- Learn about song vs poem vs piece
- What is the Three-Step Lyric Focusing Technique?
- Discover five new songwriting tips to sharpen your focus
Despite what many outside the industry think, writing good lyrics is arguably the most crucial element in songwriting.
After all, lyrics and melody are deeply intertwined and the wrong words can destroy a good melody. On the contrary, words and phrases that flow effortlessly with a catchy melody are what songwriters and artists die for.
There’s a fundamental contradiction that arises here: how can you say something with universal appeal in an original way? In this article, we’re going to treat this as a challenge to overcome, rather than as an obstacle to great songwriting. Let’s dive into these tips for improving your lyrical chops…
What Is A Song After All?
Most popular definitions of a song include – at the very least – lyrics and a melody. Consider this: if you have words but no melody then you only have a poem, or perhaps just a thought.
On the other hand, if there is music but no lyrics then it’s just a piece of music. So let me reiterate: if only for the sake of this article, a song exists when a melody is performed with words to it.
Again, we are talking about popular music here – this is the most mainstream, simplified definition of a song there is, like it or not.
Before thinking of rhymes, incredible opening lines, or metaphors, we must always keep in mind that the lyrics of a song communicate information from the author to the listener.
This information can be a story, an emotion, thoughts, and many other things. Effective communication is important for your ideas to resonate with others.
Effective lyrics start with a good idea. Maybe this is just a single line, a hook, or a general theme you want to communicate with your song.
What Are Good Ideas?
For a lyrical idea to be effective, it must have a universal scope.
For example, a song about someone who left you and how you have suffered for that person is understandable since it is something common that happens in people’s lives.
Naturally, the theme most employed in songs is love in all its dimensions, from finding it to losing it, going through breakups, lies, infidelities, dreams, unattainable love, etc.
The part where the creativity of the author will really be appreciated is not the selection of the subject itself, but the angle with which it is presented as well as its development.
This can take years of songwriting practice to develop. Much of the emotional impact of a song depends on the subject matter in question and the way it approached and developed.
How Can I Tell If I Have A Good Idea?
There is no easy answer to this. Getting a truly objective take on your own work is difficult, but one tactic is to familiarize yourself with a bunch of successful songs and see how your lyrics compare.
There is no shortcut here, but if you’re a true music lover you are no doubt already very familiar with the lyrics to your favorite songs. Additionally, you can also use a song coach to take a look at your songs, but make sure it’s someone with a large following that you can trust.
If you don’t know where to look, start out with Jason Blume. He is the author of the bestselling book 6 Steps to Songwriting Success and a well know songwriter and coach.
Innovative, practical, and inspiring, Six Steps to Songwriting Success presents a surefire step-by-step approach to mastering the elements consistently found in hit songs.
Three-Step Lyric-Focusing Technique
The purpose of this technique is to serve as a guide for the songwriter at the time of writing the lyrics, thus allowing them to maintain coherence and focus without creating redundancies (bad lyrics!).
The other great advantage of the Three-Step Lyric-Focusing Technique is that it ensures all the words have a close relationship to the song title, and all the lines of the theme lead to the title and reinforce the main premise.
Both professional composers and singer-songwriters of great stature have stated the usefulness of the Three-Step Lyric-Focusing Technique.
Good examples of the use of this technique can be found in the songs You Give Love A Bad Name written by Desmond Child, Bon Jovi, and Richie Sambora, and Message in a Bottle written by Sting.
Step 1: Start With A Title
To start with a title, you have to be clear about what the song is going to be about and make sure that the phrase or word that makes up the title reflects that message or theme.
Every single line in your song should advance or reinforce the title.
As much as possible, try to create an original and attention-grabbing title without losing the essence of what you want to communicate. A title like “I Love You” is one of the least original and most boring ideas that you can create.
On the other hand, a title like Unbreak My Heart (written by Diane Warren, and made into a smash hit by Toni Braxton), has much more chance of awakening the curiosity and imagination of the listener as soon as they hear it.
Step 2: Outline The Story
It is in this step where you will take each section of the song and write down your ideas and thoughts. At this stage, the important thing is to provide a general idea of what you want to say. Ideally, you should write more than you need and make it clear what feeling you want to express.
It is also vital that the story unfolds naturally and that you do not repeat the same idea from the first verse in the chorus or bridge (if one exists).
(Check out our complete guide to writing a bridge here!)
Don’t worry about rhymes, spacing, or anything musical at this point. Step two is designed only to collect raw material that will then be molded into musical ideas. Take your time and feel free to write as much as you want. Write down anything that you can think of that relates to the subject.
It’s good to have a general idea of the form and keep this in mind when outlining your story. Remember that the verses expose the situation and the chorus summarizes.
Step 3: Write The Actual Lines That Will Be In The Song
Through the actual completion of the previous step, you can now work on taking the phrases you wrote and polishing them with their metrics, rhymes, and more.
It is important not to settle for just anything and to try to make sure each line is interesting and contributes to the song and its originality. There must also be continuity between each successive line, that is, they are dependent on each other to maintain focus and develop the story as effectively as possible.
Also, don’t try to force any syllables when the melody does allow for it. Take your time to really try to come up with the strongest possible lines of lyrics for your song.
