Posted May 03, 2012 11:40 AM
What is a Lyric?
For all intents and purposes, a lyric is a sung poem. Many would dispute a definition that places what is essentially a songwriting tool within the "academicised" realm of poetry proper, including some published poets, but without getting into a semantic scrap, it seems obvious to me that any set of words arranged according to rhythm, for the purpose of condensing and concisely expressing something, can be called poetry. Lyrics clearly aren't prose. This needs saying, because once it is clear that to write a song is to write a poem, it must occur to the songwriter that he himself is a poet, and this carries a certain responsibility: a poet must choose his words carefully.
This sounds obvious, but it is probably the most important lesson you can learn in the art of arranging words to convey emotion and idea. Never simply pour and serve your language; it must be labored over with diligence and forceful effort. From all the hundreds of thousands of words in the language and all their endless combinations, you must be sure the ones you have chosen are those you feel tell it as you want it told. If there is half an ounce of uncertainty in you about them, keep working until the uncertainty erodes and you behold creations that you read with genuine pleasure in elegant craftsmanship. Trust me, there is absolutely nothing, no pleasure in the world, to match the unbelievable rush when you suddenly realize your pickaxe has struck a seam of solid-gold genius. It doesn't happen often, but if it happens in any lyric you write, even if its only a single line, you will treasure that lyric forever.
The two goals that must be simultaneously aimed for in lyric composition are clarity of expression and aesthetic appeal. Put simply, you must make your words first and foremost vehicles of emotional content; they must say something, no matter what it is, and secondly you must endeavor to mold them to a standard which you consider beautiful. Since beauty is subjective, the last one is difficult to teach. Only your own aesthetic conscience can guide you toward recognizing it, but fear not. There are abundant examples for you to follow, if you will follow them.
And follow you must. Always be reading something new, especially poetry. The more you expose yourself to it, the more sensible you will become to its nuances and methods. However, for those who have yet to develop such an eye, I will outline some useful techniques to experiment with.
The toolbox of the lyricist is very similar to that of the poet, with a few crucial differences. Firstly, in poetry, "forms" are an intimate aspect of writing, and a form is chosen for its symbolic connotations; a sonnet is commonly a love poem, ottava rima is usually a mock-epic, the ballad is comic, and heroic verse is...well, heroic. You get the idea. Lyricism has few really established forms of this kind because it's "form" is dictated by the rhythms and cadence of sound. Most songwriters compose the music first (as Paul Simon said "write the melodies, live with them for a while, then write the words"), but whichever takes precedence in your process, your words will always be slaves to the music. But they'll be happy slaves.
The essence of rhyme is repetition, and repetition is always best used to indicate significance. When choosing rhymes, always keep in mind that they should not compromise your clarity of expression: never choose a word simply because it rhymes. It is always clumsily obvious to everyone that you have done so. Remember that of all the words in your line, the rhymes are the ones you have chosen to stand out by marking them with repetition, so those words should be among the most meaningful and poignant. Don't be afraid to look up your word in a rhyme dictionary, either. It isn't cheating anymore than using a thesaurus to find a synonym is cheating.
Many would advise against abandoning rhyme because without it, your song will supposedly be less memorable and therefore less likely to sell. Pay such people no mind, one should never make a creative decision based on what you believe will be popular. Firstly because trying to second guess the preferences of your audience is playing with fire, and secondly because what audiences respond to, what actual fans respond to, is authenticity and honesty. If they get the slightest whiff of falseness or artifice, you risk losing them forever.
That is not to say I advocate rhymeless lyricism. The question to be asked is "does rhyming help me say what I am trying to say?", and the answer will be different in each instance of it being asked. One song may seem to demand it, in another it may seem cheapening and crass. With this in mind, let us look at the different kind of rhymes.
