How Anyone Can Write Better Lyrics
by David Schindler
I listen to the radio a lot. Every day, as a matter of fact, because I like to know what's happening in music, and if I can tell you a secret, I kind of pride myself on being the first one to tell my friends and family when a new song is going to be a monster hit. I like the smug way I feel when my wife rushes into the house about two weeks later and says "Oh God! I heard the greatest song today!" She then proceeds to tell me a few of the words, and more often than not, it's the very same tune that I picked out of the pile.
I find this interesting. Not that I can pick the hit: anyone who is serious about music and songwriting has a pretty good chance of being able to do that. What fascinates me is the process by which a song works its way into the public's brain. Music on the radio has to compete with a huge array of competition, and most of it is downright ugly. We're talking traffic here, and breakfast, and screaming kids, and Hockey Night in Canada. Go ahead. Ask around. Publishers and others in the know will tell you that the average listener must hear a song at least 10 times before they even get an inkling tha they might like it, and then maybe another 20 times before they can recognize even a SINGLE LINE of the lyric.
How depressing. Especially if you happen to be the poor slob who wrote the words.
"Just a minute", you say. "If the lyrics are so secondary to the hit making process, then why did you make such a big deal a couple of paragraphs back about your wife reciting them?"
Okay. Good question. The answer lies in that remarkable something that happens as our lowly pop tune sprouts like a seed, and begins to wind its little roots down into your heart.
You see, anyone who LIKES a song likes it because of the package - the rhythm, the arrangement, the tone and style of the vocal an so on. But when LIKE turns to LOVE, as it sometimes does, it's almost always because of the words. Poetry is what gives a song its heart, its soul, and its staying power.
Here are some things that any writer can do to improve his or her lyrics:
BUY A RHYMING DICTIONARY
Okay. Shakespeare didn't use one, but I do, and so should you. The "little black book" has gotten me out of more jams than I care to remember, and reading through the entries can give you a ton of inspiration. Rhyming dictionaries are divided into several sections, each with its own charms. There are "pure" rhymes, like moon and June, and "near" rhyms, like blood and love. You probably already thought of those. Look a little further, though. It's in the sections with 2, 3, and 4 syllable offerings that the book really shines. Who would think of "porcupine" and "concubine", or "ergonomic" and "subatomic", or an internal rhyme like "unconscious" and "responsive".
For great rhymes, check out: Anything by Paul Simon; anything by Stephen Sondheim.
Rhymesaurus is an example of a powerful rhyming dictionary you can install on your computer. You can download a free trial or find out more information about the software.
WHAT'S YOUR POINT?
Every great lyric tells a story. It doesn't have to be a complicated story, but it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and like any good piece of romantic fiction, it ought to have a climax. You don't need to be fancy. The poetry will come. the important thing in the initial stages is to establish a point of view, just like any writer does, and stick to it. Don't, for instance, sit in a bar mourning over a lost love while looking at a hundred women passing by (none of whom interest you), and then pick up number 101 because of a sudden and unexplained change of attitude. Don't do three verses on how great your wedding day will be and then leave the guy at the altar for no apparent reason. Don't write a song about a little girl who misses a dead grandparent and then buy her a horse in the last line to make her feel better. These sound like easy traps to avoid, but you wouldn't believe the number of times that you can start out writing about one thing and end up writing about something entirely different.
Your story, like any good piece of fiction, must be logical. If you have holes in your plot, it will make the listener uneasy. They may not know why, but they won't like your song. Of course, the last idea you have may be better than the one you started out with. In that case, start over and rewrite the beginning.
For great storytelling: Anything by Harry Chapin; anything by Dan Fogelburg.
ISN'T THAT IRONIC?
Irony is one of the critical elements of fiction, and poetry in particular. We like irony because it creates tension and promotes thought. Life is full of delicious little ironies. A couple of weeks ago, a colleague sent me a song that had a line about love letters written in black, blowing around on the floor of the subway. I couldn't, (and still can't) get the image out of my mind. The contrast between the permanence of love and black ink, and the very temporary nature of garbage and subways made a very strong impression on me. When things strike you as ironic, write them in your notebook. If you want better lyrics, use those ideas. If you want a better definition of irony, rent "Reality Bites".
