Notes for a 1.5 hour lecture/tutorial I'm giving on how to write lyrics. They are accompanied by a selection of examples of lyrics, songs on tape, and a writing exercise.
discipline of writing a good lyric is entirely different from any other exercise
in writing. It has elements in
common with writing poetry, of course, but few lyrics stand alone as good
poetry, and few poems sound as good when set to music.
It's the marriage of words and music that make a song good - or instantly
the lyric comes first, the music after, so you may think that it's the job of
the composer to come up with the right tune for your wonderful art, but that's
not the case - both elements need to work, and the lyric has to have certain key
features to hang a tune off. In
fact, there are many lyrics that would sound equally good sung to a completely
different tune than the one they're known for.
speaking, songs fall into three categories, whether they're fast or slow,
country or rap, loud or quiet:
The personal emotion song:
love you", "I hurt so bad", "All I wanna do is dance"
The narrative song:
name was Cane and he was a miner" "She knew that she would be the prom
queen", "I took my motorbike and hit the road"
The mystery song:
to work out what this set of images means"
Rhyme and Repetition
lyric must have a consistent rhythm in order for it to be suitable for setting
to music. It can divide into three sections each with their own rhythm: verse,
chorus, and interval, but each of those must be internally consistent. Like
meter in poetry, rhythm is the
pattern of stressed syllables in a line of your lyric. This pattern is based on
the natural way, in speech, that one syllable is emphasised where two or more
syllables are spoken together.
E.g.: a-dore, be-side, danc-ing
poetry however, you can hold a note, so the rhythm is reliant primarily on the
stressed syllables, and the unstressed ones are
less important. In
addition, by extending a note, you can effectively give a syllable double
stress. (bold syllables are stressed, underlined ones extended)
my troubles seemed so far away
it looks as if they're here to stay
I believe in yesterday
Slow down, you move too fast
You gotta make the morning last, just
up the cobblestones
for love and feeling groovy
the rhyme structure in a song is also often looser than a structured poem, very
few songs exist that are entirely without rhyme - because songs are meant to be
remembered and sung and rhyme assists memory. Poetry which does adapt well to
being set to music is almost invariably that with a strong meter and insistent
rhyme - such as T.S. Eliot's "Old Posssums Book of Practical Cats"
rhyme doesn't have to be perfect, it can be a "slant rhyme" where the
vowel sound makes the ear hear a rhyme, but it does need to be there:
can take me where you will
the creek and through the mill
all the things you can't explain
seasons in one day
song, invariably, will have some repetitive element within it
-- either a single line, or a collection of lines - a chorus.
This structure, again, helps with memorising the song, and reinforces the
key message, whether that's "I feel so bad since you left me" or
"getting drunk with your mates is the best feeling in the world.".
Plan this element and the words you use here first, and more carefully than anything
else - This is where you say what you want to be remembered.
are the champions my friend
we'll keep on fighting till the end
are the champions, we are the champions,
time for losers, 'cos we are the champions
gonna be the one who saves me?
want to live like common people
want to do whatever common people do
want to sleep with common people
want to sleep with common people like you."
Bye Miss American Pie
my Chevy to the levee, But the levee was dry
good old boys were drinkin' whisky and rye
this'll be the day that I die
it or not, there are some subjects that make good songs and others that don't.
Outside musicals, nearly all the popular songs you'll find will be about:
out of love,
- throwing love away
- infidelity in love (adultery, cheating and so on)
a motorbike or in a car
by with the help of your friends
in dramatic or unusual situations
it can, and can't, buy
wonderful it is
songs make you laugh or cry
course, you can have songs about other things - your favourite dog, how sweet
your grandma is, how you woke up one morning to see pink elephants in your
bedroom - you may even find they're very successful, but unless you are already
a very well-known artist, or intend only to write comedy, they are the road to
oblivion. Novelty songs are one-hit
wonders, more often than not, and where they aren't, they're almost impossible
to live down.
your own lyrics to well known tunes is excellent practice for song-writing, and
something we all do from early childhood:
shepherds washed their socks by night...
gives you practice in working within rhythm structures, and arranging words so
that they flow in a complementary way with music.
It isn't easy, since you need to match your lyrics exactly to
the syllable count and stresses of the original piece, but it's an excellent
discipline for getting in the habit of thinking in rhythmic structures.
addition, you can use established tunes that match the rhythm of the song you
are trying to write to check whether the flow of the words is working.
writing, take time to read the words aloud, beating time with the stresses in
the lyric to ensure consistency and to avoid the wrong syllable being stressed
when the music is set to the lyric - the syllables you want to emphasise must
always fall with the beat.
is the hardest thing for any songwriter to achieve - with the limited number of
subjects to play with, every new song makes it harder to find ways of putting
old ideas across in original ways, especially given the constraints of rhyme -
there are, after all, only so many words that rhyme with love.
But still, people keep coming up with new ideas - it's just a case of
looking outside the box - rather than saying my love is deeper than the
ocean how about saying I love you so much it makes me angry that
everyone can't feel this good?
Use images that you are comfortable with,
think about how you talk, and write the words that way. The feelings you are
describing may not be original, but only you know how they feel to you --
that's where your song becomes new.