Note: I decided to write this post after responding to a thread on Reddit/r/weAreTheMusicMakers started by a musician who froze every time he tried to write. So, this is an extension of my comments there. (Hello to any redditors who may be visiting!) Since it is about writing, there may be some crossover with my post on "Building Your Song."
Writing lyrics is a unique skill that needs to be developed independently from your musical abilities. It's the art of saying everyday things in unusual or interesting ways. Perhaps because most lyrics revolve around the ordinary, many people seem to think that anyone could do it, and do it well, on their first attempt.
Writing lyrics isn't as easy as it seems. Hell, it may even take practice.
Years ago, my significant other and one of her friends decided that they wanted to write lyrics for a song they overheard me working on. I was happy to play along. After a long period of brainstorming, writing, and rewriting, they read over what they had... it was horrible. Turns out, writing is not as easy as it seems. Hell, it might even take practice.
It's been my experience that this mindset isn't limited to "civilians." Many musicians treat lyrics as an afterthought... nothing more than meaningless phrases to act as tent-poles for the music. They can be that. However, some lyricists - true artists who take their craft seriously - write lyrics that could change someone's mood, their mind, or their life.
So, how do you do it? Well, I'll give you the basics of how I do it. There are other tips and refinements that we'll talk about in a future post, but let's cover the simplest stuff first. Take what works for you, leave what doesn't, develop your own method.
The first step to writing lyrics is to realize that at the end of the day, they are just words... marks on a page. They mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. So take some pressure off of yourself. The world will not explode if you try and fail to write good lyrics.
True, the words you write could have an impact on another person someday, but that doesn't matter during this early phase. Words come first, meaning and impact comes later.
Another side of that point is to realize that many artists - some of them quite famous and successful - make shit up, and because of the magic of art and the way people interpret it, it SOUNDS like they're quite deep.
So, you can always choose this method if you get desperate or lazy. Read the lyrics of the songs below (you can Google them so I don't get into any re-printing/copyright issues) before you read the backstories. For example:
Ryan Adams - "Magnolia Mountains" from the "Cold Roses" album. - Read the lyrics? What do you think they mean? Well... On an episode of World Cafe Live, Ryan claimed that he wrote "Magnolia Moutains" about a porn star from the 80's. Did you have any idea that's what it was about?
New Pornographers - "Letter From An Occupant." - What do you think this song is about? Carl Newman said that he just liked the way the phrase sounded, and it fit the melody. The words are totally meaningless.
Gillian Welch - the entire "Harrow & the Harvest" album. Pretty fascinating lyrics, right? Gillian confessed to Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" that the lyrics were more about mood than literal meaning. So, the words are basically a mish-mash of things that sound cool.
If you think you should write a hit every time you put pen to paper, you will get frustrated.
You need to realize is that writing lyrics is a process. In most cases, the first draft of your lyrics will not be your last. You start with something, you patch it up here and there, you play it through, you patch again, you play it with a band, you re-write the thing from scratch. That's totally normal. It's only when you think you should write a hit every time you pick up a pen that frustration sets in.
The situations where someone "writes a hit song in 10 minutes" are the exception, not the rule. In many cases, I would guess that such stories are probably exaggerations, publicity moves, or outright lies to make it seem like the song was out in the universe and the artist just pulled it out of thin air, fully formed.
People love inspiring stories like that, probably because it makes them feel like they'll be blessed by the universe some day, but it's not often the reality of things. Writing meaningful, cohesive, impactful lyrics takes work.
Lyrics are an art form. There are many styles, and many techniques for crafting them. It's important to remember, as with any art, that people will interpret your lyrics how THEY want to interpret them, and there's nothing you can do about it aside from spelling out, "THIS SONG IS ABOUT MY GIRLFRIEND. SHE'S PRETTY AND I LOVE HER."
It can be quite painful to hear what people think your songs are about.
That's certainly a route you can take, but if you don't want to be QUITE that literal, you will have to come to terms with the fact that once you put your work "out there," it is no longer just yours. It is now part of other people's worlds, and theirs to interpret. Believe me, it can be quite painful to hear what people think your songs are about. That's just an inescapable part of the world lyricists live in.
The world loves to imagine who Taylor Swift is writing about. They break down every phrase, assuming that each one refers to a specific person or literal event...
...However, it could be that she's writing to every man she's ever met. Or about her poodle. Or that she's creating a story from scratch. Or that a team of writers are crafting the perfect song for Taylor's audience based on market research. You'll never know, but as a consumer/listener, it's your privilege to interpret how you wish.
It's very strange... several of the songs that I've written about events that NEVER HAPPENED are the ones that seem to have the deepest connection with people. They often assume that I went through this painful experience to come up with the song... to the point of asking if I'm okay. I'm fine, I just made stuff up.
On the other hand, some of the songs that I poured my heart, pain, soul, and real life into are the ones that people think are meaningless or made up. Oh well. All you can do is create. The world's job is to interpret and critique.
In my mind, there's several different stylistic categories lyrics fall into. None of them are "better" than another. They all have their place.
