3 Reasons Your Lyrics Might Suck

3 reasons your lyrics might suck and what to do about it. An introduction to three key concepts in lyric writing that separate good lyrics from bad.

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For a large number of songwriters, lyric-writing is the hardest aspect of the art. The main reason it's such a struggle is that lyric writing is a completely different skill to writing music, and skill in musical theory and composition is of little to no help in lyric writing, which places entirely different demands on a songwriter. As well as working on my own material, I do a great deal of work with songwriters who are struggling with their lyrics, particularly writers for whom English is not their native language. These are the most common errors that I find when helping songwriters, and what can be done to fix them. 1 Writing the lyrics before the music Many songwriters decide to write a song about a certain subject, write some lyrics about that subject, and then write the music. In my experience, this is the #1 cause of bad lyrics. Fitting music to words is extremely difficult. Even if the lyrics in themselves make great poetry, the rhythm and melody of music can do all sorts of ugly things to the emphasis and delivery of the words that can ruin them. Not all poetry makes good lyrics, and not all good lyrics make good poetry (the works of Wordsworth and Keats are somewhat lacking in phrases as Da Doo Ron Ron or Woah-oah-oah-oah sweet child o'mine). The most effective process in my experience is to first decide on a subject, but then think about the emotions that that subject elicits. Does the subject make you feel angry, sad, happy, romantic, or a mixture of things? Then use those musical skills of yours to write some MUSIC that conveys that emotion or emotions. Only then think about lyrics. As by this point you will have a very strong understanding of the emotional emphasis and structure of the song, the lyrics will flow much more easily. It's also much easier to change a word here or there, add one, subtract one, or mangle the grammar in some way to make the flow and rhythm of the lyrics fit the melody than it is to start altering a melody to work with pre-existing words. There's only 12 musical notes, but there are nearly a million words in the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. Work with the bigger toolbox, not the smaller one. 2 Not paying enough attention to the song structure Whilst most good songwriters know the difference between a verse, bridge, chorus, midsection and the like in musical terms, they will often not pay enough attention to the structure when writing the lyrics. The most common (but not the only) symptom of this problem is that the entire song ends up with chorus-style lyrics and is, as a friend of mine put it, just a series of slogans. Think about the relationship between the different elements of a song structure. If you're not using a conventional structure, then think about the musical progression and the change of moods throughout the piece. I know that it's a bit odd to use a Bon Jovi song to illustrate good lyric writing (the guy's not exactly Shakespeare), but take a look at the words to Living on a Prayer. This song, like all his songs, is all about the big chorus, but the big chorus only works because he has put it in context both musically and lyrically. The song is about two people using the power of their love to get through their troubles. The verses discuss what those problems are and why the couple are down on their luck, the bridges show the couple talking to each other, and then the chorus is a series of slogans giving a more emotional expression to the theme of the song. The point is that those slogans only make sense when they have been put in context by the rest of the song. If the song started with the chorus lyrics, it would be confusing and nonsensical. Who are these people that are halfway there? Halfway where? Make it through what? It's only such an effective lyrical hook (and it's a VERY effective hook, I bet you have it in your head right now even if you really, really hate Bon Jovi) because it's been put into context by the rest of the song structure. Verses need to discuss the what of a song. Bridges, if you have them, should discuss the why should I care about that aspect and choruses should be the full expression of emotion. A midsection could be a plot twist, adding some extra context that makes the choruses after it seem different in the light of the new thing you have told the listener some songs will make a key change here to emphasise that the final chorus, or choruses, are the same, but have a different meaning now. If your 20 minute prog epic doesn't have that structure, it still needs to go on that storytelling journey to make sense to the listener. 3 Not enough detachment from the subject matter This is quite a complex concept, but a very important one. A common feature in almost all substandard lyrics is that they are written in a matter-of-fact style. They either talk about the events or subject of the song (Direct lyrics), or they discuss what has happened and how it makes them feel (First-level lyrics). However, the best lyrics, especially in the rock and metal genres, go to the second level of detachment, wherein the subject matter of the song is erased entirely from the lyrics, and all that is discussed is the images and feelings the events or subject are evoking. To make that clearer, let's say you were to write about your dog dying. Direct lyrics would be something like: Fido's dead, he ran out of luck, he ran in the road and got hit by a truck. It sounds like something an eight-year-old would write. It's also dull, there's nothing to make me care about this dude's dog and what happened to it. Let's go to the first level and add the emotional reaction: I can no longer sleep, I can no longer eat, since that fateful day with my dog in the street. Better, but it's coming across as whiny. As the listener I still don't really care. This dude's dog got run over and he is sad. Sucks to be him I guess, but what does it have to do with me? Let's go to the second level, and strip out the story entirely, leaving only emotions and images: Just a tear in the eye and the stains on the clothes, where the tyres and the asphalt brought love to a close. Now that's better. But why is it better? There are two reasons for this. The first is that in the first two examples, we are seeing a story happening to someone else. We see the guy, and his dog, and the sticky end it came to. But now there is no mention of the guy or the dog. Our brains don't like a story without characters, so they default to applying the story to US. Now the listener is forced to imagine those things happening TO THEM, and is experiencing the emotions by imagining the story themselves rather than just being told it. The second reason that it's more effective is that it's vaguer. The first two examples will only have any emotional resonance for someone whose dog was run over. However, by taking out the specifics, that could apply to anyone who has ever lost a pet, or a person, to a road accident. Even if they haven't, the vagueness of the lyrics lets them apply their imaginations to the feeling of losing a loved one on the road. They'll apply it to their dog, their cat, their lover, their parents, their children, and feel the grief of the song about someone they love, rather than a dog belonging to some guy they neither know nor care about. That's a lightning-fast introduction to a very deep and complex subject. If you want to know more, I've written more about lyrical detachment on my website. ----- About the author: James Scott is a London music producer, writer and audio engineer and the author of Writing Effective Lyrics in Rock and Metal.

