A Guide To Writing Lyrics

Here's a list of insights that I hope will help guitarists master the word as well as the note.

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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!

39 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    a_rush_of_blood
    wow. first. who gives a shit. good article, straight to the point, no mistakes. i find a good way to find inspiration is reading a book and or watching a movie and trying to see things from the charachters, or anyones point of view.
    rockergurl09
    It was a bit confusing and too prolonged, and you didn't mention some other ways to get inspiration, like personal experiences, problems with society that stick out to you, favorite characters in books, movies, etc., and you never mentioned how simple the lyrics can be. Some of the best songs ever only have lyrics equivalent to a couple stanzas of poetry that are repeated in places. Never really mentioned the awesome deep down simplicity of rock, both music and lyrics. Other than that, that was a very good article!
    tHewHiteHendrix
    [b]IamJonsCranium[ /b] wrote: good one. im glad you didnt give a cookie cutter or step by step method. you left it open for people to figure for themselves which is the way it needs to be. my advice for writing music? let yourself fall in love with a girl you know will break your heart and piss you off! then the words will flow!
    sad but this is so true. i havent been able to find words for so long but I just experienced this and now the words are definately there. horrible idea but it definately works in my experience.
    joeboudreau
    wow...this is amazing. I can tell you, that if you're one of the tards reading this article hoping to create something good...you will not. Try doing something original because anything that this guy is saying is just going to lead you down the alley of same old music, and you'll probbaly end at EMO street because thats where music is now.
    fitzsy05
    I am in a band at school we play mainly covers. and can write awesome guitar licks and other music just no lyrics! thanks for the article, but unfortunately our band is forced to separate in 3 days wen we leave each other!!!
    marjorie_
    an excellent article..i've already written some songs but i think they suck!this article would help me write my next lyrics..
    reelbigfishrock
    i never knew canoodling around with power chords could actually turn into record like smoke on the water. i find writing words bloody challenging this article has broken the process down but also lets you use your noddle so you dont feel like it would be someone elses work and structure to writing. im crap at poetry too note to self: listen more in english lessons 10/10 well done dude!
    rockergurl09
    oh, and another inspiration - people in your own life, and if you actually write poetry like me, also things that randomly come to my head. I've made my best poetry/songs that way, so... FOLLOW YOUR RANDOM THOUGHTS AND IMPULSES!!
    ezD
    nice article bro, i write a lot of lyrics, good by others people's standards i might at and... i've got one more suggestion to add for people writing lyrics... like a few said before, go on impulse, write what you want and write it all. Not every single thing you want to right will be good, so write it all, and if you like it make it a song. If its bad well, ya know, its just like writing music. Like he said, playing guitar is like singing lyrics, singing bad lyrics or writing bad lyrics is the same as trying out a chord progression and deciding it doesn't sound all that good. Pass over it, maybe, you can take those lyrics and later with the right tweaking they will sound good. Try getting other random people's oppinions also, not just other musicians; the random people are going to be the ones that are listening to your music, plus they won't be as biased. great article though...
    gynther flynt
    Some valid points but i just don't think that song writing (well, good song writing) is something that can be taught. You pretty much can either do it or you can't, and if you need a guide such as this then the chances are that the songs won't be very good.
    okay, it can't be taught well, but it can be learned, no question. i mean c'mon, there's a guy who skateboards, and he ain't got no feet! and he's a professional! so don't think that you knew how to read when you were born!
    eagz_il nino
    Writing good lyrics is a natural talent as far as im concerned and cant be taught. This guide may help a bit but if you dont have the songwriting talent to start with, it wont work
    NightSmash
    excellent, described the relationship between music and lyrics very well. high five.
    pearlJam_31490
    what i do and what seems to work for me is to think of atleast one catch line like for example there is no lid upon my head but if there was u could look inside and see whats on my mind.(Dave Matthews quote) something like that and after you get a few one liners then you write the rest of the song to go with those one liners.
    AbsentiA
    I especially enjoyed the part about how everyone rhymes at the end of each line, and most music pop music these days relies on the end of each line to be the end of a sentence...which gets repetetive pretty fast. Excellent article.
    team_seagull
    Some valid points but i just don't think that song writing (well, good song writing) is something that can be taught. You pretty much can either do it or you can't, and if you need a guide such as this then the chances are that the songs won't be very good.
    Jadewolf
    interesting, but i need an article from the other point of view.... ppl who can write but can't find melodies
    metalboy426
    good article, but one thing i was wondering about was how can you help me put my music with my words, i can write both, just nothing really fits with anything else
    red_dog22
    it was good, but he didn't really address the most important thing. write all the ****ing time. lyrics, songs, whatever. the best way to get good at something is to practice it as much as you can.
    Felkara
    That's probably the best advice anyone can ever give to people who write lyrics. However, it probably could have been useful to include a section on advice for people who write lyrics as a band. That can sometimes be much harder than just having one songwriter. I also find that listening to songs in other languages can help with word shapes and rhythm. I personally recommend J-Rock. Good article, and yes, writers are awesome. (Song and story, yes, we both rule!!)
    ohio_emokid
    that was really good. i liked the part about writing everything down and then deciding what to use.
    IamJonsCranium
    good one. im glad you didnt give a cookie cutter or step by step method. you left it open for people to figure for themselves which is the way it needs to be. my advice for writing music? let yourself fall in love with a girl you know will break your heart and piss you off! then the words will flow!
    jarthur246
    [b]IamJonsCranium[ /b] wrote: good one. im glad you didnt give a cookie cutter or step by step method. you left it open for people to figure for themselves which is the way it needs to be. my advice for writing music? let yourself fall in love with a girl you know will break your heart and piss you off! then the words will flow!
    ^ I agree
    jarthur246
    nice. I like to write my lyrics first cuz then i can try all sorts of different riffs instead of trying to force myself to write around something lyrics around one specific riff. composing music is always more flexible but lyrics arent. im not sure if that makes much sense. but anyways....
    gynther flynt
    eagz_il nino : Writing good lyrics is a natural talent as far as im concerned and cant be taught. This guide may help a bit but if you dont have the songwriting talent to start with, it wont work
    and the same shit to you. seriously, don't be so negative.