You don't necessarily have to decide what category your song is going to be when you're writing, but it can be helpful to have a general idea where you want to head. Once you reach the editing phase, you'll definitely want to decide which genre you're working with. The categories I came up with are:
Confessional - Whether or not the events/feelings in the song are literally true, it FEELS like they're true. If you're writing this type, it's quite possible you're holding an acoustic guitar or playing a white piano. (Dashboard Confessional - "Screaming Infidelities", Jason Isbell - "Elephant")
Abstract/Stream of consciousness - Random disconnected thoughts, basically a dream sequence. Metal and Prog love this category. (Queen - "Bohemian Rhapsody", Radiohead - "Sit Down, Stand Up")
Story - There are characters who meet and conflict or come together, and they have an ending, whether it's happy or sad. (Taylor Swift - "Mine", Harry Chapin - "Cat's in the Cradle")
Novelty - The artist and the listener know the song is silly, but fun. (Presidents of the United States of America - "Peaches", Flight of the Conchords - "Business Time")
Literal - What you say is what you mean. Contemporary Country and some branches of Hip-Hop are big on this one. (Zac Brown Band - "Toes", Jeremih - "Birthday Sex")
Feeling/Vibe - This is more about the general emotions you experienced relative to a time or place or person. It's broad, but still meaningful. Metal and Alt-Rock like this kind of thing. (Evanescence - "Going Under", Foo Fighters - "The Pretender")
This part isn't complicated. Choose a "voice" and stick with it throughout the song. There's plenty of reading you can do about this online if you'd like to look into it further.
Choose a voice and a rhyme scheme, and stick to them.
First person: "I, we"
"I fell in love the first time I saw her"
Second person: "You, your, yours"
"You never said you belonged to someone else"
Third person: "She, he, it"
"She hit me and then it hit me that she was in love"
A rhyme scheme is a way to keep your rhymes consistent. If you deviate from it, your song will sound unfinished or weird. Some artists like to play with that convention by setting up an expectation and then leaving the listener hanging, but you should learn the rule before you break it.
There is no "correct" rhyme scheme to use, as long as you use one and stick to it. The first phrase sets up your scheme. We refer to each line with letters to help map things out.
"A" is the first phrase. Every phrase that rhymes with it is also "A." "B" is the first phrase that doesn't rhyme with "A." Every phrase that rhymes with "B" is also "B." Same with "C" and so on. For example:
I never felt so powerless (A)
Compared to this (A)
While sitting next to you (B)
Too tired to run (A)
Too tired to stand here and fight (B)
So I'll say you've won (A)
If it means you'll quit for tonight (B)
We watched Rick and Ilsa (A)
Fall in love (B)
At our favorite place (C)
There's any number of combinations or variations. Again, no right answer. Just pick one and stick to it. When I'm writing, I often put the letters in parentheses at the end of every line to be sure that I'm holding to my scheme.
The best way to start any song is to use a notebook or notebook app (Google Docs, Evernote). When you're walking around the mall, watching TV, having a conversation, whatever, and you have an idea, WRITE IT DOWN.
Do NOT assume that you will remember your idea. You WON'T. Inspiration comes at the most inconvenient times, so you have to be ready for it. "The dullest pencil is better than the sharpest mind."
If you're not feeling inspired when you're ready to sit down and write, just go to your notes and pick something. Think of random words that associate with that phrase. If you can't think of anything that ties in, just make up nonsense words. You can always go back later and add in words that have meaning.
Many, if not all, lyricists do this. Here's a few examples of demos/lyrics that started out rough, but were eventually refined into hit songs.
Another "tool" or best practice to use is to KEEP EVERYTHING. I can't tell you how many times I've cannibalized an old song to improve a new one. This is especially helpful if you tend to write about the same things or themes.
One particular bridge I wrote years ago went through half a dozen iterations and melodies before it finally made it into a finished song. You never know, so make sure you keep your stuff.
The other tool that will come in very handy is a rhyme dictionary. In the old days, you actually had to pay for one of these, but in our modern age, the internet is riddled with them. Just open the site of your choice, type in the word you're playing with, and you'll be handed a large number of options that will help you generate ideas.
"The first draft of anything is shit." - Kurt Vonnegut
When you write, write. Do NOT edit. This is where a lot of people go wrong and freeze up. You are literally word-vomiting on the page. It's not going to be good. So what? The creative portion of your brain and the editing portion, though closely related to each other, are enemies, and should rarely be allowed to share the same space.
The writing portion of your brain and the editing portion of your brain are enemies. Don't let them share the same space.
So, you invite the writer in you to take control. There's no judgment here. You pour out nonsense, good stuff, bad stuff, and everything in between. Just let it flow.
Again, you may even use placeholder words during this phase. I have a couple of go-to phrases that end up being the bedrock for almost every song sketch. They're only there to get the song structure in place, then I come back and replace them with the real thing when I'm ready to edit.
When it's time to edit, you're doing cleanup work. Does the song make sense? Can your 11-year-old sister read it and know what you're talking about? Are you using cliches? ("we almost had it all, you always catch me when I fall" -- Try to avoid using the word "fall" it all possible.) Did you maintain a rhyme scheme and a consistent voice?
