work the mic

How to Write Lyrics: Level 2


October 16th, 2014

Once you've gotten a handle on the basics of writing lyrics, there are some trickier skills to master. If you want your listeners to remember your lyrics, it's not enough to scribble down your feelings and hope for the best. You have to give the audience a phrase they can't forget, you have to perfectly seat your lyrics in the rhythm of the song, and you have to constantly challenge yourself to improve your writing.

THE HOOK

If you want your song stuck in someone's head, you have to slather your song in glue.

This may be the most important facet of songwriting. If you want your song stuck in someone's head, you have to slather your song in glue. By that I mean, you'll pack in a lyrical hook, a melodic hook, an instrumental hook, and a bridge that's basically a different, but no less memorable chorus. That's covered in other posts, so we won't spend time and energy on it here.

When I say lyrical "hook," all I mean is a memorable phrase. Preferably, it should be UNFORGETTABLE. This is quite frequently, but not always, the chorus. It's the first phrase you think of when someone mentions a song to you.

I've noticed that the hook is often an idiom, or a phrase that you'd use in everyday speech. For example, "I won't back down" by Tom Petty in the song of the same name, "Ooh la la" in Grace Potter's "Paris," or "All hell can't stop us now" in Rage Against the Machine's "Guerilla Radio."

The human mind can only hold so much information. A listener can only remember so many lyrics, so it's up to you to craft a phrase/melody/performance/etc. that will let them easily recall your music, and draw them back to it time and time again.

You want your listeners to say (to themselves or others) "ooh, that's catchy," or "that's clever," or even "huh." If you can get them to chuckle or smile, you're got it made.

Sometimes, the hook comes first, and you build the rest of the song around it. Other times, you have to use nonsense words as placeholders, then come back and insert the unforgettable parts. It doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you DO IT.

Looking back to last week's post, I'd suggest writing down any phrases you hear in everyday conversation that seem memorable. When you're ready to write your song, you can pull from the list you've put together.

THE POCKET

This lesson came to me a little late in the game, and it's somewhat difficult for me to explain, but I'll try. Every song has a rhythm, which could come from a drum, a bass, a banjo, an acoustic guitar, a piano, finger snaps... really almost any musical instrument.

Your lyrics should never sound forced. They have to fit perfectly.

Generally speaking, whatever melody you create for a song should work with that rhythm. Beyond that, whatever lyrics you write should fit within that melody without sounding like you FORCED them in.

In the time my band has been playing out, we've been handed dozens of CDs from other musicians. Some of them have had great music, beautiful melodies, catchy hooks, and intriguing lyrical ideas, but the songs felt "off." It almost sounded like some of their phrases were rushed or squeezed.

This may seem small, but it can absolutely ruin a song. It's like when you're watching a movie, and you see the film crew in a mirror behind the actor. It breaks the "magic" of the song.

As an example, think of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." The lyrics are:

twinkle, twinkle, little star
how I wonder what you are

Now imagine the lyrics were altered to the ones below, but be sure to keep the exact same melody and timing:

twinkle, twinkle, my beautiful little star
how I wonder precisely just where you are

It doesn't "fit," right? Something feels off? You have to rush to squeeze everything in, and it just doesn't work. This is the sin a lot of lyricists commit... they're trying to fit too many of their precious lyrics into a given space, which pulls the song out of the "pocket" or "groove." This issue can sometimes can be very difficult to figure out. You have to feel it out and play with it.

This is where editing plays a critical role. Once the melody, rhythm, and basic lyrics have been worked out, you have to go back into your song and find where the lyrics feel out of place. You may have to replace words, add or remove them, or re-write entire sections in order to make sure phrases match.

One of the best tools you have to fix these issues are small words like "a," "oh," "but," "you," "yeah," or "'cus." They can help to seat the lyrics into the melody, and can be used almost anywhere. Example:

twinkle, twinkle little star
how I wonder what you are
up above the world so high
like a diamond in the sky

The "up" before "above" is a bit redundant in terms of meaning. If you say the star is "above the world," and "so high" you really don't NEED to mention that it's "up." However, that little word, "up" puts the melody and the lyrics in the pocket.

Try singing the phrase "up above the world so high" without the "up." You almost make a sound similar to "uh" or "up" if you think about the rhythm when removing the "up." Part of that is your memory of the song, and part of it is the rhythm begging to be matched with a word.

This element of writing isn't limited to Pop/Rock/Country/Metal, etc. When rappers talk about "flow," it has a lot to do with what we're discussing here. The melodic quality of Eminem's or Jay-Z's lyrics (sorry kids, I'm old, I don't know who's good these days) are so impressive because they sound like they were MEANT to be in the pocket that they're in. That's what you're looking for - the audience should never question the placement of your words.

I hope this is making some sense. It would probably be easier for me to communicate this to you in person, but it's much more challenging to translate into text. If you'd like to discuss it further, or if you can think of a better way to communicate it, shoot me a message in the comments or by email.

DIRTY LAUNDRY

In the U.S., there is a common saying (or idiom) that goes, "[don't] air out your dirty laundry in public." It means, don't say anything private in front of people who shouldn't hear it.

You may think your lyrics are obscure or discreet, but your loved ones can see right through you.

When it comes to lyrics, especially confessional lyrics, you may want to be conscious of the fact that other people in your life could be hurt or offended by some of the things you write. You may think you're being obscure or discreet when you're writing, but the people who know and love you can often see through you and your art.

This is a lesson that came to me at some cost, mostly because I was misunderstood, or because someone got into my notebook and read scratch lyrics that hadn't been edited, and weren't ready to be read or heard. If you're taking thoughts out of your head and life and putting them on paper, you are taking a risk that the other people in your life may be affected.

I'm also very conscious of using swear words in my music. It may seem very "metal" to throw a ton of f-bombs into your songs, but it's much less "metal" to have your boss tell you that your company won't be needing your services anymore because your extra-curricular activities don't represent the company's corporate values.

Music is therapeutic, a way for you to channel emotion and feeling. This process can occasionally allow you to go into areas of your mind and life that you haven't previously explored, which is usually a very good thing. Just be careful.

FUEL YOUR WRITING

If you're out of gas, fuel up by getting away from music and getting into something else.

After you've written a number of songs, you may find yourself running out of steam, or gas, energy, or your metaphorical fuel of choice. The best way to replenish this energy is to get away from music for a period of time, however long or short, and go do things. Preferably things you haven't done before. Go visit new places, talk to new people, read different books, listen to new music.

I have no scientific explanation as to why this works, but I have seen it work in myself and others many times. New experiences lead to more and better songs. Don't limit yourself, either. Some of the biggest energy boosts I've gotten have come from reading and watching science fiction, though most of the songs inspired by that stuff don't show it. If you're passionate about something, the overflow of your passion will seep into your writing.

DON'T STOP

Once you've gotten your mind around the many facets of lyric writing, it's easy to get comfortable. DON'T. Challenge yourself. Hone your work. Get feedback from new sources. Go back and study the fundamentals. Otherwise, your lazy attitude will translate into stale lyrics. Writing is a craft, which means it's not like riding a bike... your skills can slip.

We've all heard lyrics from musicians who have been out of the game a long time and are trying to make a comeback... sometimes it's clear they haven't kept up their craft. If you want to constantly improve, you have to work at it.

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