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Understanding & Writing Lyrics: Part 1

An Alternative Approach By Sam Inglis
Published December 2000

Understanding & Writing Lyrics

Writing the words to songs is often thought of as a process of pure intuition, but there's a lot more to it than that. In the first part of a new series, Sam Inglis suggests an alternative way of going about it. This is the first article in a five‑part series.

Many people think songwriting is a craft that can't be taught. After all, it is often a matter of finding expression for very personal ideas and themes; and beyond the traditional instruction to write about what you know, people are often reluctant to give or receive advice. This is particularly true in the case of writing words — no‑one knows your mind better than you do, so how can anyone else be in a position to tell you how to say what you think?

Everyone has their own experiences, beliefs and emotions, and lyric writing often is a matter of expressing these. However, pop lyrics are often written to achieve other things in addition to exploring their authors' feelings. And in any case, the ways in which people express their private feelings in song lyrics are learned — through schooling, through practice and, above all, through listening to other people's music. You can't tell people how to write lyrics, just as it would be ridiculous to write an article called 'How To Produce Records'; but that doesn't mean that there aren't ways in which you can learn to do it better.

In this series, I'll be trying to explore some of the things you can do with the words to pop songs. There'll never be complete agreement about which lyrics are good or bad, and everyone probably has different opinions on the matter, so I'll be concentrating on ways in which you can find your own voice by learning from the lyrics that you like, whichever they are. I hope that the ideas I'll be setting out, many of which are derived from poetry theory, will help us to understand the different ways in which lyrics can function, in order that we can analyse the ones we like and discover what makes them work for us. My aim is that this will also demonstrate the often under‑explored range of lyrical possibilities that is open to us, and introduce some new ideas for those who feel they are stuck in a rut.

Why Write Lyrics?

It may seem like an odd thing to do, but it's worth asking yourself exactly why you bother to write words for your songs at all. Different people will come up with different answers to this question. Some write words to their songs because they have ideas, opinions or stories that they want to be heard by an audience, or because they want to make their audience feel particular emotions, or because they want their audience to identify with them. Others write words because it's conventional for the style of music in which they're working to have lyrics, or because the human voice is an important musical instrument in that style and it needs to have some words to sing.

Answers to the question can thus be boiled down, roughly, to the question of whether you start writing lyrics with some message or effect in mind, or whether you simply want something that sounds right with your music. Weak lyrics can frequently be traced right back to this issue. On the one hand, songwriters get carried away by the message they want to put across, and concentrate on making their point at the expense of subtlety, elegance, poetic quality, or fit with the melody. On the other, songwriters tend to resort to cliché and boring, generic phrases when they have nothing to say but need to produce words to fit a tune.

Starting To Write

So what can you do if you or your collaborator has come up with a cracking melody, but you have absolutely no idea what the words should even be about? Or what if you have the burning desire to write about something that's happened in your life, but no idea how to turn events into words? There are, proverbially, many ways to skin a cat, and there are equally many ways to approach lyric writing.

The most important thing to bear in mind is the final result. What do you want out of the words to your song? In fact, what do we want out of the words to any pop song? One common answer in pop writing is 'hooks'. We're used to thinking that good pop songs should contain melodic and instrumental hooks, and it's also a hallmark of many a classic record that they contain production‑based hooks or 'ear candy', such as the Auto‑Tuned vocal in Cher's 'Believe'. It's perhaps less common to think of lyrics as contributing to a song's 'hookiness', but a moment's reflection reveals just how important they can be. What would Lou Reed's 'Walk On The Wild Side' be without its title phrase? Would Ian Dury's 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' have been a hit without its bizarre but catchy chorus lyric? If Alanis Morissette had never written the line 'Would she go down on you in a theatre,' would she still have become a household name?

In other parts of this series, I'll be looking at what makes a lyrical phrase memorable, but for the time being, let's stick to questions about the overall construction of a song lyric. Whether or not you start with a firm idea of what your song will be about, it's crucial that a finished pop song contains hooks. The earlier in the songwriting stage you can come up with these hooks, then, the better. In fact, why not start with the hooks?

This is a particularly useful approach if you're committed to writing the lyrics to a song but you don't have any idea what to write about. Once you have even one firm lyrical hook in place, you can often work backwards, and come up with a subject or story to accommodate the hook. Indeed, if you have one lyrical hook you can sometimes dispense with the rest of the song altogether, as the writers of the Wamdue Project's 'King Of My Castle' clearly found.

As we'll see in future instalments, a lyrical hook has to work in three ways. Firstly, it has to fit with the music, in terms of rhythm and melody, and also in terms of mood. Secondly, it has to form a pleasing sequence of sounds when sung or spoken. And thirdly, the meaning of the phrase has to engage the listener. So where can you find phrases that meet these criteria?

