So you’ve mastered everything in Songwriting for Beginners? You want more? Fine, but don’t treat this column as a “stand alone.” You still need to keep in mind the 38 or so tips that made up our “Songwriting for Beginners” article (and don’t forget all the great articles you can find on our “Songwriting Page”). Now I don’t have 38 things for you here, but these helpful hints are going to be harder to incorporate.
Let me also add that this article is going to lean a bit more toward “mainstream” song writing. By “mainstream,” I mean those folk, rock, country and pop songs that tend to reach a broad audience. You might be tempted to say “commercial” (which isn’t a bad word if you are trying to sell your songs), but since I’m much more concerned about the quality of your lyrics than your bank account, I think that “mainstream” is the better term.
There are things that make songs popular, things that make songs stick in your head. What I’d like to explore with you are the lyrical aspects of this. We’ll also go over some techniques we’ve used over this past spring and summer on the Sunday Songwriters’ Group forum page, which have produced some excellent results for those participants who used them.
Remember too, that these are all suggestions and tips and not rules. There will always be an instance where I’ll say something and you’ll point out some song that doesn’t fit my point. That’s okay. These tips are simply here to add to your skills should you wish to develop further as a songwriter.
Identify with your listener and allow your listener to identify with you
1. Write with common language. “Assimilate” may be exactly what you mean, but it isn’t what you would say. You want to write from your own personal experience, in the language that belongs to that experience.
2. Make your central character likeable. There aren’t too many Charles Manson or Ted Bundy songs out there you know. What you want is empathy.
3. Have some emotional content. A lyric that talks about the content of your lunch bag isn’t going to be very popular.
The song as a piece of drama
4. You need to identify the conflict early in the song. Pull the listener in early.
5. You need to resolve the conflict late in the song. Don’t let the listener leave too soon.
6. Try to think of your lyric as setting up a scene in a camera’s viewfinder. You need to think about what is in this scene. Is that tree branch in the way? Is it in focus? Did the props person put in too much stuff? Are the costumes ok? Is there too much shadow or vagueness? Too much light?
7. Continuing with the camera idea, ask yourself this: is my song a photograph or a movie? Both approaches have merit. Composition, or how you present your lyrics, is key and you want to start off either approach with a good set of images.
8. An excellent idea at any stage of the songwriting process is to completely forget about lyrics and simply work on imagery. Write down strong, striking images. Write down as many as you can think of. Go out and search for some – look out your window, take a walk or a drive, watch a movie, read a book, get on the computer and do a search on your favorite search engine. The possibilities, pardon the cliché, are limitless. Make a notebook of your images. Doodle around them, draw lines connecting one to another, make connections between seemingly unrelated imagery. Most important – say them aloud! Get the feel of the aural power of your images. This may, at one point, help you decide on what type of music best suits your words.
9. Use imagery to replace narrative. Instead of saying “It’s six in the morning,” make yourself a list of things that would show someone that it is 6 AM rather than simply telling them that. Write about taking a shower, about smelling the unmistakable bittersweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee, about trying to remember exactly who and where you are, not to mention the name of the person sleeping beside you! You can be running late or you can “get your coat and grab your hat…make the bus in seconds flat…” You’ve heard it since your high school English classes, “show don’t tell.” Imagery of this nature turns your song into a motion picture.
10. Let’s get back to the movie making analogy – Think about the end scene of a movie. You know the one, when the camera rises up above the scene on the camera crane. Now look down on your complete scene. Have you finished the picture?
11. And speaking of the scene, do your best to set it within your lyric. Don’t throw away the little details of where. It makes a big difference where you do something. Say you are going out on a date and your date suggests dinner. Does it make any difference to you whether it is Pizza Hut or a private candlelit dinner?
Building Art (a step by step method used in the SSG forums)
12. Start with your title.
13. If you can’t start with your title, start with the lyrical hook, your “catch phrase.”
14. We talked about the plot in the beginners’ article, but as you get more advanced your plots will become more in-depth. In the movie business you’d be creating a scene by scene storyboard. You want to do that for your song. Use pictures or use a flowchart or “an 8″x 10″ glossy photograph with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back”. Do whatever you need to do in order to show the song’s progress.
