pearl Jam? You can't tell a single word Eddie is singing sometimes, and yet the songs are amazing and the vocals are amazing. Tool has fantastically intricate and deep lyrics. The only one I truly agree with is #5
    Good tips for those starting to write. I've been writing songs for almost 10 years now and what worked for me is writing about feelings / scenes / a particular moment in sort of an abstract way. That was a tip i got from another article published here some years ago. what i mean by abstract? I mean that write in a way that is open to interpretations , choose your words in a way that makes listeners come to their own conclusions based on their own life stories . 'My dog is dead and I am very sad' vs 'My friend of a different blend, you will be missed at the nights end' - one of this let's the listener paint an image in his /her mind and the other straight up gives away the story . I know it's way too simplified but I hope I could get my point across. Also, listening to a diverse range of music and reading helps.
    Write about two things....well one thing but only use metaphors applicable to the second thing to refer to the first thing. Write about apples but sing about pears.
    Remember this is mainly for people wanting to get started. As with most art forms, you grasp the basic steps first and then once you've mastered it you can do what you want.
    These are good tips. If you want to get better at writing songs buy ' writing better lyrics' by Pat Pattison. It's a nice read and really helps.