A New Perspective on Writing Lyrics

Sometimes when we’re writing lyrics we just don’t know where to start. Do we just dive right in with the verses? Do we try to craft our chorus first? Maybe coming up with the title is the way to go.

songwriter_with_guitarI’ve always found that before you put pen to paper, you should think about the big picture of your song. From there you can get more and more detailed. For example, you might first start by asking yourself “what’s the main idea for my entire song?” Then from there you can ask yourself what you want each section to do. In other words, figure out how each of your verses, your chorus and your bridge are going to move your story forward. If you figure out the big picture and then the main idea of each section, you’ll have a better road map for writing your song.

A while back, I took a workshop with Berklee lyric writing professor, Pat Pattison. He would have some of the students play their songs, and then he’d review their lyrics with them. A lot of times, when he felt the lyrics got confusing, he asked three rhetorical questions of the student’s work:

  1. Who’s talking?
  2. Who is he (or she) talking to?And
  3. Why?

Ever since that workshop, I’ve asked myself these questions before any song I write. The reason being that these questions help you to think about the big picture of your song, in a similar way to what I talked about in the preceding paragraphs.

If you still don’t understand why asking yourself these three questions could make or break your lyrics, let’s look at a real world example, in the song (alternately known as) “Forget You” by Cee Lo Green. I’ll make the argument that of the three questions posed above, two of them are clearly defined throughout the song. They are:

  1. Who’s talking? In this song, it’s a guy who lost his girl.
  2. Why (is he talking to her)? He’s jealous, angry, and still wants her back.

When we go through all the lyrics, you’ll see that those two answers ring true consistently throughout the whole song. But the answer to the second question does not:

2. Who is he talking to?

The answer to this question varies through the lyric, and pulls us away from getting into the song as much as we could. You’ll notice that throughout most of the song, he’s talking to the girl.His ex. But there are two lines in the song that are addressed to the girl’s new guy, directly. It’s these two lines:

"I see you driving ’round town with the girl I love and I’m like,

Forget you

I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough I’m like,

Forget you and forget her too"

If you wanted to get super-technical, we could even argue that in the line “I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough,” he’s talking to himself, or the listener directly. But for lack of any further confusion, we’ll lump that line in with the stuff he’s saying to the boyfriend.

You might say “okay, well so what? It’s only two lines in the whole song. It’s hardly noticeable.” Well, the problem is these two lines happen in the chorus, so we consistently go BACK to them throughout the song. The perspective of who he’s talking to changes causing our minds to lose focus on what’s happening, and who he’s talking to. In addition to that, the song starts with these two lines, so we begin hearing the song with an expectation that he’s talking to the girl’s new guy. But then throughout most of the song, he’s not.

Let’s check it out.

Chorus

(speaking to the new boyfriend)

"I see you driving ’round town with the girl I love and I’m like,

Forget you

I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough I’m like,

Forget you and forget her too"

(speaking to the ex-girlfriend)

"I said, if I was richer, I’d still be with ya

Ha, now ain’t that some sh-t?

And although there’s pain in my chest I still wish you the best with a…

Forget you!"

Verse 1

(still speaking to the ex-girlfriend)

"Yeah I’m sorry, I can’t afford a Ferrari,

But that don’t mean I can’t get you there.

I guess he’s an X-box and I’m more Atari,

But the way you play your game ain’t fair.

I pity the fool that falls in love with you

I’ve got some news for you

Yeah go run and tell your little boyfriend"

Chorus

(back to speaking to the new boyfriend)

"I see you driving ’round town with the girl I love and I’m like,

Forget you

I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough I’m like,

Forget you and forget her too"

(back to speaking to the ex girlfriend)

"I said, if I was richer, I’d still be with ya

Ha, now ain’t that some sh-t?

And although there’s pain in my chest I still wish you the best with a…

Forget you!"

Verse 2

(still on the ex girlfriend)

"Now I know, that I had to borrow,

Beg and steal and lie and cheat.

Trying to keep ya, trying to please ya.

‘Cause being in love with your ass ain’t cheap.

I pity the fool that falls in love with you

I’ve got some news for you

I really hate your ass right now"

Chorus

(back to speaking to the new boyfriend)

"I see you driving ’round town with the girl I love and I’m like,

Forget you

I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough I’m like,

Forget you and forget her too"

(back to speaking to the ex girlfriend)

"I said, if I was richer, I’d still be with ya

Ha, now ain’t that some sh-t?

And although there’s pain in my chest I still wish you the best with a…

Forget you!"

Bridge

(still on the ex girlfriend)

"Now baby, baby, baby, why’d you wanna wanna hurt me so bad?

I tried to tell my mamma but she told me this is one for your dad

Whhhy? Whhhy? Whhhy, lady?

I love you

I still love you"

Chorus

(and one more time to the new boyfriend)

"I see you driving ’round town with the girl I love and I’m like,

Forget you

I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough I’m like,

Forget you and forget her too"

(back to speaking to the ex girlfriend)

"I said, if I was richer, I’d still be with ya

Ha, now ain’t that some sh-t?

And although there’s pain in my chest I still wish you the best with a…

Forget you!"

Wow, those two little lines, sure did make a lot of waves throughout the entire lyric, didn’t they? Had the question “Who is he talking to?” been asked before pen hit paper, all this confusion could have been avoided.

You may be saying… “What are you talking about?! This song is a hit! A Grammy winning, smash hit! There’s a reason for that, right?” Yes there is. The reason is that in hit songs, melody rules. This song has great, singable, memorable melody. No question about it. But the lyrics lose some steam because of the confusion of who’s being spoken to in the lyrics.

Remember, sometimes superstar artists get a pass with this stuff, because they’re already in the limelight, making records. If you’re an unknown artist, you want to increase your chances in any way you can. So your advice for this week is simple: Ask yourself three simple questions before you write your next song. Then decide if it makes the focus of your new songs sharper.Have fun.

Discuss this article in our Music Forum.

 

About Anthony Ceseri

Anthony CeseriFor a free report from Anthony with a lot more songwriting tips please visit:

successforyoursongs.com/freeoffer/how-to-write-a-song/

Anthony Ceseri is a songwriter and performer who has traveled the country in pursuit of the best songwriting advice and information available. From classes and workshops at Berklee College of Music in Boston, to Taxi's Road Rally in Los Angeles, Anthony has learned from the most well-respected professional songwriters, producers and performers in the industry.

Realizing this kind of information isn't readily available to most songwriters, Anthony founded www.SuccessForYourSongs.com as a way to funnel the very best advice to songwriters and performers all around the world.

Anthony's writings appear as examples in the book Songwriting Without Boundaries: Lyric Writing Exercises For Finding Your Voice by Pat Pattison, an acclaimed lyric writing professor at Berklee College of Music.

For more information, please visit successforyoursongs.com

Site Crew Profile

Anthony Ceseri Home Page

Contact Anthony Ceseri

Music has charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”
William Congreve