Poetry is often defined as putting the greatest amount of meaning into the fewest possible words. This holds true for song lyrics, too. So if you’re a poet, you’ve got a great start on songwriting. But there are a few differences, too.
Long ago, all poems were sung to music but now we tend to write them down and read them on the page. People read them at their own pace, taking all the time they need to understand and react to each line. But songs roll by at the music’s pace. Listeners need to understand enough on the fly to be drawn into the lyric and stay involved. So, poets, try these ideas when writing song lyrics or turning a poem into a lyric…
1. Give listeners enough time to absorb each image or poetic device. Try spreading out your images and metaphors over several lines rather than piling on several at once. Make each image or idea the focus of at least one line. If your lines are short, then spend two or more lines on it. Add more information to give listeners deeper insight into your idea and allow them to fully take it in before moving on.
2. Mix poetic expressions with simple, direct language. A mix of poetic devices and clear, conversational language is ideal for songs. If listeners have to stop and think about what a line means, you could lose them. While they’re thinking about the line, the song has moved on and you won’t get them back. Give listeners enough direct statements to keep your ideas clear and in focus.
Read You and Your Listener: It’s a Relationship to learn more about staying in touch with your listener while writing.
3. Use a conversational tone. While you write, keep the emphasis on saying what you want to say. Before you worry about rhyming, meter, or line length, express your thoughts and emotions just as you would speak them. When you twist a line out of shape to accommodate a rhyme or meter, your lyric loses believability. Today’s song lyrics sound authentic and natural – as if the singer just thought of them, so it’s essential that you preserve the natural flow of speech.
4. Speak your lines out loud as you work. Make sure there are no difficult combinations of letters that will be hard to sing. Also, lines that look fine on the page may be misunderstood when sung. Jimi Hendrix’s “Excuse me while I kiss the sky / kiss this guy” is a good example. There are plenty of hit songs with famously misheard lyric lines. You don’t want to be one of them.
5. Use a song structure. Successful contemporary songs use a pattern of two to four song sections – verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc. The mix of repeated sections and new material keeps listeners involved in the song as it moves forward. Too much repetition and they get bored. Too much variety and they get lost.
Write your lyrics to a melody Song lyrics are made to work with a melody. Too often, when we write lyrics on the page instead of to a melody, they come out sounding like predictable nursery rhymes, limericks, or greeting cards. You want to get as far away from that as you can! Here’s how…
- Choose a successful song you like.
- Learn to sing the melody.
- Write your own lyric to the melody. Aim for lines that fit comfortably – you don’t have to match the original syllable for syllable. Adapt the melody as needed.
- Write down your lyric. Lay out your structure (verse, chorus, bridge) and line breaks like the original song.
- If you’re working with a collaborator who will be writing the melody and chords for your lyric, don’t tell them the name of the song you used as a basis for your lyric. Let them work out a new melody based solely on what you wrote. Here’s more info on finding and working with co-writers.
IMPORTANT: Be sure you don’t use any of the existing song’s lyric. It’s protected by copyright.
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.