56 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    godisasniper
    The only exception to rule #3 in my book is when you can write lyrics that are so incredibly descriptive that anyone can get a very clear, powerful mental image.
    metalbutterfly
    I was skeptical at first...and then I saw how the lyrics went from shitty (they way i write) to really awesome and part of a number one hit! so yeah Awesome!
    Silverpack
    I don't agree much with the first one. You can write music after, if you're ready to readapt the lyrics in a way that it can fit the song, by cutting the verses, changing the rhymes, ecc. Anyway, you still have a very good point here, congratulations.
    GreenDayFan16
    I really like this as a songwriter, but I also approach differently. Maybe it's the style of music I play, but I can write lyrics and then fit music to it rather easily because I come up with a solid melody and then form the chords around it. Secondly, the "second level" you mention can come in many different forms. I don't know how people here would like my stuff, but my songs, while not metaphor heavy or maybe second level as you define them, are personal experiences written with emotion and word play, and less like your second level of detachment. But to each his own. No matter what your view is, this is still a damn good article and I know it will help a ton of people. Great job man.
    Panasonic3
    Dream Floyd wrote: About the dictionary remark : Yes, there are around 2 million words in the unabridged Oxford English dictioary, but words are just combinations of letters, so technically a riff can have just as many possibilities as a dictionary ; for example, 1 bar can have 12^16 sixteenth notes, 12^8 eighth notes, 12^4 quarter notes, and if you change the rhythm up, the possibilities are endless.
    true, but he was saying it's easier to change a word (through synonyms) then it is to change a note (notes have no synonyms/the pitch is the pitch and there are no substitutes). a musical idea is so specific to itself that there is no "other way" to write the same idea musically. this is part of the reason why there are so many lawsuits in riff stealing. words are much more pliable than sound. while good advice, the first two are a bit obvious i think. the last quip was genius and opened my eyes a little bit. thanks doobie!
    BOYERxBREAKDOWN
    Spiderweb wrote: I don't agree much with the first one. You can write music after, if you're ready to readapt the lyrics in a way that it can fit the song, by cutting the verses, changing the rhymes, ecc. Anyway, you still have a very good point here, congratulations. Well then you've basically undone any work you've done to the lyrics to begin with, as you rewrote them.
    But who cares? Point is the song works. It doesn't matter as long you let them lose what made them good lyrics in the first place.
    voodoochild23
    I'd strongly recommend visiting the link about lyrical detachment at the end of the article. This is probably the most insightful, useful and overall brilliant passages of (I wanna call it advice, or theory, but it's just so much better than that..) awesomeness I've read in a long time. I'm officially helped. In a big way.
    MatasTeen
    To me Deftones write the best lyrics (and music), but I noticed it's because they heavily emphasize on point 3. which also gives space for the listeners to interpret the song and make it more personal to them.
    CobaltRain
    This is really cool, and i feel kind of good that ive obeyed all these rules unwittingly
    CPDmusic
    TheBigDirty716 wrote: next we're gonna see an article on how not to write crappy music. here s an idea... Just F'ING do what works for you. shity music/lyrics is/are shity music/lyrics. if you take a step back and say... hey, i think that's cool. then go with it with everything you got. if you say, hey, that might suck, do something different and see what happens. no need to write a scientific paper on topic. damn
    Actually, there are a few lessons on how to not write crappy music already. You know, basically everything you will ever learn surrounding music theory, chords, melodies, genre, and music in general that translates into your writing. But that's okay, if you want to be a douche bag, just stay where I can see you and don't bug the neighbors.
    SAB-84
    sooooo.....for a cat who has fleas and must scratch them... itching sensation fighting temptation give the skin a scraping to relieve the fixation Fleas, Fleas, Fleas You gotta go. Just please please fleas. leave me alone! I suppose that is a lot better than my cat has fleas so he scratches himself....lol But yeah, good article, but I can't help but think there are exceptions like Iron Man and such.
    The jazz Man
    Some good points there. In also sick of repeated lyrics in music these days. Especially in metal. The amount of times the words Fade to Black amongst many others are used is ridiculous. Its not poetic when everybody's using it
    Spiderweb
    I don't agree much with the first one. You can write music after, if you're ready to readapt the lyrics in a way that it can fit the song, by cutting the verses, changing the rhymes, ecc. Anyway, you still have a very good point here, congratulations.
    Well then you've basically undone any work you've done to the lyrics to begin with, as you rewrote them.
    TheBigDirty716
    next we're gonna see an article on how not to write crappy music. here s an idea... Just F'ING do what works for you. shity music/lyrics is/are shity music/lyrics. if you take a step back and say... hey, i think that's cool. then go with it with everything you got. if you say, hey, that might suck, do something different and see what happens. no need to write a scientific paper on topic. damn
    aCloudConnected
    Making a song detached from what it's about doesn't necessarily make it better, but I understand your point. There definitely needs to be room for interpretation. Well, it doesn't "need" to be there, but you get what I'm saying. Interesting read nonetheless!
    oldmetallica
    Joe Walsh could learn a lesson from this ha! hes got some great songs though dont get me wrong.
    Marcus_Carlzon
    This was really nice, it really gets you thinking twice about your own lyrics.. It makes alot of sense. Although it's not always like this, your examples shows really really good points
    CPDmusic
    tennesseehild wrote: Dude intense, but how does it work out if you can hear the melody in your head?
    Have perfect pitch or dick around on an instrument until you get that melody down on the instrument. That's the only way I know how. Anyone else could add to that.
    Ougagagoubu
    Hey the third example is really cool but the second one would be awesome for a bridge or kind of post-hardcore breakdown Great article
    xonty
    Thanks man! I've made lyrics with these aspects but I never knew what made them so good but now I finally realise Thank you so much!
    Iommianity
    TheBigDirty716 wrote: next we're gonna see an article on how not to write crappy music. here s an idea... Just F'ING do what works for you. shity music/lyrics is/are shity music/lyrics. if you take a step back and say... hey, i think that's cool. then go with it with everything you got. if you say, hey, that might suck, do something different and see what happens. no need to write a scientific paper on topic. damn
    Or you can be the douche with his fingers in ears, with no music or advice to offer anyone else, and a jaded idea of what music 'is'.
    Simptom
    I don't think there's any set process for writing lyrics. While I agree that inventing a more creative way to express oneself rather than being overly blunt in a song does help, I do disagree with what he said about writing lyrics first. In my time singing I've noticed that as long as you write lyrics with a vocal melody in mind, you're golden. You may not be able to write music to those lyrics right away, but when a song does arise that matches the meter and rhythm of a song then it makes it much, much easier to make a completed song. My advice is to not write poetry and try to cram it into a song; that almost never works. Always keep a melody in mind and old lyrics can end up being useful one day. Writing the music first then writing lyrics after the music's completed is bad writing and is too simplified a music writing process. How can a songwriter ever expect to get better if he's only writing when a guitar or his instrument of choice is around? A songwriter has to keep writing even when there isn't music so he can get better at simply writing better lyrics. It's harder to make musical songs than it is to write words. You can also strengthen your vocal melody by writing this way. So why not write more and have better lyrics for when those songs come around? Furthermore, lyrics in this day and age with mediocre singers is equally important. It's kind of why folk music, country, and rock n' roll became so big back in the day and in turn influenced everything else then on. I've said it twice already and I'll say it again: Keep a melody in mind, always, when writing lyrics.
    Ty Morgan
    Awesome article, James! The change in perspective these 3 items provided has already started a flurry of new ideas! Time to go grab my BIG boy tool box:
    Tikoman
    i find the first version of the lyrics awesome and the second and third version boring =)
    SAB-84
    oh, by the way, I just re-read my message and I don't mean for the last sentence to come in sarcastic if it does, I did find this article helpful and just thought I should make that clear so there wasn't any misunderstandings. Anyways, peace. Thanks for the article James.
    Dan Acheron
    Awesome article James! A lot of useful information that will help improve my lyric writing.
    CrusadiaUK
    I also follow these guidelines, not always sticking to level 2 of detachment, but moving to 1 and 3 occasionally for extra effect. Will keep this in mind for future songs though! Brilliant article.
    Dream Floyd
    About the dictionary remark : Yes, there are around 2 million words in the unabridged Oxford English dictioary, but words are just combinations of letters, so technically a riff can have just as many possibilities as a dictionary ; for example, 1 bar can have 12^16 sixteenth notes, 12^8 eighth notes, 12^4 quarter notes, and if you change the rhythm up, the possibilities are endless.
    D&DLover
    Mildly helpful for beginners depending on what you're writing. Good to see some focus on lyrics, but most of these tips are extremely dependent on your goal and the ability of the songwriter. John Darnielle and many others write fantastic lyrics that violate most of these suggestions. Infinitely more effective than Bon Jovi :p: If you want decent lyrics for average songs that can slightly enhance the music, then this works. If you want great lyrics that enhance the music and stand alone, not so much.
    the deacon
    hey james- good article overall. have you read the book "songwriters on songwriting"? it's interesting that most writers write in different ways. some write from a title, some write from a hook, sometimes both lyrics and music come at the same time, etc. still a well written intro to songwriting for the novice