Zen and the Art of Lyric Writing: 7 Tips That Will Change How You Write Music
A quick search of “lyric writing tips” brings up well over 700,000 hits.
That’s a lot of aspiring songwriters out there. Whether you’re vying for the next big hit or simply writing for your own creative expression, there’s one skill that nearly every successful songwriter practices, and it’s one that most of the unsuccessful songwriters don’t.
1.) The secret? Effective self-criticism.
Nope, it ain’t glamorous. For that matter, it’s not particularly easy.
Those of you who write songs while working in auto manufacturing industry may be acquainted with the concept of kaizen – literally, “change for the better” – a philosophy of continuous improvement. It’s a concept that fits well into songwriting as a process, and it’s one that I’ve adapted to my own personal work methods.
Oh, if you’re looking for the secret recipe about how to write songs, you won’t find it here. In fact, if someone claims to know that secret, they have enough beans to keep you in chili the rest of your life.
Not only is there no particular way to write a song or song lyric, there may be as many ways as – or more than – there are songwriters.
In my own case, sometimes it starts with a single line. Other times it’s just a title. Still others come from a concept I want to share. Then there are the songs I record down to the last note before there’s a single word written.
The flash of inspiration comes from all over. You either recognize what you want to write about or you don’t. Those who don’t probably aren’t even reading this.
What you can do is craft a lyric from that inspiration, using the kaizen principle to refine that craft. “Craft” is a very important word.
Forget the idea that songs come from a place in the sky and channel through you. Sometimes pure inspiration strikes and things seem exactly like that, but usually every lyric benefits from crafting.
That’s what these tips are about – the craft of writing lyrics. We take the act of inspiration as given. These are tips, tricks, techniques and ideas to help you shape that inspiration into word form.
2.) Show a Story
“Wait a second, Scott,” you’re thinking, “you tell a story.” Yes, that’s the phrase when you’re talking about getting an idea across. However, when you “tell” your listener what’s going on, you’re insulting them and in the process, you take away one very important quality – that of personal connection.
It’s also called relatability. People hear your words and they connect the thoughts and ideas with their own experiences. Telling a story may sometimes kill that because it’s too literal, too true perhaps to your story and not true enough to theirs.
Showing a story, on the other hand, gives impressions and moods through words. A listener may find these much more evocative because there doesn’t need to be a match between their story and yours, only a match to the emotions and atmosphere. Consider this line:
“Sometimes life gets in the way of living”*
It’s relatable, yet it means different things to different listeners. Few listeners would likely know from reading it that I was fed up with doing dishes and really wanted to be downstairs in my studio writing.
Had I started to tell the story, it would have included the sink, the window, maybe the view outside, all of which would evoke mental images, but none perhaps that showed what I was feeling the way the original line does. Sometimes we do get caught up in the mechanics of life and these keep us from what we really want to do.
What it comes down to is leaving mental blank spaces for your listener to fill in. Their story intertwines with yours, your song becomes theirs and you’re in their heads forever.
3.) Avoid Cliché
Don’t use clichés, please. You won’t rock my world. I’ll get down on my knees and beg you. Every cliché you use cuts like a knife. They leave me cold as ice. Keep it real, okay?
If you do, dreams do come true. I’ll love you forever. The clock is ticking. I’ll bite my tongue. I’ll hope against hope that my message gets to you. Yet, somehow, I’ll go on. With or without you.
I trust you have the message. The principle here is the same as calling your band U2 or changing your name to Katy Perry. It’s been done. Don’t do it again.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use clichés as inspiration. In fact, a twist on a cliché can be an inspired and clever addition. Something like these:
“at the drop of a hat” becomes “a fedora drop”*
“two’s company but three’s a crowd” alters to “two incorporate but three’s a crowd”*
“like a Sunday driver” takes a new role as, “the Sunday drivers are all out on Saturday”*
The point is play with language. I don’t believe a million monkeys on a million word processors will write every combination of lyric in a million years. The English language is simply too silly, complex and beautiful to be so limiting.
4.) Play the Match Game
You don’t need to be a musician or able to sing a note to write lyrics. Face it, there are musicians and singers for that!
What you do need to understand is that a song lyric usually isn’t poetry, just as poetry isn’t usually a song. They cross over, but they’re entirely different disciplines.