One good editing trick (I can't remember where I heard this) is to pull out each line one at a time, and see if the song still makes sense. This is called "economy" or being concise. You want to say what you have to say with as few words as possible. That's a skill that comes with time.
It may help to have someone else look at your work and get their feedback on what can stay and what can go. You may be too close or too attached to think objectively about what's working.
Editing is an important skill, but like I keep saying, it is a skill, and takes practice. Don't be precious about your work. Be aggressive. Trim as much fat as possible. Whenever possible though, keep drafts. In Evernote and Google Docs, I have SONG 1 - REVISION 1, SONG 1 - REVISION 2, and so on. You may cut something out and realize later that you want it back. Make sure you have it stored somewhere just in case.
If you've done all the prep work of coming up with an idea, a voice, a style, and you don't have much to work with, or it feels like it could be better but you don't know how or why, there are a couple of ways to grease your creative engine.
Few songwriters have ever written about an amicable breakup where the two people stayed friends.
Sometimes, the best way to communicate with lyrics is to take a normal situation or story, and "push" the details a little bit. Audiences love drama, but they also love being able to guess at what's going on in your lyrics. Some lyricists prefer to be obscure and use a lot of subtlety, but most of us have to make things a little clearer or more interesting by adding some "flavor."
For example, let's say you had a breakup, and you decide to write a song about it. Few songwriters have ever written about an amicable breakup where the two people stay friends. That's not very interesting.
Breakup songs are about drama, so even if you managed to keep things civil with your ex in real life, when it comes to your song, there should probably be some holes in the wall from your fist (Dashboard Confessional), initials keyed into the person's car (Carrie Underwood), or drunken phone calls at 1am (Lady Antebellum).
DO THE OPPOSITE THING
Another way to add more interest to a song is to take a real-life situation and play the "alternate universe" game. What would have happened if instead of working a dead-end job for years, you quit, traveled across the country, and started a family in each state? What zany antics would ensue? If you went left, go right, if you turned around, stay the course. Songs are playgrounds, so have fun.
CHOOSE A WINNER
If there's drama or conflict, someone has to win, whether it's the narrator/hero, the opponent, or a third party. Figuring this out can help guide the theme of your song. It may even SEEM like someone's winning or losing, but then the tables turn. Tricky to do in the average 3-4 minute song, but writers do it all the time.
Take "Put a Ring on it" by Beyonce as an example. The first verse describes a breakup where it's unclear who left whom. But when we hit the chorus, the narrator makes it clear that she's not playing the victim by essentially saying, "If you didn't want to see me with other guys, you should have committed."
You have to put in the work.
Like any skill, art, or craft, you have to put in the time and work. One of the simplest warm-up exercises I use is to look around the room, find an object, literally any object, and write a song about it. I see a plant that's teetering on death's door. Okay. I could write something obvious like:
You leave me every fall (Hah! Get it? "Leave" me?)
No real insight, nothing interesting (aside from a fantastic pun), and if I kept that going, it'd probably be painfully clear that I'm talking to a fern. That's no fun. However, if I soften the edges a little bit, we could go with:
long arms shining in the sun
a country girl
who grew up in the dirt
I gave her everything
I thought she needed
but she only gave me hurt
I see her lying there
slowly giving up the ghost
does my love have any worth
It's not going to win any Grammys, but if I didn't tell you that was about a houseplant, you'd probably never guess. You can literally write a song about ANYTHING. All you have to do is study the thing/person/experience. Break it down. Tear it apart. Put it back together. Write nonsense, then shape the meaning as you edit and refine.
Take any situation or object and put it into relationship terms. Country writers use this convention all the time.
Example 1: You don't own a truck, you loved that truck for years. You went through the mud together. (This is a metaphor.) It was your best friend, more loyal than any woman, and when it died, it left a hole in your heart that can never be filled.
Example 2: You don't just have a favorite baseball bat, you have a maple good luck charm that brought you fame and fortune, and got the attention of the girl of your dreams. As you sit there in a wooden rocking chair, holding a glass of maple bourbon, you think back to that day when you and your friend hit the game-winning homerun, which took you to places you never imagined.
Do this exercise as often as possible. A song a day 6/7 days of the week would be a good place to start. If you're just starting out, your work is probably going to suck, and suck hard, for a good long while. Even if you have some experience, most of your work is going to be throwaway. I've got several books and probably more than a hundred Google Docs and Evernotes full of unused lyrics. No one starts out at the top of their game. You have to practice the fundamentals before you can play in the big leagues.
But, if you keep at it, you will improve. It won't always feel that way. Which is another reason why you should never ever throw out your old work. Keep it close by, and go read it every now and then to see how you've improved or changed.
I'd also recommend reading lyrics of songs you like instead of just listening to them. See how the pro's do it. Lyrics feel very different on the page when they're separated from their music.
Some lyricists are born, but most are made through years of failure and challenging practice. Work at it. Suck. Try again. Go back and look at your old stuff. You'll see growth, I promise. Never stop studying and practicing. All the best.