How To Write Lyrics
When learning how to write lyrics there's a few fundamentals to consider such as; viewpoint, song plot, timeframe, prosody & meter, and song theme.
These are the basics and getting a grasp of them is essential if you want to improve your lyric writing.
Remember what a song is made up of, 2 things... Music and Lyrics. A lot of songwriters find writing music a lot easier than writing lyrics. And because they struggle with writing song lyrics they tend to write any old rubbish just to get it over with, as long as it rhymes they're happy.
Don't let this be you!
Having great lyrics is what makes a good song a brilliant song. If a lyric can sound good on it's own without any music then you know you've done a good job.
So let's take a look at some of the basics of writing lyrics.
First things first, what exactly is the purpose of a lyric?
The purpose of a song lyric is one of the following:
- To express a feeling or an emotion
- To provide a common voice about societies issues and problems
- To tell a story, describe an experience
- To express a thought, an insight
A song usually focuses on one of these, sometimes it might use more than one but not very often. Keeping the purpose of your lyric in mind while writing will help keep your lyric focused, and a focused lyric will keep your listeners from getting confused.
So what else is there for you to keep in mind when learning how to write lyrics?
How To Write Lyrics - Viewpoint
When writing a lyric you need to consider your viewpoint.
- First Person - I/We
- Second Person - You
- Third Person - He/She/They
Say your lyric was “We will rock you” when you change the person to “He will rock you” or “She will rock you” it has a different feel and in Second Person it doesn’t really make any sense at all!
Viewpoint also affects your subject matter. Imagine you are writing a protest song. You are writing about a lazy local politician who doesn’t look after his constituency, your lyric could be “That’s it, we’ve had enough” by using “we” it implies that others agree with you already and carries more firepower than simply “I’ve had enough” which implies you alone are feeling fed up.
How To Write Lyrics - Time Frame
In language verbs change their tense depending on when an action takes place.
- Present Tense – Wearing, Cooking
- Past Tense – Wore, Cooked
- Future Tense - Wear, Cook
Consider the tense you wish to use in your lyric as, much like your viewpoint, it can really affect the way your song connects with listeners.
Remember that the way we write language down can differ to the way we speak it.
Sing or speak your lyrics back to yourself to get an idea if they work or not. If you notice you have changed tense in places be sure to correct it as you might confuse listeners.
How To Write Lyrics - Song Plot
Much like an author would have to plan a story or an illustrator would have to storyboard his comic you need to plot your lyrics if you want a song that flows.
An author would probably plan their book this way:
INTRO - BEGINNING - MIDDLE - CLIMAX - END
These are the bare bones of most books, adding more parts can help add variety but add too many and risk your work becoming messy. It’s a lot like cooking you want enough spices and herbs to keep things interesting but not so many that you spoil the soup.
This formula for writing books can be easily transferred to writing songs.
The most common songs in popular music follow this structure:
INTRO - VERSE - CHORUS - VERSE - CHORUS - END
Try to write your lyric in a way that builds steadily during verses to climax in chorus’s for maximum effect.
How To Write Lyrics - Song Theme
Now the fun part! To decide what you want to write about. The basic tradition of song writing can be traced right back to when folk musicians would gather locals round camp fires and hand down tales of triumph and sorrow through the medium of song.
Although the lutes have been swapped for guitars and the campfire for YouTube the general themes of lyric writing have remained the same.
It’s important to try and adjust the style of song to the lyric here are some loose boundaries.
We found love – Rhianna or She loves you – The Beatles
As long as you love me – The Backstreet Boys or I will always love you – Whitney Houston
Milkshake – Kelis, Let’s make love in this club – Usher
Break Stuff – Limp Bizkit, Killing in the name of – Rage Against the Machine
Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd or You can go your own way – Fleetwood Mac
By choosing a topic that is closely linked to the kind of music you want to write you will have a vast amount of songs to choose from to give you inspiration, for example if you are a pop artist trying to write a love song, then don’t be afraid to think outside the box, there have been lots of rock songs written about love!
Other lyrical themes you could think about are Money, Pride, Betrayal, Drugs, Friendship – pretty much anything! One tip many people use is to read a newspaper daily and jot down on a note pad any words or phrases that you like.
When you get stuck for a line you will be able to flick through your pad and find a phrase that fits!
How To Write Lyrics - Tonality
Words create a manner of different textures and sounds they can be crunchy, smooth, spiky, soft and even curvy. Take this example from The Sugar Hill Gang’s song Rappers Delight:
“ I said a hip, hop, the
Hippie, the hippie to the
Hip hip hoppa ya don’t
Stop the rockin to the
Bang-bang boogie said up
Jumps the boogie to the
Rhythm of the boogie the beat”
The lyrics make no sense but they work so well with the music because they follow the bass line. You can try this as a technique for writing if you already have musical parts arranged.
How To Write Lyrics - Prosody & Meter
When you sing you stress certain syllables and leave others unstressed, if you spoke like this all the time then people would think you were a little odd but it can be used in music to great effect.
The fancy word for it is Prosody, which also cover a few other areas such as the relationship between the tonality and the message of the lyric for example it’s best so sing a song about happiness and joy to a major chord rather than a minor, although it can work well doing the opposite on occasion.
Meter is the patterns found in prosody and the word for how they are measured. A lot of the time you will do this naturally but it can help to learn the patterns below to add to your ever growing arsenal of poetic and lyrical devices.
(The stressed section is in capitals)
Iamb – for example; Insane, goodbye, tonight, for good – ta TUM
Trochee – for example; healthy, wealthy, river – TUM ta
Ana pa est – for example; going out, making sense, understand – ta ta TUM
Have a go at stressing certain syllable over others once your lyrics are finished and see what effect it has on the mood of your song, always read through your lyrics as a whole, use clear pronunciation and keep tongue-twisters to a minimum if you want your lyrics to flow.
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