Singing words over a 4/4 beat, for example, defines certain cadences that are further defined by tempo, genre, instrumentation and probably even the phases of the moon.
There are, however, patterns that emerge in your lyrics that are rhythmic in nature too, and featuring these makes it easier for the writer of the music, whether it’s you or someone else.
Get in the habit of counting – and matching – syllables. Note there is not a target here, no formula that results in a good lyric. Let’s count out the syllables of a song verse:
“You never turn around” 6 syllables
“Until I wave bye-bye” 6 syllables
“It means so much to you” 6 syllables
“Each time you catch my eye” 6 syllables*
Each line matches in word rhythm. This, however, isn’t a requirement. Each verse line could be a different length, but each verse matches the same pattern.
The challenge of a popular song is to mix the familiar with the unique. A song can build a repetitive pattern, musically or lyrically, then shift and deliver a surprise before monotony sets in.
The verses in the song above are followed by a refrain with this pattern:
“I used to be a pacifist” 8 syllables
“And peacefully I’d co-exist” 8 syllables
“But not no more now” 5 syllables
“I’m your new best friend” 5 syllables*
The mix of lines of 8 and 5 syllables end up fitting musically, and provide a subtle rhythmic alternative to the 6-syllable verse lines.
I can’t state enough that these syllable counts mean nothing in themselves. Your songs may have patterns of any length. The point is to set up structures that listeners can get their ears around.
Adding or dropping a syllable on a line or two isn’t the end of the world. A singer’s phrasing may do this before the final mix is over. However, the inherent discipline in line matching builds word rhythm and forces you to find new ways to express your thoughts. And this leads us to…
5.) Metaphor, the Angel of Lyrics
Whether you nail down your English teacher’s literal definition of metaphor (a comparison without using “like” or “as”), the idea of metaphor, expressing concepts in representative or symbolic ways, forces another way to approach both Showing Not Telling and Word Rhythm.
This is a way also to build mystery into your lyrics. If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I’m not exactly sure what they mean, but I like the way they say it,” you’ll get the idea.
A simple way to approach lyrics metaphorically drops or alters words to make your syllable count. The words may no longer make logical sense or complete sentences, but this is songwriting, not prose, so these things are allowed.
“A faded red rose, blowing in the autumn wind,” 12 syllables, can be cut down into:
- “Faded rose in the autumn,” 7 syllables,
- “Red rose, autumn wind,” 5 syllables, or my favorite,
- “Faded red autumn wind.” 6 syllables.
Note how each version subtly changes the mood of the original line. The last line is my favorite because, to me, it evokes the essence of the original line in half the syllables, but with a much more compelling picture.
What the hell is a “red autumn wind” anyway? I have no idea, but I know it works.
Humans seek connections through analogy and metaphor. Always consider saying less, or saying it differently. Non-linear associations are one of the most powerful characteristics of song lyrics.
6.) Don’t Marry Your Lyrics
The melody for the most recorded song ever came to the writer in a dream; stuck in his head in one perfect, complete picture, yet the lyrics took forever to arrive.
There’s nothing sacred about any aspect of the songwriting process. If there were, we might know Paul McCartney’s classic “Yesterday” as “Scrambled Egg.”
One problem I see with many songwriters is emotional investment in every word that emerges. They attach so closely to the songs they create, they block themselves from seeing what’s there. This is why I mention the kaizen philosophy.
I recommend to all my students that they proceed on the assumption that their lyrics are never the best they could be, that there will always be a better way of stating an idea or a little tweak that makes for a strong collection of words.
When you’re always looking for a better way to phrase, a funny thing happens. At first, nothing is ever good enough. What satisfied you before no longer does. That’s what happens once you open your mind to continuous self-improvement. It’s not something for the faint of heart!
Then, one day, you’ll write a line that you’ll know immediately there’s no way to improve. Yet, you’ll still try, just to see if you can. Then you’re getting the point of kaizen and the art of writing lyrics.
7.) Reaching the Coda - Start writing!
There are, as we saw, over 700,000 articles ready to help you with lyrics. Though they probably all have something to offer, you don’t need to read them all.
Despite the fact I’ve just written another, I submit that if you’re reading, then you’re not writing, and therefore you aren’t doing all you can to hone your craft.
There's a lot about of learning to be had by doing, when it comes to lyric writing.
The lyrics used in this article are by Scott Shpak, published by Shadow Factory Music