Monday, February 23, 2009

Improving Your Lyrics

Songwriting is a multi-faceted art. Finding just the right combination of notes or chords is only one part of the equation. There's song structure to figure out, the arrangement of instruments, and if you're writing music with vocals, there's coming up with a vocal melody, and just as importantly, the lyrics themselves.

It's unfortunate that the importance of lyrics is often overlooked, but given how widespread the sort of 'lowest common denominator' lyrics tend to be in popular music, it's perhaps not surprising. Still, just because Britney Spears doesn't have anything interesting to say, doesn't mean you shouldn't still strive to make your lyrics the best they can be. While low-brow lyrics can often add to the mainstream appeal of a song, the songs that tend to be remembered in the long-term often do so because they have well-crafted lyrics that people can relate to ("Louie, Louie" notwithstanding...)

Lyric writing isn't easy for most of us, but there is a lot you can to make it less troublesome and to improve the end result. Everyone works differently so there are no 'universal rules', but today I thought I'd share some things I've found useful over the years.

1.Read, Read, Read!

One of the best things you can do to improve any kind of writing is to read as much as you can from other writers. This is probably the easiest single thing you can do to improve your lyrics, as you tend to absorb aspects of good writing almost via osmosis as you go along. Any sort of serious reading will help, but for the purposes of lyric-writing reading poetry and well-written lyrics from other musicians can be extremely helpful. Break down and analyze lyrics you find really effective and figure out what it is specifically that makes them that way. Pay attention to the use of imagery, word choice, and rhythm. You're not looking to copy anyone, just to isolate what they're doing that makes their lyrics work so well. Then you can apply some of those broad concepts to your own work. I'll provide two suggestions to get you started:

Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs by Leonard Cohen. Widely regarded as one of the best lyricists alive today, Leonard Cohen should be required reading for any lyricist. This book combines the lyrics to most of his songs, along with his poetry.

The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry edited by Alan Kaufman. Anthologies can be a great way of studying a wide variety of writers with minimal investment. This particular one is a good one to start with for people not ordinarily into poetry as it focuses more on modern poets, and especially those associated with the counterculture... so it's a bit more rock n' roll.

2. Tools of the Trade

Two things no lyric-writer should be without are a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus. Fortunately, a quick search of Google will give you a number of both online that are absolutely free. Both of these can be invaluable in finding the right word when you're stuck. Alternately, you can check out a computer program such as Masterwriter 2, which is a suite of tools for songwriters all contained in a single program. I use the first version of this program, so I can't vouch for the current version, but the first version has definitely been helpful to me personally.

3. Get a Notebook

Personally, I prefer to compose my lyrics in a notebook. Call me old-fashioned, but I find it much more pleasant and convenient than sitting at a computer keyboard. It also allows me to organize things on a page with more flexibility than your typical word processor allows. Regardless of how you do your actual lyrical composition, a notebook is good to have as it allows you to write down ideas whenever they pop into your head (which is often not when you are in the studio). Write down everything, no matter how unsure you are about it. No one needs to see it, and even if an idea doesn't get used in its raw form, it might be the seed for something that you do use.

4. Write About What You Know

While there is nothing wrong with writing about fictional situations or events you didn't experience yourself, the best lyrics tend to be the ones that are filtered through the writer's personal experience. This is because one person's personal experience often speaks to the human experience itself, and somewhere out there, someone is going to really relate to what you're saying. There is a sense of honesty to these types of lyrics that can really elevate the emotional connection people have with your song. Don't be afraid to make yourself vulnerable or to expose parts of your psyche you may find embarrassing. If you're honest, I guarantee you there is someone out there who has been through the same thing or felt the same way.

5. Know What You're Going to Write About Before You Begin

Most mystery authors will tell you that the first part of writing a good mystery, is to know the ending of the story before you begin writing it. Similarly, the first step in creating lyrics is to actually know what you're going to write about. What is the theme of the song? What story are you telling? What ideas are you trying to get across? Having a clear idea of what your lyrics are going to be about will keep you focused and help prevent a lot of hapless creative flailing.

6. Inspiration

So where do you get the ideas in the first place? As I previously mentioned, personal experience is one of the best sources of inspiration - things you have been through, feelings you have about a political issue, places you have been. But I'm also a strong believer in finding inspiration in other forms - a film, the title of a book, a place you've been that leaves an impression on you. All of it is legitimate fodder for song topics, word and phrase choices, or general atmosphere of a song. Just make sure you are putting your own personal spin on whatever it is that provides that initial seed.