15. Go for the gusto, write down every ridiculous detail you won’t ever need. You don’t need to fill the entire song with the details you list, but you need to make these characters and situations real. And you never know – it may spark a new idea or clever line. Where are they, when, why, how? What are they wearing, doing, and seeing? How do they look or smell? What were they doing 30 minutes ago?
16. The chorus is not for exposition. Make the chorus short, sweet and to the point. The point of the chorus is housing the hook and perhaps the title.
17. Use the tools available to you. Don’t think you are cheating by using a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary.
18. In Songwriting for Beginners, I said read your lyric out loud and let your own ears edit. You still want to do that. Now though, you need to read out loud to someone else. Check to see that that person reacts the way you planned. Make sure they react the way you planned in the places you planned.
19. Distance yourself from your work when you edit. Try to look at your lyrics from an outsider’s point of view. Sometimes I get so hung up in what I think is clever, I can’t see that it has no meaning to an outsider.
20. Prioritize your lyric work. Here are the parts of a lyric listed in order of importance:
21. The first verse is incredibly important. You capture or loose your audience here. What’s the first thing you do when you meet a new person? You introduce yourself. Introduce your characters and conflict first.
The Delicate Balance
22. While it may seem very easy to write a mainstream lyric, it’s actually very hard for most people to do because of one simple reason: You invariably hate what you’ve written! It’s a cliché! Everyone else has written the same thing. If you listen to the songs you like, chances are that there is simplicity and an ease of lyrics that you don’t feel from your own. Why is that? Because you have two seemingly contradictory feelings about it: (1) that it’s a very personal song that the artist has written and (2) that you yourself have a personal relationship with that song. As David wrote in “Finding the Right Words” (which means you can blame this pun on him), the song strikes a chord in you. And if you think about it, I’ll bet that most of your favorite songs do this. You, too, have to develop the gift of paradoxical writing. You want to make your unique personal experience become something that others can both relate to and experience in their own individual ways.
23. Pick a universal meaning for your song. You want as many listeners as possible to identify with your song. An easy way to do this is to think of an old saying and subtly tie your lyric into it. It’s not as hard as you think, since there is an old saying for practically every occasion. Sayings like “Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it”, “Look before you leap”, “The early bird gets the worm” are good examples of the inner meanings of thousands of songs. This meaning doesn’t have to be in the forefront. Let it just be a guide to make sure you are on track throughout your lyric.
24. Go back to our photograph/movie ideas. Think about how you feel when you experienced what you’re writing about. What will be the best way of getting that across? Is it a story? Then you might be better off going with a narrative or “movie” style. Is it more emotional, harder to get a handle on? Then you might opt for the “photograph” and let your images speak for themselves.
25. Remember to trust your audience. As much as you might want them to, it is rare that any song will convey the same exact meaning to everyone who hears it. That’s actually one of the beautiful, exciting things about music.
26. Get as much feedback as you can before you make your final edits. And don’t be discouraged if your song starts taking you on a different direction than you first envisioned. That’s not an unusual occurrence! Sometimes you may find yourself with a much better lyric than you could have ever imagined.
Taking your writing up a level is both harder than it seems and easier than I make it out to be. You have to pay attention to the building blocks. You have to pay attention to detail. You have to be objective about something personal. You have to take the time to craft the components of the lyric into art.
Think about anything that is well made. You can get top of the line stereo equipment to listen to music, or you can get some import knock off. You can get a racing bike or one that looks kinda like it. Can you tell me why on earth you would spend $1000 US on a guitar when you can get brand new guitars on Ebay for $25 US?
It’s a matter of what is your goal? It’s perfectly acceptable to write lyrics that are simply pleasing to you. There is nothing wrong with that at all.
The questions you need to ask yourself are:
1. Why am I writing lyrics?
2. Do I want to write lyrics that work, or do I want to write powerful, meaningful, hand crafted lyrics?
It’s completely up to you. Write well, whichever you choose. And, above all, have fun.