Firstly there are End Rhymes, which occur at the end of a line, and Internal Rhymes, which occur within it. Both are used in the opening couplet of "Strange Fruit":
"Southern trees, barren, strange fruit
blood on the leaves and blood at the root"
("Strange Fruit", Aber Meeropol)
It should be obvious that the words in the middle of the line are the internal rhymes, while those at the end are the end rhymes. But these end rhymes (fruit/root) are also what is called a Full Rhyme, where the latter part of the word (in this case, the "oot" sound) is identical. The internal rhyming words (trees / leaves) are Partial Rhymes, where the sound is only similar. There are two subcategories of partial rhyme: assonance and consonance. In the former, it is the vowel sounds which are echoed, in the latter, the consonants. The above usage of partial rhyme between "trees" and "leaves" is the assonance type. Try saying it aloud, you will notice the part being repeated is the "eee" sound within the word. Both of these techniques can be used pretty excessively within a song because they lend it a lilting grace that flows and rolls like water. You'll notice in that last line I employed both assonance and consonance to make my point: lend / lilting, and flows / rolls. Now have a look at this example:
"When you were young
you were the king of carrot flowers
and how you built a tower
tumbling through the trees"
("The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt I", Neutral Milk Hotel)
Here we have five separate repetitions of the same consonant. There are also three internal full rhymes in "you, you, and through" You will see that both assonance and consonance may occur pretty much anywhere, which is why they are so useful. You can, if you want, fill your entire line with them, as in this example:
"And every thing's spinning
you're beginning to think women
are swimming in pink linen"
("Drug Ballad", Eminem)
I'm not bothering to highlight instances of rhyme here. Out of the thirteen words used, eight of them rhyme. The other five are mere particles and pronouns. This is impressive, but not uncommon in Hip Hop. Eminem began by imitating Nas and AZ, masters of the constant stream of neverending rhymes. Internal rhyme is far more common in that genre than in any other, and in that context, where the preeminence is on flow and content, it is quite appropriate, but beware of overusing any technique, especially a technique of repetition. If you aren't careful, it can wind up looking a trifle ridiculous.
Some may wish to abandon rhyme altogether, but be warned: pulling off rhymeless lyrics is not easy. Better, if you feel cloistered by rhyme, to disguise it, tone it down and scatter it. Look at this:
"Good times, for a change
see, the luck I've had
could make a good man turn bad
so please, please, please
let me get what I want
it would be the first time"
This single couplet holds all six lines of the verse together, and it sits perfectly despite having no other rhymes. The fact that only those lines have been selected for rhyme marks them out as significant: despite the apparent optimism of the first line, it becomes clear that the thematic focus is not optimism but reflection on melancholy. When you deviate from normal practice, you are drawing attention to your deviation, so you ought to have a good reason for doing so.
"Pennies in a stream
falling leaves, a sycamore
moonlight in vermont
I see finger waves
ski trails on a mountainside
snowlight in vermont"
("Moonlight In Vermont", Ella Fitzgerald)
In the Smiths example, you might also have noted how the repetition of certain words helps bind up the verse as a whole; in this example, rather than bond the lines with couplets, a single phrase closes each verse, which can itself change while remaining distinctly repetitive. This frees up the lyricist to paint tonal images with the other lines which would be lessened somehow if they needed to rhyme. Again, the whole point is repetition, and if you repeat something it should always be something worth repeating.
There is, of course, the option of setting pure free-verse to music, but it is fantastically difficult. One example that springs to mind is Radiohead's "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)", whose lyrics are without meter or clear rhyme:
"I am the only one that got through
the others died wherever they fell
it was an ambush
they came up from all sides.
give your leaders each a gun
and let them fight it out themselves
I've seen devils
coming up from the ground
I've seen hell upon this earth
the next will be chemical,
but they will never learn"
The song succeeds by abandoning regular rhythm in its music: instead wavering strings, only loosely held in common time, underpin the vocals, which end up sounding like a drowning man in an orchestral ocean. The effect is a powerful sense of eerie calm underpinned by melancholia and isolation, but it owes its power to Greenwood's compositional skill. If you really know what you are doing, then fire away, but without great care such a method might wind up making an absurdity of your piece. Another approach would be to adopt irregular rhythms vocally, while retaining a regular time signature, as in this example:
"Concrete replaces each branch and twig
as they were frayed upon the birth of ambition
the heavens filled our gilded vessel
with poison tears
before we drink, I propose a toast
a final prayer."