Five Songwriting Tips To Sharpen Your Focus
I cannot overstate the importance of good song lyrics. It’s no secret that lyric writing can make or break you if you want to be taken seriously as a songwriter. Sure, there are pop hits with terrible lyrics, but how many of those artists have a lasting impact?
This process is extremely important and fundamental to how well your melody is stated and what the song structure is.
1. Stay Consistent
For many new songwriters, consistency is a real challenge. Consistency means that you need to write often, and not just when inspiration strikes.
It also means that you always have to be on the lookout for ideas and ways of stating them. One of the best things you can do to have creative tittles and ideas is to always be on the lookout for interesting and new ways to say something.
Have your antenna up for what you hear in conversations, what your read, and even things you say yourself. Keep a journal of worthwhile ideas or take notes on your phone. More importantly, challenge yourself to write a song every day and try to make it as good as possible.
Do you think that’s too much? Ed Sheeran writes between two to five songs a day when preparing an album. You might not like Sheeran, but he is no doubt successful.
2. Verse vs Chorus
In simple terms, the verse is for exposing and the chorus for summarizing. A good verse clearly states the what, how, who, when, where, and why.
Given its exposing nature, verses tend to have more words and less repetition. For its part, the chorus is the summary, the nucleus, and therefore generally has more repetition of the central idea, which is generally represented in the title and hook.
With the exception of when a song begins with the chorus (which is not that common), the first verse is the first contact that the listener has with the subject.
It is precisely in this contact that tone and the idea for the rest of the song is established. Ideally, during the first few seconds, the listener should perceive whether it is a happy or sad subject and understand what is happening.
Is it about a couple that ends their relationship? Someone who has just found love? A topic of social content, perhaps regarding poverty? Many experts in this field assure that the first two lines of a song are of transcendental importance.
It is there where the listener will decide if they change the radio station or not, and without a doubt, it is there the first point where the representative of a record company or publisher will decide if they will continue listening to the song or not.
These first two lines must make the listener want to keep listening, by combining lyrics, melody, and harmony in a way that he creates interest.
For many songwriters, the second verse presents a much greater challenge than the first. There is a well-known term for this among songwriters circles: the second verse curse.
In part, this is due to the fact that the first verse and chorus have passed, and further developing the song and maintaining interest at this point is a difficult task for many.
However, there are a series of questions that one can ask themselves as an author to continue developing the song: “What else happened? What led you to do that? How did I feel about it? How is my life now that it is gone?”.
The second verse is critical as the song must keep moving forward and continue to stimulate the listener’s mind.
It is important to emphasize that what happens in the first verse and the chorus can make your work for the second verse much easier or more difficult since all the parts must be intimately connected.
In case the song form has a third verse, it is of great importance to develop the story to the fullest and ensure that the song holds the interest of the listener, which will require not only a good melody but also lyrics that tell an interesting story.
3. Use a Hook
In simple terms, a hook is a catchy melodic phrase accompanied by lyrics. It is very common that the main hook of the song is the title of the song and this has been one of the most used techniques by some of the most successful authors of recent times.
As such, it is very common for this type of hook to be found right at the beginning of the chorus.
One of the reasons for using this resource is that the title of the song summarizes in a few words the central theme of the song.
Also, since it is in one of the most prominent parts of the chorus (right at the beginning), it is easier for the listener to remember it.
Common Traits of a Good Hook
- There is a clear melodic jump between the last phrase of the verse and the first of the chorus
- There is a change in the vocal range between these sections, which creates a lot of contrast
- The rest of the chorus is developed based on this first line or hook, both lyrically and melodically.
- The hook is the highest phrase of the entire song, which exposes the title of the same and its main musical phrase.
4. Use Rhyme To Your Advantage
A rhyming scheme is there to help your listener remember your song and to have more emotional impact.
The place where the rhyme is most effective is at the end of sentences. However, a rhyming scheme can vary. For example, in a verse with four lines, line one could be rhymed with three and two with four.
Another option is to rhyme line one with line two and line three with line four. You could also rhyme the first three lines and let the fourth rhyme with the fourth line of the next verse or perhaps an internal rhyme in the pre-chorus.
Less interesting is the option to rhyme all four lines equally, because this can become very repetitive.
5. Avoid Using Clichés
Phrases like “every time I see you my heart stops”, “I miss you so much that I don’t know what to do”, “I want to kiss you under the full moon” and many others should be avoided.
They are trite and because they have been used countless times they are of little to no interest. Much more interesting (but difficult) is composing your own unique lines.
For instance, saying “I miss you so much that I cannot go on” is quite dull and trite. But saying “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days since you took your love away” is more creative.
That fantastic line is the opening for Nothing Compares 2 U by Prince, which became a massive hit for Sinead O Connor.
The three-step lyric focusing technique is a concise and effective way of writing songs. It is much more effective than waiting all afternoon for an idea to hit and then see where the music takes you.
Stream of consciousness writing is still a valid approach, but not a dependable one. Although this latter approach can also result in great songs, it is simply not practical for the professional songwriter that writes daily, or songwriters that want to start writing at a more prolific pace.
Aside from that, all these tips are very powerful when employed correctly, and can really help your music resonate with your audience more effectively.
Now that we’re looked at lyrics, you can read some of our other articles to help improve your songwriting: