Have you ever been inspired to write lyrics? How did they turn out? Have you been curious about how your favourite musicians have done this so often? Truth is, great music writing is not always about inspiration – it’s about practice.
I know some will say something along the lines of "but Tommaso, the lyrics come from being inspired. It’s simply not possible to learn how to make beautiful songs every time." I get it, because I felt the same way not too long ago. And it was by no means a quick process for me to learn what I’m going to tell you now.
I lost a lot of years by not making an attempt to improve my lyric-writing skill because of that belief that it’s something you either have or don’t. Hopefully, with this article, I can help ensure you don’t go through the same experience I did.
So what can you do to get better at writing lyrics? The best place to start would be to listen to a few of your favourite songs and look for the cliches, or patterns, that are used by different artists. Each time you hear one, write it down and try to use it in your own writing.
Here are a couple of the cliches to look for. For lyric writing, there are three basic techniques that you’ll be able to spot in a wide range of songs, and you may even be using one or two of these at the moment, which is a good sign.
Rhythm Is More Than A Drum Beat
The following is mostly true for English song writers. Although it will also work in languages like Persian, Norwegian, German, and Thai that are stress-times (google it), it will not work in languages that are syllable timed, such as Icelandic, Armenian, Welsh, Turkish, Cantonese, Italian or French.
The point is to pay attention to "Word rhythm". Word rhythm is easier to read than it is to sing. When you do this, you’ll be able to see which syllables are stressed, and which ones are not. A good example of this comes from Metallica’s "Damage Inc.":
DEALing OUT the AgoNY withIN / CHARging HARD and NO one’s GONna GIVE in
The first line sounds: TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM, the second TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta. As the song progresses, it holds the same or similar word rhythm, which brings a sense of unity to the overall sound. Variations are possible too, of course
The key here is to not force these rhythms into your lyrics, rather it’s better if you start by listening to these accents in existing music lyrics. After a while your brain will "know" how lyrics sound and you will find yourself coming up with the "right" rhythm without even thinking.
Getting Started With Figurative Language
Figurative language comes up very often in lyric writing. It is the opposite of literal language, that is whenever you talk in figurative language, you do not strictly mean what you are saying.
When you hear, for example, the song "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix, who writes "She’s walking through the clouds," Jimi doesn’t mean that the figure is walking though a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere. Instead, he’s giving her an angelic, ethereal presence. This is an example of a Metaphor
And, as a more colloquial example, when a friend says they’ve "fallen" for someone special, at no point did they actually fall face-forward into the ground, or if they did, it wouldn’t have been at that person’s request (hopefully).
(n the same sense, another common figurative saying is when a person says "they’ve stolen my heart," as they don’t mean that someone ripped an organ out of their ribcage – again, hopefully. This time, however, we did not use a a Metaphor: "they’ve stolen my heart" is indeed a Metonymy. We’ll look more into the difference in a future article.
If you take a look for little idiosyncrasies like this is in your favourite songs, and try being aware of the forms they take, you will get automatically better at using them yourself.
How To Arrange Symmetry Into Song
In no way is a song the same as prose – no matter what the Nobel awards committee says. The biggest difference is the way that songs lyrics are arranged. Does the song utilize repetition? Do the lines have any similarities to each other? And is symmetry incorporated for effect?
One simple and well-known example is in the Beatles’ "Yesterday", where the word "yesterday" not only begins and finishes each verse, but also is the last one in the chorus.
Listening to the song, you may also notice how the words "yesterday" and "now" are used together and in contraposition ("NOW I long for YESTERDAY"). By contrasting the two words the listener is left with a precise impression about the change between "yesterday" and "now", and the desire to go back to a previous time.
This is just a small part of the big picture, but it’s a good solid point to start seeing how many songwriters use structure to make a point with their music.
Take a listen to the three songs you get stuck in your head most often. Anything with lyrics will work just fine, although pop music may be the easiest. Now, look up the lyrics from a reputable source online, such as the artist’s website. As you’re listening, jot down some notes about what makes the song work.
I’m certain that by the end of the exercise you’ll have found somethings you never heard before. And as you keep listening, you’ll see these pop up in your own lyrics too.
Keep a look out for more upcoming articles about the secrets of Creative Lyric Writing, where we will start going more in-depth with techniques to improve your lyrical ability.