Anatomy Of Great Lyrics

In this article I will discuss methods I have learned that will help with writing the right words to a song.

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Anatomy Of Great Lyrics

Many musicians, including myself, struggle to find the right words to a song. Maybe they want to write something that means a lot personally, or maybe they just want to write some decent lyrics. Regardless of their reasons, many having trouble writing. It's presumable you are, otherwise you wouldn't be reading an article on writing "great lyrics". I read through some of the songs on the Songwriting and Lyrics board here and I don't often find songs that I think are great or even above average. Most of the songs I read are just below that threshold, but why settle for average when you can be great? In this article I will discuss methods I have learned that will help with writing the right words to a song. I. Why are you writing if you have nothing to say? The biggest problem I see in many lyrics I read is that people aren't really saying a lot. Most seem to have an idea of what they want to say and this is usually evident in a few lines of the song, but their point doesn't really come into view in the overall theme of the lyrics. Getting your message across in a song can be a very difficult thing to do. Here are a few things I've picked up that can help.
  • Don't be afraid to say something that's been said before. I think a lot of new songwriters are drawn into the idea that they can't write a good song unless they say something that no one's ever said. This is completely false. If this were the case, then no one could write good songs anymore. There's nothing wrong with using tried and true topics like relationships (in all definitions of the word) and nature.
  • Teach an old dog new tricks. This is what I feel is important when it comes to great songwriting. There's nothing that kills a song more than hearing a story told the same way as its predecessors. Don't use the same old clichs like broken hearts and walls closing in. Express your feelings in a new way. One example of this that I think is great is the chorus of Butch Walker's "Best Thing You Never Had". There's a lyric that goes "Like romantic roadkill, my heart is all splattered." That sounds much more interesting that just saying "my heart is broken". So, just because you're writing about things people have said before doesn't mean they can't be kept fresh and new. II. "My songs are open to interpretation." Something I've seen a fair number of people do to try to keep their writing fresh is write vaguely. They leave their lyrics completely up for interpretation by the reader. I'd like to point out first that there's nothing wrong with leaving room for interpretation. However, that doesn't mean that you can just write a song without saying something specific. Good lyrics, like a good story, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ok, I get it, you're trying to say that you're full of anger for something, but what? Your song doesn't go anywhere. This doesn't mean your lyrics should be prose, it just means that you should tell a story in song. For a great example of this read the lyrics to Nickel Creek's "Green and Gray". It tells a story about a man and his secret love for a woman but it does so in the form of a song. I won't write the lyrics in for spatial reasons. In summary, try to send your reader or listener on a journey through your song by use of a concise beginning and ending. III. Keeping your song styled with good flow. Vagueness is not the only thing that will hurt a song. Poor flow can create worlds of problems in a song and often means the difference between a song and free verse poetry. There are two important types of flow in a song that should always be inspected before calling a song finished.
  • Rhythmic flow Rhythmic flow refers to the structure of your individual verses. It includes the number of stressed and unstressed syllables per line and the rhyme scheme of the verse, rudimentarily. This just means that each individual verse should have the same structure both in meter (your rhythm pattern) and in rhyme scheme. For instance, the following would not be considered two separate verses: I went to the store today To buy some bread and milk There was a man, I say Whose cart was full to the hilt It was full of soda Frozen rocky road-ah Salted potato chips and Ranchy tasty dips It may seem like they could be separate first, but upon further investigation they are very different. Here's a breakdown of the structures of each part (the U means an unstressed syllable and the S means a stressed syllable, and the A/B/C means the rhyme sound): U S U S U S (A) (to the is joined to act as one syllable) U S U S U S (B) U S U S U S (A) U S U S U S (B) (see the first line, again) S U S U S U (A) S U S U S U (A) S U S U S U (B) (-ed and po- are joined) S U S U S (C) The second "verse" is completely different! It reverses the meter and throws the rhyme scheme out completely. This is a very basic example but I have read songs that had two very different verse structures before and after the first chorus. IV. English class is your friend. As you should know, songwriting is a literary process just as much as it is a musical one. Therefore, it would be of great benefit to your lyrics if you had good language skills. That's not to say that you have to be as cunning a wordsmith as literature's best, but you should probably have a decently sized vocabulary. Short of that, a dictionary and a thesaurus will do. Use descriptive words like pulsing, sprinting, existance, and cherish rather than humdrum vocabulary like beating, running, life, and love. The use of a thesaurus will not only open up your possible choices but will help you find better fitting words to keep your meter constant. Apart from word choice, there are other literary techniques you can use to add a catchier, more song-like feel to your lyrics. Here are a few:
  • Repetition Repetition of a word or phrase is very commonly used to stress a main idea. The most common form of this is the repeating chorus but there are other ways to use this technique. Don McLean repeated the famous line "The day that music died" throughout his song "American Pie" to focus on the main theme of the plane crash referred to by that line.
  • Alliteration Alliteration is a form of repetition where the initial consonant sound is repeated in two or more consecutive words. This can be used to create a catchy feel for a hook or a line in the chorus. An example would be the phrase "Katie carries cats".