My current favorite irony lyric: "It Looks Like Rain", by Jann Arden Richards and Robert Foster
DON'T WASTE WORDS
The song lyric has to be the most structured, restricted and frustrating art form on earth. Unlike the poet, who by her very nature strives to be inventive and ground breaking, you, the songwriter, have to get in and get out in under four minutes, tell a story that is recognizable over the din, make everything rhyme and scan, and steal the listener's heart. Every single word that doesn't belong in your lyric is just another pothole in that road. So...do some repairs. Once you have your lyric on paper, go through it, and cross out every word that you threw in just to make it scan, or rhyme, or whatever, (and I mean every single "and", and "but", and "Baby", and "cause", and "You know I", etc. etc.)
There. The measly pile that you have left is the beginning of your song. Now you can start the real work of replacing those words, one at a time, with words that mean something to your story. Don't stop until every single scrap of information contributes to the final goal.
Not a single wasted word?: Anything by David Gates
LIFE IS A HIGHWAY
Think back. Way back. Remember your English prof? The one who used to say things like "extended metaphor"? Well, that's what your song can be: a comparison that runs on a common thread throughout the piece. Some of the most beautiful lyrics on earth are extended metaphors, and the people who write them are among the most talented of writers. A relationship can be compared to almost anything if you put the right group of images together. Use your imagination. Is your love affair like a prize fight? A 3 act play? A comedy routine? An auto repair shop? A seventy piece orchestra? The possibilities are endless, and often a little snip is all you need to get you started. The ideas don't have to be difficult, because you want to make sure the listener gets the point, but the metaphor must be crystal clear and logical from beginning to end. You can't start with a stock car race and end with a horse race.
No contest on this one: Desperado, by Don Henley and Glen Frey
VISIT YOUR GRAMMAR
The second "little black book" that every songwriter should own is "The Elements of Style". Anyone who ever took a college writing course is familiar with this tiny tome, and if you're not, visit your bookstore. Good writers like to show off their love of the language, and that means demonstrating that you know your English.
Before you start to jump up and down, I'm not talking about things like "I ain't the kind..." or "It don't matter.." etc., etc. Obviously, such phrases are perfectly acceptable in modern lyric writing, because they lend reality and a down to earth quality to the song.
I guess the best rule here is: "don't forsake the stylistic content of your lyric in order to use good English, but don't be lazy either". Watch your tenses, and sentence structures, and make sure your pronouns and adjectives and adverbs all connect like they are supposed to. You will be prouder of your work, and other writers will notice the extra effort. Promise.
Perfect English every time: Anything by Tim Rice
PRACTICE PRACTCE PRACTICE - REWRITE REWRITE REWRITE
Sometimes I think I sound like a broken record on this one, but if there is one thing that a successful writer MUST be able to do, it's to have the tenacity to hang around until everthing is perfect. Your song can always be better. Your images can always be sharper, your contrasts more profound, your grammar better, and your point more accessible. You labor hard on your songs, mostly for no money, because you love the art form and take pride in your work. Stay on the road, and be like a dog with a bone. No, wait: Stay on the road like a dog stays on a bone. No, wait: Stay on your song like a dog with a bone. (sigh)
STAY ON YOUR SONG LIKE A DOG ON A T-BONE
See what I mean??
See you next time!
This is great, David, but just how do we learn to DO all of these things???
Good question. The ability (or at least that maddening obsession) to write is by and large a natural (God given, if you're so inclined) talent, but ANYBODY can learn to write better than they already do. There are quite a number of books that will help you learn to write better. If you're low on general English, check out the bookstore. You'll find dozens of books with short exercises that will improve your skills, and stimulate your imagination. If you want books specifically directed at songwriting, you may find a couple of those as well, but the best resource is trade magazines, such as "Songwriter". They always have books and other materials for sale, and many are quite good.
There are also software programs that you might find useful for your songwriting - especially when it comes to organizing and inspiring your thoughts:
© 1996 David E. Shindler
Reprinted by permission.