Here’s a quote from hit songwriter-producer Desmond Child in M Magazine, “The most important thing going into a song is the lyric. The lyric is the script, and you can’t shoot a movie without a script. The score is actually the last part that comes into a movie, in the same way that the music on a record should help bring out the meaning of the lyrics.”
I love his comparison of lyric and movie script. While music truly does have the power to move us emotionally and physically, it’s the lyric that draws us into the song, paints a picture in the mind, makes us identify with the singer or with the people in a situation.
Not the same old story
Like a good movie script, a song has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But I’m not suggesting that you should tell a story in your lyric the way a script does – I met you on Monday. We fell in love on Tuesday. Broke up on Wednesday. This doesn’t really work well for today’s listeners – and it’s not enough for movie-goers either.
The power of a movie script is not that it tells a story. The real power of a good script lies in its ability to draw viewers in emotionally, make them feel afraid when the lead character is in danger, happy when the hero falls in love, and sad when things fall apart. We don’t actually know these characters – they’re not even real – yet we care about them. What good is a story if you don’t care what happens to the people in it?
A good song, like a good script makes listeners feel like they know the characters in the song and it makes us care about them. From the first line of your lyric, that should be your goal.
Do It Now: Take a look at the opening lines of your favorite songs or listen to the John Legend hit in the video below. How does the opening draw you into the situation, characters, and emotions?
What about the chorus?
One seemingly big difference between a movie script and a song lyric – a song lyric has a chorus. This lyric section might be four, six, even eight or more lines long and repeat three or four times during the song. What movie script repeats the same section of dialogue over and over?
But the difference might not be as big as it seems. A movie script that has a strong theme and good focus will bring viewers back over and over to the attitude and feelings of the lead character. Each time it comes back, the viewer knows more about the situation and the characters. Reminding the viewer of the central idea of the movie creates a sense of wholeness, a complete experience. A good script doesn’t just wander all over the place.
A good song chorus does something similar, bringing us back to the heart of the song again and again, summing up the emotion at the core of the song. It’s a statement of feeling that reminds listeners what’s going on in the singer’s emotions.
In between the choruses, a verse or bridge should give more information or insight, making the chorus mean more each time it goes by. Be sure your verses and bridge add to the listener’s understanding of the chorus. Don’t waste a single line on something that’s unimportant or off-topic.
Here’s a good example…
Listen to the Neo-Soul hit “All of Me” by John Legend and notice how the lyric paints a picture of this relationship, the people involved, and supports the chorus… just like a movie script.
Find out more
You can hear another example of a song with ‘move script style’ in the wonderful Country hit: “I Drive Your Truck” recorded by Lee Brice. Learn more about this song and techniques you can use in songs of your own by watching this Study the Hits video.
What if you like to write the music first?
Some people find it easier to write the melody, chords, or even the whole instrumental track first. In that case, let the music suggest the scene. Close your eyes and listen to the music. What kind of images does it evoke for you? What emotions? Identify the chorus section and see if you can come up with a lyric phrase that captures the feeling of the music.
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.