  • Metaphor and Simile The army is a rabid wolf. (Metaphor) The army is like a rabid wolf. (Simile) The first basic difference between the two is that a simile uses like or as in the comparison. It is a common misconception that this is the only difference between the two techniques. Look at the above two phrases. The metaphor conjures an image of an army, ready to fight, with hinting thoughts of a rabid wolf ready to fight. The simile, contrastingly, invokes the thought of an army ready to fight. We are left wanting further explanation of the comparison. The major difference between metaphor and simile is that simile focuses on the first object while metaphor transforms the image into something new. While there can be exceptions to these guidelines, they're general practice in the world of writing songs. Using these important elements in your songwriting as well as your individual inspiration is the key to writing great lyrics. So, start writing!
  • 47 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      Obelisk
      You're half right, but I still think you're not quite getting the big picture. You're obviously a smart, analytical person, and you probably have a lot of natural ability in writing song lyrics; however, that isn't something that can really be taught. The ability to write "greatly" is something you either have or you don't. Writing songs isn't about discerning what you need to do structurally in order to get from A - Z. Anything that is about expression shouldn't have a template. Expression comes from you, from inside of you, and if you don't have that artistic creative element then you shouldn't try and force it or develop it artificially. Basically, great songs tend to have those elements within them, but if you're thinking about those elements then you will never write a truly great song. You can't fake talent.
      He's right. Although what the author has stated here is good advice for certain kinds of people, other musicians with different ideas, thought processes and modes of expression should not try to confine themselves to any sort of guidelines...but, what Fridge said is very relevant and is probably more important that most of the things stated in this article. Not a bad opinion though. It's definely a legitamate route for some people.
      Underrated
      I think Beck's lyrics rock and they follow virtually none of these rules. Oh well.
      StringsofBlack
      I thought you had some great points in there. Some of these posts criticize saying they already knew that. Well I knew them too, but putting them into kinda a bullet explanation format was great. Alot of things that really needed to be said he covered. The only thing nice wouldve been it being a little more thorough and longer, but still great ideas here! Keep going with it! And btw to those people out there talking about the english critic, yeah you need english class material. Thats where the best poets reside, who frankly, could kick today's songwriters asses at lyrics lol. But thats okay keep going ya'll!
      StringsofBlack
      Obelisk wrote: You're half right, but I still think you're not quite getting the big picture. You're obviously a smart, analytical person, and you probably have a lot of natural ability in writing song lyrics; however, that isn't something that can really be taught. The ability to write "greatly" is something you either have or you don't. Writing songs isn't about discerning what you need to do structurally in order to get from A - Z. Anything that is about expression shouldn't have a template. Expression comes from you, from inside of you, and if you don't have that artistic creative element then you shouldn't try and force it or develop it artificially. Basically, great songs tend to have those elements within them, but if you're thinking about those elements then you will never write a truly great song. You can't fake talent. He's right. Although what the author has stated here is good advice for certain kinds of people, other musicians with different ideas, thought processes and modes of expression should not try to confine themselves to any sort of guidelines...but, what Fridge said is very relevant and is probably more important that most of the things stated in this article. Not a bad opinion though. It's definely a legitamate route for some people.
      Uhh yeah thats actually not true. You can be taught how to write thats the whole friggin point of english class haha. Ray Bradbury talked about how he'd look at his stuff from when earlier before real hardwork and studying literary work and he said it was totaly crap. You need more than just great ideas or inspiration. You have to funnel your inspiration into something rational and yes sometimes with a template.
      Katear
      ESPguy981 : ok ok thats nice now tell me how to write death metal lyrics...
      Scream into a microphone and hope they interpret it as something. Nicely written article, good pointers. I partially agree with the guy who said that lyrical talent is just that, talent, and can't be learned. I have to force myself to write lyrics, but I know people who've them scribbled everywhere.
      gwitersnamps
      Informative, but it seems like you argue against yourself by putting the "don't be afraid to say what's already done before" next to "teach a new dog new tricks." I assume your refering to different parts of songwriting?
      spunkeymonkey36
      I liked this article alot. The one thing that bums me though is about what order you should write your song in; the lyrics and then add the music behind, or the music first and then add lyrics on top. The problem is if you write the lyrics first, then making your melody may not be as easy or quite how you want it, but doing the music first and then the lyrics will make your lyrics boring and repetitive. What to do? Good points in article though 5/5.
      Zakkmann
      it was good but for someone who doesnt listen to country its not helpful...like me and alot of other people. also i think songs should be more free form. i mean its music why the heck does it have to be so formal. music isn't about fallowing rules. its art not math
      Swamplord
      StringsofBlack wrote: I thought you had some great points in there. Some of these posts criticize saying they already knew that. Well I knew them too, but putting them into kinda a bullet explanation format was great. Alot of things that really needed to be said he covered. The only thing nice wouldve been it being a little more thorough and longer, but still great ideas here! Keep going with it! And btw to those people out there talking about the english critic, yeah you need english class material. Thats where the best poets reside, who frankly, could kick today's songwriters asses at lyrics lol. But thats okay keep going ya'll!
