Do you feel like you're not good enough to write lyrics to music? Do you ever think about how other musicians are able to come up with consistently great stories for songs? Are you interested in learning how to do this yourself? Perfect, you'll love what I've got in store for you.
I know some will say something along the lines of "but Tommaso, the lyrics come from being inspired. It's simply not possible to learn how to make beautiful songs every time." I get it, because I felt the same way not too long ago. And it was by no means a quick process for me to learn what I'm going to tell you now.
I lost a lot of years by not making an attempt to improve my lyric-writing skill because of that belief that it's something you either have or don't. Hopefully, with this article, I can help ensure you don't go through the same experience I did.
So what can you do to get better at writing lyrics? The best place to start would be to listen to a few of your favourite songs and look for the cliches, or patterns, that are used by different artists. Each time you hear one, write it down and try to use it in your own writing.
Here are a couple of the cliches to look for. For lyric writing, there are three basic techniques that you'll be able to spot in a wide range of songs, and you may even be using one or two of these at the moment, which is a good sign.
Writing a song is not the same as writing a story. The biggest differentiator being the structure and the way it's arranged to music. Is there any repeating lines in music? Is the way sentences are worded similar to other types of writing? Are words structured in a similar way?
One example is in the popular song "Yesterday" by The Beatles, where the word "yesterday" begins and finishes each verse, and ends the chorus. Listening to the song, you may also hear how the words "yesterday" and "now" are used in conjunction ("NOW I long for YESTERDAY"). Interchanging and juxtaposing the two words leaves the listener with the impression that Yesterday was a better time for the narrator.
Of course, these examples are just a small sample of the true power of lyrical symmetry, but they are a good jumping off point for any beginning song writer.
The following is mostly true for English song writers. Although it will also work in languages like Persian, Norwegian, German, and Thai that are stress-times (google it), it will not work in languages that are syllable timed, such as Icelandic, Armenian, Welsh, Turkish, Cantonese, Italian or French.
The point is to pay attention to "Word rhythm". Word rhythm is easier to read than it is to sing. When you do this, you'll be able to see which syllables are stressed, and which ones are not. A good example of this comes from Metallica's "Damage Inc.":
DEALing OUT the AgoNY withIN / CHARging HARD and NO one's GONna GIVE in
The first line sounds: TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM, the second TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta. As the song progresses, it holds the same or similar word rhythm, which brings a sense of unity to the overall sound. Variations are possible too, of course
The key here is to not force these rhythms into your lyrics, rather it's better if you start by listening to these accents in existing music lyrics. After a while your brain will "know" how lyrics sound and you will find yourself coming up with the "right" rhythm without even thinking.
Figurative language is the opposite of literal language. That is, whenever you speak in a figurative way you do not strictly mean what your words are actually saying. This technique is extremely common in all forms of music.
At the beginning of "Bohemian Rhapsody" Freddie Mercury writes "caught in a landslide". With that he's meaning that the the life of the protagonist of the song was dominated by irresistible events outside his control... not that he was literally buried under a mix of rocks and top soil detached from the closest mountainous slope. This is an example of a Metaphor.
And of course, people do say they have had their heart stolen - but taken literally I'm pretty sure this is a major felony in most parts of the world, and the victim certainly wouldn't be singing about it later. This one is not a Metaphor, by the way: it's a Metonymy. It's still figurative language, though, and we'll see the difference in another article
(Just to put this out there, "falling" in love is also a metaphor, in that neither of the actors fell anywhere.)
Keep an eye out for patterns like these, as the more you think about what you're listening to, the better you'll be at adapting language to your own music.
Pick your three favourite songs at the moment. Anything from prog to punk to pop will work. Now, read each of the songs lyrics three times - one time searching for symmetry, once for word rhythm, and once for figurative language. Write down what you notice about the music.
After just those three, I know you'll pick up on what the musician was putting down that you didn't see before. As you start to think about the process, you'll be able to adapt these techniques that draw you in into your own writing.
Stay connected for more articles about the secrets of Lyric Writing as we start getting deeper and deeper into lyrical strategies.