("Same Shade As Concrete", Circle Takes The Square)
The verse is passed back and forth between two of the vocalists in an antiphony which allows them to half-interrupt each other, allowing more words into each bar. They are also sung in speech-like rhythm with occasional rhythmic deviations, wrenching the lines quite jarringly into the already jarring sonic wall, which of course is the intended effect. The overall impression is of discord and confusion.
The lesson here is before you make the decision to abandon convention, ask yourself what you will achieve in doing so. If the answer is greater emotional range and impact, great! If, however, you feel you want to "break the mould", and shrug off the old-fashioned ways of writing, know this: such formal experimentalism is only ever done because it was felt to better communicate the idea behind the art, not because the artist was too lazy to learn form in the first place.
Literal & Figurative Language
Now on to a more content-orintated set of techniques. These two modes of voice are useful in their own ways for different things. Literal language is, literally, telling it like it is. Storytelling requires literal language to be coherent; if your song has a distinct narrative, you are probably going to want to be literal about it for at least some of the time, otherwise it will seem unintelligible:
"Now Samson and the lion got in a tack
and Samson climbed up upon that lion's back
well you read about this lion, killed a man with his paws
but now Samson got his hand around that lion's jaws
well he rode that beast until he killed him dead
and the bees made honey in the lion's head"
In this lyric, the story is told in the most simple and direct manner possible, uncoloured by tonal and symbolic language, and within this context that approach is totally appropriate. The story is almost as old as history: it deserves a voice which respects the gravity of that age and refrains from modernising it with what are comparatively recent poetic tricks. It is not always useful to be completely literal, though, and restricting yourself to literal language is severely limiting. Often, the best approach is to mix the two:
"I love you
I am the milkman of human kindness
I will leave an extra pint"
("The Milkman Of Human Kindness", Billy Bragg)
His chorus opens with biggest cliche in all lyricism, so literal that alone it is almost meaninglessly vague, and then brilliantly grounds it in the personal and the real. This juxtaposition renders those hackneyed three words quite sublime. There are two types of figurative language here: a rather witty, self-knowing pun on "the milk of human kindness" (another cliche), and the actualisation of that pun into metaphor. When he says "I will leave an extra pint", of course he actually means he will be loving and kind, but to have simply said that would be boring. This is what figurative language is all about: finding a new way to talk about something old.
I cannot overemphasise how useful this can be, especially when dealing with universal themes like love. You will often find that speaking literally about your emotions results in quite insipid, dull work, because everything you are saying has already been said, and said so many times it has become trite. However, be wary of overusing figures of speech. You may wind up walking down the path of crossword-puzzle poetry: the idea that the meaning of your work is some kind of secret which needs shrouding in layers of obscure, hermetic imagery and semi-nonsense. You must toe the line between oversimplification and overcomplexity.
Also beware of mixed metaphors. Its like using too extensive a palate in painting: the only result is a confused and muddy mess. Instead try to focus your ideas into one or perhaps two non-literal representations. You may also focus them to such an extent that they expand to fill the entire song-canvas, becoming allegorical as opposed to metaphorical:
"No I aint gonna work for Maggie's Pa no more
he puts his cigar out in your face just for kicks
his bedroom window,
it is made out of bricks
the National Guard stand round the door"
("Maggie's Farm", Bob Dylan)
Dylan was a master of the thin-veiled meaning, and the ambiguity of this example is testament to his mastery of the craft. The story is allegorical because taken at face value, it can appear literal, whereas a metaphor is clearly a piece of representational imagery. As to the meaning, the allusions to the machinery of state, law, money and conformity throughout makes it obviously political: the struggle of the protagonist to exist in his fictional world of manipulators and brutes would appear to parable an everyman tale of modern America, and the author's lament that we elevate and praise less-then-excellent human beings and denigrate the noble and honest working man.
There are many other types of figurative language, such as symbolism, in which an image is taken to represent something else. This differs from metaphor in that a metaphor contains the thing itself alongside the thing being used to describe it ("the dark was a cloak of thick cloth about his shoulders"), whereas a symbol replaces the thing being represented. For instance, when Conor Oberst sings:
"And my friend comes after work
when the features start to blur
she says "these bars are filled
with things that kill
by now you probably should have learned
did you forget that yellow bird?
oh how could you forget your yellow bird?"
and she takes a small silver wreath
and pins it onto me
she said "this one will bring you love"
and I don't know if it's true
but I keep it for good luck"
("We Are Nowhere And It's Now", Bright Eyes)
he is using three separate symbols to embody different concepts. First, the bar represents a state of spiritual and emotional anguish, a place where sorrows are traditionally nursed. The narrator is not necessarily in an actual bar, but rather an unhappy point in his life. Second, the yellow bird personifies joy, happiness and positivity; the fact that he has forgotten it ties in with the bar-symbol. The silver wreath is far more ambiguous, but seems to me, having been given to him by a friend, to represent the abiding nature of hope and friendship in tough times. When he doubts its power ("I don't know if its true") he is really experiencing doubt at the possibility of happiness; a dimming of optimism, yet he clings onto hope regardless: "but I keep it for good luck". These are all terribly hackneyed ideas, but presented in this way they are rendered new, personal and freshly emotive. The use of symbolism is unlike metaphor and allegory in that it need not occur at the expense of literal storytelling: one might merely insert a single or repeated mention of an image as part of a narrative, and the deeper meaning is enhanced without the surface meaning growing murky and vague.
I discussed my approach to form and its uses, in which verses and choruses are replaced by labelled sections, in an earlier lesson, but a few commented on the lack of examples and I feel this ought to be rectified, so here I will try to dismantle various popular songs and consider their structures: why they are so composed, and to what effect.
"The Daily Mail", Radiohead
A B C D E
A rare example of what it called a "through-composed" song, in which no section is repeated. Radiohead are, to me, an interesting band because their entire career is a progressive experiment in structure. Originally writing in standard verses and choruses, they slowly developed more complex arrangements, then began working with the incessant repetition used in electronic and minimalist works, until finally arriving at a broad palate of forms which they deploy at whim, depending on the context and meaning of the piece. Here the proliferation of different sections seems to suggest a confusion and discord which is at one with what is essentially a protest-song, at least in tone:
"...no regard for human life
you keep time, you've no right
you're fast to lose, willing to lose
you jump the queue
go back again
president for life
lord of all the flies in the sky
the beasts of the earth"
and yet the constant progression of movements seem to imply also an ideological progression, or a progression toward a kind of justice, alluded to when Thom sings "you got away with it, but we lie in wait...", a sentiment that calls to mind a lynch mob or a revolution.
"Wish You Were Here", Pink Floyd
a B a C a
In this instance, each lyrical section is cordoned off by the same instrumental part (I note these in lowercase to distinguish them from sung sections), and the two sections have wildly differing tones. The first is dominated by questions:
"Can you tell a green field
from a cold steel rail
a smile from a veil?
do you think you can tell?
...did you exchange a walk-on part in the war
for a lead role in a cage?"
So when the second set of words bursts in accompanied by an exultant C major chord and Gilmour sings "how I wish you were here", it becomes poignantly obvious that these questions are addressed to one who is unable to answer them, and the fact that each sung section is separate from the other, like islands isolated by an ocean of mournful guitar, indicates the separateness of the subject (Syd Barrett, of course) from the narrator. Overall it becomes a meditation on the natural alienation of being alive; that to live is to ultimately find yourself alone, and implicit in all this is the fear of finding yourself as isolated as the man for whom reality has lost its realness.
I have tried to choose examples which illustrate the use of breaking down structure in this way, rather than the standard way. How would you dissemble "Wish You Were Here", which has only two actual sections, no chorus, and more instrumental passages than lyrical ones, by referring to things as verses and choruses? Similarly, how does one pick apart a through-composed piece in which no section repeats when the only building blocks you have to work with are named so as to imply repetition?
You can't, of course, and so neither can you write in structures like this, which actually have some information content, some symbolic message which contributes toward the overall meaning of the song, if you keep on going about your business in standard formulas. That is not to say never write in verses and choruses. If you deem it appropriate then absolutely write in verses and choruses, but there should be a reason. No artistic decision should be made without an objective.
I have spoken at length about various techniques one might employ in writing a lyric, but I have not touched on how you actually sit down and write one. Many, having read the above, will still feel quite at a loss as to how to even begin. This is because, as I have said before, inspiration is a terribly mystical and mysterious thing: nobody knows how it happens or why, and why some individuals seem more capable of it than others, but this is of absolutely no help to the neophyte. Therefore I want to discuss some techniques and tricks for getting started.
Write a Title
Often some of my best ideas for content have arisen from a simple line. Most often these are stumbled-upon, pleasant sounding turns of phrase which I have noted down and thought nothing more about until afterward. Initially they may have no meaning, but sometimes, approaching them in the right mindset can yield a meaning you never thought was there. The resources at www.fawm.org are a good way to begin if you find yourself struggling to come up with anything but the obvious. At a click, their title-generator tool spews out randomised strings of words which you can appropriate, adapt, rearrange and ponder. Here are some it gave me after a few minutes of hitting the "generate" button. Gibberish, perhaps, but suggestive gibberish nonetheless.
- Frost, Junkyard Tree
- Run Me Like Providence
- Collapsible Hive Map
- Wednesday Orpheus
- Escape Coat
- The Resolution of Atmosphere and Speaker
- No Leather, No Sail
- Bloom in a National Cloud
Pick a Story
You have lived for thousands of individual days. It is impossible that nothing of note happened in that entire span of time, so think back to an event, and write about it. You need not initially write in verse, and you need not write entirely truthfully. Take an event and elaborate on it, write it from the perspective of someone else involved, twist the facts, give it a new ending...you have artistic license to distort that event in any way you see fit. Nobody will begrudge you altering things for the sake of good writing, just as nobody harangues a painter for inserting a tree where there is no tree. Alternatively, you might just as well write with perfect truth and honesty.
Forget stories and write about ideas. If, like me, you suffer from an imagination deficit, then this is a solid way to go, because the options are just as endless as those of storytelling, but easier to get at. "Beautiful People" by The Books, for instance, is about the twelfth root of two, an algebraic irrational number which describes the ratio of a semitone in music. Most of the lyrics simply quote equations. The Flaming Lips based an entire record around a half-formed idea about a japanese girl fighting robots, the Pixies wrote songs about brine shrimp and the silent movie "Un Chien Andalou", and I can think of at least three rock songs about bicycles. There are literally no bounds to the range of ideas available if you stop wanting to make everything serious and deep. In fact, in making something a little bit silly, you could be happening upon a new and interesting way to discuss something serious and deep!
If you do have an idea, but aren't quite sure how to flesh it out, I find holding it in your mind and filling a few pages of A4 with words and phrases associated with it extremely helpful. Firstly, it helps in getting your mind into an appropriate gear for tackling the subject matter, and secondly, you often happen upon great titles or lines which you can use as starting points.
In addition, there is an abundance of prompts for poetry and lyric-writing online. Often they are shoddy and limited in usefulness, but occasionally one appears which sparks a creative wildfire, and before you realize what happened, you have the skeleton of a song before you. One crucial part of the process is the part not generally considered a part at all: your life. You draw inspiration from everything you experience, and rather than passively expecting the muses to grace you, it is always best to spend your time stocking up on the raw materials their visits kindle into art. Absorb as much information, on any subject, as you can. Trawl Wikipedia, read books and newspapers, and actively consider the world around you. Great art always begins with an alert and inquiring mind, one which asks apparently absurd questions and tries to discern the actual nature of things, as opposed to their surface appearances.
I apologize for the length of this lesson, but I felt chopping it up into smaller lessons did it no favors. If you have read this far, I thank you for doing so, and I hope my words have been of use. As always, feedback is welcomed, so comments and I shall respond. Sayonara for now!