7. Free Associate

Once you know what you want to write about, it can be valuable to free associate a bit before you begin the proper writing of lyrics. Write down descriptive words, phrases, images, etc. related to the song theme on one section of the page - sort of a 'phrase bank' you can draw upon as you are writing. As I said before, don't be self-conscious... no one needs to see what you're writing here, but it can be really helpful when you get stuck.

8. Don't Go for the Obvious Choice

Always be thinking of how to say what you want to say in a more colorful or creative way. Use things like imagery, simile, and personifcation to make what you're trying to express have more impact. Don't give into the temptation to just use the first word or phrase that pops into your head. Challenge yourself and find a more interesting, less obvious way to say it. It takes a lot more work, but the end result will be better for it. Likewise, try and think of a twist you can add to a common type of song. One of my band's popular tracks is called 30k ft.. For all intents and purposes, it's a love song, but what makes it a bit outside the norm is that it is sung into a cell phone on a plane that is about to crash. Think of ways you can do something unexpected with a conventional type of song.

9. The Importance of the Chorus
The chorus of a song is arguably the most important part. It's the part people get stuck in their heads, it's the part they sing along to at your live shows, and it serves more or less as a summary of what the song is about. It appears several times throughout the song, so take the extra time to ensure that your chorus ties everything together in a relevant way. Clever phrases or lyrical 'hooks' belong here more than anywhere else in the song generally.

10. Write More Than You Need

I'll admit that lyric-writing is probably the least enjoyable part of songwriting for me personally. But it's important. Although it leads to more work, I find one of the best ways to get a good end result is to write many more lyrics than I need. Then, go through what you have and choose only the absolute best parts to construct the song. If you're an absurdly great writer, it may be hard to pare down what's the best, but if you're like the rest of us, chances are, if you write twice the amount of lyrics you really need, about half of them will be really good.

I hope this gives you some ideas on how to hone your skills as a lyricist. Realize that no one just pops out of the womb a great, or even competent writer. Like any skill, it takes time and effort to develop and what you get out of it really depends on what you put into it. Don't get discouraged. You'll fail more often than you succeed, and you'll probably drive yourself crazy from time to time, but when you finally really nail it, it makes all the time and effort worthwhile. That said, there are exceptions to pretty much everything I've said, so don't restrict yourself creatively. Lyric writing is an intensely personal thing, and ultimately, you have to find your own methods. Feel free to share them here, too! How do you write lyrics?


Tom said...

This relates a bit more to the entire song process but your comment on the importance made me think this book deserves inclusion.

The KLF wrote a book about 20 years ago called The Manual: How to Have a Number 1. I have to say it's pretty dead on. Everyone should copy the text from this website (the entire book is there) and read it.

-Tom N

Tom said...

Yeah, if you look in the Blog archives here I had a posting about The Manual shortly after I started the blog. A funny and depressing read at the same time.

Darkmaer said...

thanks for this blog post. I'm still trying to find my niche with writing. I've always had a unique way of writing for sure, but never in that cool "colorful" style that so many of the good song writers (or just writers in general) seem to posses. but right now I'm still concerned about more important things like actually understanding music theory, cause yeah learning how to write lyrics for a song or a song to lyrics I'm still a little miffed on how exactly to do it...Study, study, study

Line of Control said...

great post. thank you very much for this one.

this is the one glaring omission in my music. up until very recently it has been all instrumentals only. thanks for the tips.

do you set out to write a "happy" or "angry" or "sad" song, before you sit down at your keyboard? do set lyrics to music or make the music fit the lyric???

i never do, i just play and see where it takes me. i almost always assign a mood to it AFTER i'm done! to me the lyrics are a pure afterthought ... really need to change that.

p.s. man, that 2 Tom's thing is totally confusing... unless of course Tom (Shear) you posted twice...

Tom said...

Darkmaer - I used to stress about the whole music or lyrics first thing too. I had a very strict way of working where the lyrics always came after the music was done, but since then I have relaxed and just let things happen however they happen and I've been much more productive ever since.

LineOfControl - The other Tom signs his posts Tom N to avoid confusion. As far as assigning an emotional feel to a song in advance - that's kind of dictated by the song topic really. I pretty much always write in a minor key, so it usually fits with darker and more melancholy subject matter anyway...

Anonymous said...

Tom, thanks for this post. I was one of the ones requesting a discussion on lyrics. One question- do you maintain a strict regimine of regular writing sessions, or do you just wait fo inspiration to strike?

Anonymous said...

This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you for the article. Your dedication to your fan base is unmatched.

Good choice on the Moleskine photo as well. They are very durable and practical. I use them for writing and quick sketches.


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