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Notes for a 1.5 hour lecture/tutorial I'm giving on how to write lyrics. They are accompanied by a selection of examples of lyrics, songs on tape, and a writing exercise.

Writing Lyrics

The discipline of writing a good lyric is entirely different from any other exercise in writing. It has elements in common with writing poetry, of course, but few lyrics stand alone as good poetry, and few poems sound as good when set to music. It's the marriage of words and music that make a song good - or instantly forgettable.

Usually, the lyric comes first, the music after, so you may think that it's the job of the composer to come up with the right tune for your wonderful art, but that's not the case - both elements need to work, and the lyric has to have certain key features to hang a tune off. In fact, there are many lyrics that would sound equally good sung to a completely different tune than the one they're known for.

Song Type

Broadly speaking, songs fall into three categories, whether they're fast or slow, country or rap, loud or quiet:

  1. The personal emotion song: "I love you", "I hurt so bad", "All I wanna do is dance" etc.
  2. The narrative song: "His name was Cane and he was a miner" "She knew that she would be the prom queen", "I took my motorbike and hit the road"
  3. The mystery song: "Try to work out what this set of images means"

Rhythm, Rhyme and Repetition

Rhythm

A lyric must have a consistent rhythm in order for it to be suitable for setting to music. It can divide into three sections each with their own rhythm: verse, chorus, and interval, but each of those must be internally consistent. Like meter in poetry, rhythm is the pattern of stressed syllables in a line of your lyric. This pattern is based on the natural way, in speech, that one syllable is emphasised where two or more syllables are spoken together.

E.g.: a-dore, be-side, danc-ing

Unlike poetry however, you can hold a note, so the rhythm is reliant primarily on the stressed syllables, and the unstressed ones are less important. In addition, by extending a note, you can effectively give a syllable double stress. (bold syllables are stressed, underlined ones extended)

Yes-ter-day
All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as if they're here to stay
Oh I believe in yesterday

Slow down, you move too fast
You gotta make the morning last, just
Kickin' up the cobblestones
Looking for love and feeling groovy

Rhyme

While the rhyme structure in a song is also often looser than a structured poem, very few songs exist that are entirely without rhyme - because songs are meant to be remembered and sung and rhyme assists memory. Poetry which does adapt well to being set to music is almost invariably that with a strong meter and insistent rhyme - such as T.S. Eliot's "Old Posssums Book of Practical Cats"

The rhyme doesn't have to be perfect, it can be a "slant rhyme" where the vowel sound makes the ear hear a rhyme, but it does need to be there:

You can take me where you will
Up the creek and through the mill
Like all the things you can't explain
Four seasons in one day

Repetition

A song, invariably, will have some repetitive element within it -- either a single line, or a collection of lines - a chorus. This structure, again, helps with memorising the song, and reinforces the key message, whether that's "I feel so bad since you left me" or "getting drunk with your mates is the best feeling in the world.".

Plan this element and the words you use here first, and more carefully than anything else - This is where you say what you want to be remembered.

We are the champions my friend
And we'll keep on fighting till the end
We are the champions, we are the champions,
No time for losers, 'cos we are the champions
Of the world

I said maybe
You're gonna be the one who saves me?
And after all
You're my wonderwall

"I want to live like common people
I want to do whatever common people do
I want to sleep with common people
I want to sleep with common people like you."

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, But the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin' whisky and rye
Singin' this'll be the day that I die

Subject matter

Like it or not, there are some subjects that make good songs and others that don't. Outside musicals, nearly all the popular songs you'll find will be about:

Love:

  • finding it,
  • losing it,
  • being in love,
  • falling out of love,
  • unattainable love
  • throwing love away
  • infidelity in love (adultery, cheating and so on)

Pain and negativity:

  • Loneliness
  • Jealousy
  • Depression
  • Deception
  • Anger
  • Betrayal

Death:

  • Of a lover
  • Of a friend
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • On a motorbike or in a car

Friendship:

  • Old friends
  • New friends
  • Getting by with the help of your friends

Work:

  • Hating it
  • Not having it

Unusual people:

  • Heroes
  • Villains
  • People in dramatic or unusual situations

Money:

  • Wanting it
  • Needing it
  • Spending it
  • What it can, and can't, buy

Music:

  • Dancing
  • Playing
  • How wonderful it is
  • How songs make you laugh or cry

Of course, you can have songs about other things - your favourite dog, how sweet your grandma is, how you woke up one morning to see pink elephants in your bedroom - you may even find they're very successful, but unless you are already a very well-known artist, or intend only to write comedy, they are the road to oblivion. Novelty songs are one-hit wonders, more often than not, and where they aren't, they're almost impossible to live down.

Starting to write

Parodies

Setting your own lyrics to well known tunes is excellent practice for song-writing, and something we all do from early childhood:

While shepherds washed their socks by night...

It gives you practice in working within rhythm structures, and arranging words so that they flow in a complementary way with music. It isn't easy, since you need to match your lyrics exactly to the syllable count and stresses of the original piece, but it's an excellent discipline for getting in the habit of thinking in rhythmic structures. In addition, you can use established tunes that match the rhythm of the song you are trying to write to check whether the flow of the words is working.

Beating time

When writing, take time to read the words aloud, beating time with the stresses in the lyric to ensure consistency and to avoid the wrong syllable being stressed when the music is set to the lyric - the syllables you want to emphasise must always fall with the beat.

Choosing words

Originality is the hardest thing for any songwriter to achieve - with the limited number of subjects to play with, every new song makes it harder to find ways of putting old ideas across in original ways, especially given the constraints of rhyme - there are, after all, only so many words that rhyme with love. But still, people keep coming up with new ideas - it's just a case of looking outside the box - rather than saying my love is deeper than the ocean how about saying I love you so much it makes me angry that everyone can't feel this good?

Use images that you are comfortable with, think about how you talk, and write the words that way. The feelings you are describing may not be original, but only you know how they feel to you -- that's where your song becomes new.

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