The impetus behind this article comes from the experience of talking to guitarists who have had real problems in writing lyrics. Though musically gifted, when it comes to putting words on paper, these guys have just frozen. It made me wonder what it was that was causing this blockage. I'm a published poet and writer who plays guitar as well. Working with words is what I've been doing since my early teens. One thing that I know for sure is that words change music as much as music changes words. It came to me that there was a need for a 'how to write lyrics' guide that cut through the fear and mystique, and put guitarists back in touch with what they know best: music. To achieve this, I've drawn up a list of insights that I hope will help guitarists master the word as well as the note.
01. Words are sounds too. The first step in overcoming difficulties in lyric writing is to realise that words are sounds too. They are not foreign objects alien to the music you are composing. In fact, you could say there are three components to a song: the music, the words and the sounds of the words. Words are part of the musical structure because they are verbal sounds that affect the notes of a melody musically as well as verbally. Remember, the human voice is an instrument too. The sounds of words colour the music you write, and these sounds are as accessible to you as a musician as the notes that you play. The point I am making is that words are part of your musical vocabulary and must be viewed as such.
02. Words first, music first? Put this old teaser to sleep. There is no golden rule about the order in which you compose. It's entirely related to the way you work as a creative person. What's right for you is right if it gets the result. Whether you write the words or music first, you are creating shapes that will influence the structure of the emerging song. These shapes can be verses or chord sequences, choruses or melody lines, but they have no priority over each other. The best songs are those that are the most organic: songs that hit us literally as natural, holistic produce. They are real, whatever their background, because the elements within them hang together as an integrated whole. Remember, words are spoken music and music is instrumental speech.
03. So what words? Well, what are words anyway? Words are verbal structures that define, describe and deliver meaning and significance to human communication. A word is both a self-contained unit and a building block to other words. So, just like musical notes, words can stand alone or form a greater whole. But what words? To begin with, you must have the confidence to write anything to write something. What you first write is as important as the finished product, because it is all part of the creative process. An image that might help is that you have to take the cork out of the bottle to get to the wine. Whatever words come to you must be written down; they are the pathways to the words you will settle with. Single words, phrases, it doesn't matter; as long as you are writing. A secret in writing is that words will find each other if you give them the chance - if you believe in their ability to make the connections for you. Since you are the instrument for the words as well as the music, reflect on what it is that you wish to say. Let the words talk back to you - they might be better at saying it than you! If the words are coming first, try to feel the music in them, it's there somewhere, and it might just be leading you to the music itself. Or if you have the music before you, feel in that music the words it is trying to say; feel out what kind of lyric the music is seeking to invoke.
04. To rhyme or not to rhyme? Most people associate poetry with rhyme, though rhyme has become unfashionable in modern poetry. In popular music rhyme has not suffered the same fate, and we all know how crucial a part it plays today, from pop to rap. Most people who struggle with lyrics get confused over this issue of rhyme, afraid that they will end up with doggerel. However, it is not rhyme that is at fault, but unimaginative rhymes. A trend I've noticed in modern lyrics for some time is for songwriters to write as naturally as possible, using their patterns of speech to shape the lyrics. When rhyme occurs, it doesn't have to be at the end of every second line. It can weave throughout the song, hitting certain emphases that the words and music highlight. Rhyme is primal, and clearly shows up the musicality of language. Don't be afraid of it, but explore it with more unusual examples, woven into the story of your song.
05. Going for a song? You need to listen to all kinds of songs, not just your favourites, to understand how they are constructed. For every song that follows the traditional verse and chorus pattern, you'll come across one that flouts this. Use this variety to develop your lyric writing. You don't have to be chained to four line verses and endlessly repeating verbal hooks; explore the textures of the words and let the lines flow in unexpected as well as expected ways. Your lyrics might take the form of a story set to music; or they might come across as fleeting images or episodes. Again, your words might take the form of protest, chant or primordial cry. They are your words in the process of becoming your song. The worst thing to do is to treat them as dead letters on a page. If music gives life to the words, words articulate that life through the lyric. But don't forget that words are alive in their own right!
06. Yeah, but I'm a guitarist. When you're flashing up and down scales or bashing out a few power chords you're writing sounds into the air. Being a guitarist doesn't mean that you can't write songs. Of course, if you're the kind of guitarist who's working out songs on the acoustic then you've probably realised that the guitar is about more than just showy sound. That said, the guitar is an instrument like the human voice, and it can verbalise your music for you. I am a fan of all kinds of wild guitar playing, and I believe that the technical expertise of modern guitarists is taking us to a mind-body-guitar connection that in the future will lead to a whole new generation of more 'human-integrated' instruments. Advanced guitar playing is finding its own lyric, and words will come more into play in relation to this music rather than just as some textual after-thought. Writing words for the guitar is different; you can't really ever get away from that troubadour feel. Most of us know that many popular songs are written within simple, predictable chord sequences; what is fascinating is the diversity of melody and lyric that can come from this limitation. The human voice plays no small part in this; as does the inventiveness of the songwriter. When I write for guitar I enjoy using unusual chord shapes, particularly those with lots of open strings happening! You must experiment with your playing as much as your lyrics to open up new avenues.
07. And finally! The best way in which to improve your lyric writing is to listen to as many different kinds of music as you can and hear how these pieces have been put together. Write down your ideas and thoughts whenever you have them, in a notebook near at hand that you will not lose! If you have the chords for a song worked out but no words, run through as many melodic variations as possible, trying out dummy lyrics or nonsense words as verbal experiment. Check whether you can sing in the key of the music you're writing! Have the confidence to write down any words to bring to the surface the words you are searching for. It's a process of patience and faith. Happy lyric writing!