Songs for the film and TV market need to enhance the emotion in a scene without drawing the viewer’s attention away from the story. Lyrics that are too specific or feature their own story lines can be a problem. So Music supervisors look for songs with what are called “universal lyrics.” But just what does that mean?
A universal lyric is…
A lyric that a large number of people can identify with or relate to.
A lyric that will not conflict with the specific content of a scene.
A good lyric for film and TV is broad enough to allow the song to be used in a variety of scenes while still maintaining emotional integrity, originality, and focus.
Avoid doing the script writer’s job
If you include a lot of specific physical details in your song, like place names, proper names, and dates, you’ll limit the uses for your song because your lyric may conflict with the details in the scene. For instance, if your song is called “I Love You, Sheila” it could be confusing to viewers if there’s no character named Sheila in the scene. A music supervisor will be considering your song just as it is. They won’t ask you to make changes. So Sheila won’t get used. Try a more universal lyric, maybe replacing “Sheila” with “she is…” Let the script writer choose the characters’ names.
Here’s another example: If your song tells the story of two lovers who meet in a bus station in the fall, get married on a Sunday in summer, then one of them dies in winter, your song won’t work with a single scene. Telling a story that develops over time is the script writer’s job. Your song is there to enhance a single scene, a moment in the story – not tell the story.
Use a common theme
Of course, no song will work for every scene but some themes and situations occur more frequently than others. Write about the emotions in family ties, friendships, meeting the challenges of life, growing up, celebrating wins. All of these emotions turn up regularly in TV and film dramas. If you choose one of these, you’re more likely to be successful.
Watch a few TV series that use songs – like Grey’s Anatomy, The Vampire Diaries, or House – and look for common themes. Chances are you’re already using some of them in your songs.
A universal lyric focuses on a single emotion.
Images, emotional details, and a fresh approach to your theme will all add muscle to a universal lyric, making it more appealing to film and TV. Choose an emotion to write about then describe it: How does it feel in your body? What does it remind you of? Is it dark or light, serious or fun?
You can write from personal experience or use an emotional scene in a film or TV show. Put yourself in the characters’ shoes and write a song that expresses their feelings. Choose a scene with a lot of emotion. You can even try using some of the dialogue in your lyric. Create a title that sums up the feeling in the scene. Then use the Ten Steps for writing a song to develop your idea.
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.