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 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 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 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 SimileThe 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!