Although lyrics are often reflections of the writers’ thoughts and feelings, the purpose of lyrics varies greatly. Pop lyrics are often written to achieve much more than the communication of an idea, opinion or emotion. For example the use of rhythmical lyrical loops can be used, like a chant, to help induce a trance like state in the listener. When accompanied by a strong, repetitive rhythm that changes in intensity and a repetitive simple bass part, the effect can be very hard to resist.
A great deal of lyric writing techniques are based on poetry theory.
The function of lyrics
Basically you should know why you are writing the lyrics. If you are not sure of the answer to this, try asking yourself some questions. For example, are you trying to:
- Convey feeling or emotion?
- Convey an concept, story or opinion?
- Identify with your audience?
- Meet the conventions of a particular style?
- Give some meaningful sounds to a vocal part essential to the arrangement?
Asking such questions of yourself can help to clarify vague notions and ideas into a clear intention.
Basic structural issues can be simply decided by asking questions like:
"Do you start with a message or effect in mind?"
Whatever approach you take the result must sound right with the music.
When a songwriter gets too carried away with making a point it is often at the expense of subtlety, or suitability for the melody or indeed without any thought for any other artistic qualities.
Conversely lyrics that depend on the use of cliché are often boring, generic phrases that are really saying nothing.
In the beginning?
Songwriters often seek inspiration when they write lyrics by writing about the subjects that they identify with, or feel strongly about. The thought could be "I hate my boss", so you write a song about that. Say what you feel, make it rhyme and there you go. Easy. Number 1 material.
Saddly songs are rarely so easy to write. Before you know it you have run out of burning issues to write about, the world now intimately knows your inner-most feelings, you keep repeating yourself, and saddest of all you are using more and more of the worlds worst cliché's.
The fact is you can't let the anyone hear these lyrics but you've just not got anything new to write about.
Such gloom and doom, but there are ways you can approach lyric writing that can turn even the simplest of subjects into something that engages the listener. This means that it is the "The way you say it." rather than "What you say." that is more important. Ideally it should be a mixture of types of material that keeps the ideas ticking over.
Try to vary the way you approach song writing. This will help you find new perspectives. Decisions about the approach to the song can be simply made when you start out. You can decide on the vocalists perspective:
What 'person' will it be written in?
- I feel happy
- You feel happy
- He/She/It feels happy
- We feel happy
- You feel happy
- They feels happy
What tense will it be written in?
- I will be happy
- I am happy
- I was happy
Will it be descriptive?
"The sky was dark and the rain was coming down."
Will it be narrative?
"He walked along the road with his head held high."
Will it use imagery to convey feelings?
"Dark clouds fill the horizon, and slowly they begin to fill his mind."
You may want to mix up these approaches within the song, though you have to be careful, especially when you start to mix tense.
Other questions that you get the answers to before you write a word could be:
- What Rhyming Scheme(s) will it use?
- Does it have to Rhyme?
- How many singers is this song for?
Try to jot down the rough story line/concept/argument that you are trying to convey. Also note down a proposed the structure for the song, and some key words that relate to the subject matter and the feelings that it can evoke. It is also worth while taking note of common phrases that convey feeling or a concept that can be related to the subject.
These notes are intended to help you make decisions later in the song and prompt you with ideas later in the song writing process.
You don't have to stick rigidly to what you have written. The idea is to provide an initial direction, and if you find yourself getting stuck, reading your notes can help suggest a direction that was obscured by being too involved or focused. The point is not to limit your ideas or creativity but to bring clarity to your thoughts.
The opening line is almost as important as the chorus hooks. The opening line introduces the song mood and subject. It can be a shocking, thought provoking line, but it must engage and draw in the listener by making them ask questions and want to know more.
When you start to write new lyrics try working on the lyrical hooks first. Once you have a strong lyrical hook use it to help identify a song theme that will use that hook.
For a hook to be successful it has to meet 3 main criteria:
- The meaning of the lyric has to engage the listener
- The spoken or sung lyric has to create an appealing sequence of sounds
- The lyric fits the mood, melody and rhythm of the music
If you don't have an intended theme you are at an advantage because you are free to find the key hook without the hook having to fit with a pre-conceived idea. For example try starting with a well known phrase or saying.
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