      I agree. People do critize. For those dimwits who say, "I already know how to write lyrics." Why did you read an article with title 'Anatomy of Great Lyrics'??? When taking the piss out of the author... bear in mind the time taken for them to write the article, then the time taken for you to write your comment.
      cortez0
      I liked your article but you don't always have to tell a story, you can explain your feelings and use a vague text. I don't like rules either, I write like I feel. Those syllables remind me of the latin poets. They did the same, very strict.
      Bmace15
      Its preatty good to vauge in some places and its not anything i didn't already know
      forevergonzo
      i think that writing lyrics that don't make any sense is an ok thing to do as long as its entertaining. look at the pixies good article for the most part though
      xDoMyGuitarNoWx
      good job! i liked this article very much, since i am struggling to write a song right now. thanks
      Music=Freedom
      I have real trouble writing lyrics. Its like, i'll cum up wit sum ok stuff but then reach a wall after 1 verse. I think i'll study ur article, looks good and hopefully it'll help.
      Craigo
      Well done, but all the ideas are things I know already. Everything you've talked about is nothing fresh from what has been offered by other people and my own knowledge and sense. 2/5 stars for the actual work, 4/5 for how it's written. 6/10.
      gogita21
      leijsa wrote: I liked it, but the 2nd half of it was just English class.
      Yeah, that was the point of the second half. To teach literary techniques to those who may not know them or have forgotten them. Thanks everyone for the comments!
      boboguitar
      leijsa wrote: I liked it, but the 2nd half of it was just English class.
      English class is your friend remember?
      Nybb
      Solid content and decently written. Although personally, I find it much more interesting to do the opposite of your section on rhythmic flow (and by the way, you said there was two important types of flow but only explained one). That is, I like to change up the meter and rhyme schemes every now and then, especially the rhymes. That's just my opinion though. 8/10
      Caustic
      I liked the article. People forget these most basic guidelines and pointers so often.
      elcapitanloco
      Sorry to pick nits, but the meter section is incorrect. The author seems to think that stressed and unstressed syllables have to alternate, which is false. The first line, for example, should be USUUSUS The words "to the" have 2 syllables. Like it or not, there are two vowel sounds there. Likewise, "salted potato" has 5 syllables. Joining "-ed" and "po-" into one syllable doesn't make sense. I realize that you probably wanted to demonstrate a uniform meter, but the words you chose don't fit it. Also it seems weird to mention alliteration without mentioning consonance (repeating consonant sounds, but not necessarily at the beginnings of words) and assonance (repeating vowel sounds), and internal rhyme (rhyme within a line, rather than at the end of the lines).
      MATTTHEMOP
      The words "to the" have 2 syllables. Like it or not, there are two vowel sounds there. Likewise, "salted potato" has 5 syllables. Joining "-ed" and "po-" into one syllable doesn't make sense.
      the words were joined into one BEAT not one syllable. its just like, splitting a beat into 2 smaller offbeats. when i say it as the writer seems to have intended, it sounds fine.
      mr. blobby
      elcapitanloco wrote: assonance (repeating vowel sounds).
      i thought assonance was where the two words that should rhyme don't. like when william blake or someone like that rhymes the word swan with the word stone? - that was in educating rita (we did it for GCSE) they called it getting the rhyme wrong.
      burndttoast
      Well said. But it feels like you were missing something. I'm not sure what though.
      bassmonkey16
      i agree with your opener, in that there is a lot of crap song lyrics users on this site create - BIG F'ING DEAL man. you need to start somwhere. i encourage new writers to come here, really, even tho some crits are pretty damn harsh it teaches writers to mature and to realize they arent the best, meaning they need improvement. what do you expect to find here, 100% professionaly songwriters? and about the "open to interpretation" deal. some people like that kind of stuff. some don't. biggest problem i found with this article is that you are close-minded and think there are rules to lyrics, and music in general. maybe the stuff you enjoy listening to is very technical, and follows the perfect progression, never strays from the scale, whatever. which is cool, to each his own. but i second what Fridge said in his second paragrapgh :cheers:
      gogita21
      Nybb wrote: (and by the way, you said there was two important types of flow but only explained one).
      Ah, you're right! I wonder what happened to my section on logical flow... >_
      Fridge
      You're half right, but I still think you're not quite getting the big picture. You're obviously a smart, analytical person, and you probably have a lot of natural ability in writing song lyrics; however, that isn't something that can really be taught. The ability to write "greatly" is something you either have or you don't. Writing songs isn't about discerning what you need to do structurally in order to get from A - Z. Anything that is about expression shouldn't have a template. Expression comes from you, from inside of you, and if you don't have that artistic creative element then you shouldn't try and force it or develop it artificially. Basically, great songs tend to have those elements within them, but if you're thinking about those elements then you will never write a truly great song. You can't fake talent.