Whether you are a topnotch music professional, an indie songwriter, or a student musician, learning how to write great lyrics is key to songwriting success. Below are five easy tips on writing great music lyrics. Learn some basic ways that you can develop your lyrical skills.
1) Write What You Know
Just like a novelist needs to immerse themselves in their imagined world when writing a new thriller, the seasoned songwriter must write what they know. Quickly look over some of the Top 40 hits of the last few years, and you will find that many of the most successful tunes involved material that convinces you that the songwriter experienced the angst of teen heartache, a distanced relationship or the difficulties of urban life themselves. By writing from your own rich experience, you are able to incorporate real emotions into your lyrics, adding a sincere connection to your fans.
Adele's “Hello” conveys real emotions about a strained relationship. Though the lyrics are simple, they perfectly demonstrate how the lyrics can created an emotive response in fans.
Does this mean that you can only stick to what you know? What if you want to write about war but you have never been enlisted? Then relate a situation that you have experienced yourself that brings up similar emotions. In this way you can delve into the soul of what you have to say, even if you need to apply it to a different scenario. Being able to write about anything at all is a necessary skill for those who want to pursue songwriting as a career.
BONUS Exercise: Postcard Songs
For a quick exercise on musical inspiration, purchase a stack of varied postcards. Each day choose a card at random and spend at least twenty minutes writing lyrics inspired by the postcard. I recommend physical postcards over surfing the Internet. The web ends up being a big distraction for creative individuals. Stick to a physical stack of postcards stuffed in a box in your studio. Do this for a month. Examine your lyrics. Pull out lines that worked best, find problem areas and words that you might overuse in your songwriting. What do you write about best? What inspirational exercises fell flat? Can any of these postcard lyrics make a good song? Continue to write to postcards to develop your musical ideas.
An extensive vocabulary is necessary to write convincing lyrics. Why? Well, you could use a thesaurus to change up your overuse of the words “blue” and “true” in your tune, but having a word bank in your mind is ten times better than having to pull up a songwriting app. This allows you to organically choose words that come naturally to you and that make sense. You can do this by reading poetry, about current events, contemporary fiction, and even plays. Why not check out 'Rhyme Zone' or other websites or apps with rhyming dictionaries.
3) Understand Natural Vocal Rhythm
When you listen to a popular tune, especially mainstream radio tunes, notice how the lyrics usually follow natural vocal rhythm. What does this mean? This means that when the lyrics fall from the singer's lips, the words do not sound rushed, crammed, or awkward. Many times when I'm writing a tune, I will find that the words just don't fit. It helps to figure out the natural rhythm of a lyric. If your line is “Tears falling from her eyes” realize that the rhythm will be different from “And I just, hate, hate, hate her, oh yeah!”
How can you figure out natural rhythm? Record yourself simply speaking your lyrics. Write down the rhythms you hear. If you can't write out the exact rhythm, just practice tapping it out. While you can change the natural rhythm in a song to fit a musical style, try to keep as true to the natural rhythm as you can. The exception would be musical styles like hip hop, where musical rhythms trump natural speaking rhythm, or some classical pieces where a soloist may hold a single word for long periods of time over complex harmonic progressions.
4) Don't be Married to Your Words
We've all been there. There's a tune we've slaved over for a long time, we think it's almost perfect, but something is just not working out. Maybe it's the melody or a rhyme just doesn't fall right. Maybe a reference is slightly off, or no one understands what in the world you are trying to say. Maybe the singer can't seem to get that one line in verse three without tripping over himself. Don't stay married to your words. They are just words. If something isn't working, toss it. Words are free, they float around in our heads, and sometimes it takes a blank slate to figure out what's not working.
5) Reach Out to Other Musicians
Don't be afraid to share your lyrics-in-progress with other musicians. Some of us may be afraid to share something that isn't perfect or think that someone will “borrow” our ideas. Sharing with a group of critical songwriters or musicians will help you hone your songwriting skills. They can point out where the lyrics aren't working, how you can improve the melodic lines or rhythm, or even if you need to be a little more original.
You want to avoid sharing your lyrics with people like close family and friends, especially if you think that they will not be honest with you. The last thing a creative professional needs is someone telling them that everything they write is sheer perfection. A detailed critique from other musicians will ensure that you get in-depth analysis, an informed critical opinion, and tips that will help you develop as a songwriter.
Like any skill writing great lyrics takes time and dedication. Keep writing, share with other musicians, and be inspired by the world around you.
Written by: Sabrina Peña Young
Called “Wagner 2.0” by critics, award-winning composer and music technologist Sabrina Peña Young produces commercial music, soundtracks, and electronica presented throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas at Opera America in NYC, the NY International Independent Film Festival, TEDxBuffalo, the Beijing Conservatory, SEAMUS, the Holland Animation Film Festival, Miramax’s Project Greenlight, ICMC, Art Basil Miami, international film festivals, and countless venues worldwide. A sought after consultant and TED speaker in music, arts and technology, Young continues to push musical boundaries with works like her “groundbreaking” animated Libertaria: The Virtual Opera and her album “A Futurist Music Anthology: The Electroacoustic Mind of Sabrina Peña Young.”
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