In some ways, you're actually at an advantage if you don't have a predetermined idea as to what your song will be about, because you can choose any phrase at all without it having to fit with a preconceived point you want to make. You could, for instance, start with a well‑known phrase or saying (Dire Straits' 'Walk Of Life', Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Walking On The Water'), or a figure of speech (Katrina & The Waves' 'Walking On Sunshine', Everything But The Girl's 'Walking Wounded'), or any sequence of words that strikes you as potentially interesting (Was Not Was' 'Walk The Dinosaur', The Bangles' 'Walk Like An Egyptian') and which fit the melody you have in mind.

You can often find interesting phrases coming up in conversation, in television and radio programmes, books, films, newspapers, adverts — anywhere there is written or spoken language. If you choose a phrase that's in common use, you have the advantage that your lyric will sound familiar, though some phrases have been so over‑used in pop music that they have lost their impact and freshness, becoming clichés (a good number of these can be found in Starship's '80s hit 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now'...). Alternatively, you can go the other way and choose something so off‑the‑wall as to stick out by virtue of its sheer weirdness.

If you are writing 'to a message', on the other hand, the ideal hook would be one that summarises or expresses that message in a neat way. However, it also needs to have all the qualities of a good hook: a bald statement of your point won't necessarily be sufficiently subtle or poetic and, conversely, even if your message really is summed up by the phrase 'Whoah yeah baby let's go crazy', it will still be a cliché. The key is to find something that works like any other lyrical hook, but which also captures the point of your song. The phrase 'Take a walk on the wild side', for instance, is an apt summing up of Lou Reed's experience of life inside Andy Warhol's Factory, and is also a striking and memorable phrase in its own right.

A good lyric, then, needs to have as many hooks as possible — certainly in the chorus, and preferably at other prominent points such as the opening line (see Opening Up box on page 145). I've suggested that it's a good idea to come up with some of these as early as possible in the process of songwriting, and perhaps even to use them as the springboard from which the rest of that process starts. So how should you develop your song from here?

If all you now have is a hook line or two, but still no idea of exactly what your song will be about, there are several ways of generating ideas. You can brainstorm: write down your hook lines in the centre of a sheet of blank paper and scribble down around them anything that those phrases, or their constituent words, call to mind (see the box on page 148). Another good tactic is to think about possible situations in which these hook lines might appropriately be used, and people who might use them. Suppose, for instance, your hook line was 'And then there were none'. This phrase, for instance, might be used by a tearful mother faced with the last of her children leaving home; it might be used by someone talking about the moment when the dodo became extinct; it might be used by a soldier to describe the loss of his comrades in battle; or it might even be used by someone complaining about the loss of local village pubs. You could explore any of these as a lyrical avenue, and end up with songs that differed greatly in subject matter (and probably in quality...).

The Broad Picture

So, supposing you have some hook lines and a rough idea of what your song will be about, what else needs to be decided at this stage? There are properties which usually belong to song lyrics as a whole, rather than just to specific lines, and many of these are best fixed at the start of the songwriting process. One such feature is that the use of tense should be consistent across a song. In most cases, this simply means that all the lines in the song are in the same tense, rather than confusingly jumping between, say, past and present from line to line. This means that you need to decide at the start which tense your lyrics are going to be written in.

However, consistency in the use of tense doesn't necessarily mean sticking to one tense throughout a song. A fairly common device, for instance, is to write the bulk of the song in the past tense and the last verse or chorus in the present. This can be used to show the effects of past events on your current feelings. You might do similar jumps between verses and choruses, or even within a verse, or between past or present and future tenses.

The 'voice' of the song also needs to be consistent. Does the lyric represent a person describing their own feelings, or talking to another person, or offering a neutral description of events? In other words, is the song in the first person ('I went to the shops'), second person ('You went to the shops') or the third person ('He/she/it went to the shops')? Again, consistency doesn't have to mean that the voice of the song can't change, as we'll see; but it does mean that there has to be a good reason for it. In particular, it sounds very obvious and bad if different lines end up being in different tenses or voices simply because they have a different number of syllables which happen to fit the melody better that way.

If you do take a phrase as your starting point, you may be committing yourself to working in a particular tense or voice; for instance, if you begin with the phrase 'I couldn't care less', you are likely to end up with a song that's in the first person and the present tense. This is not inevitable, though, and you could develop the same phrase in other ways: for instance, you might use it in the context of 'And then she said 'I couldn't care less',' which would put your song in the past tense and the third person.

Looking Ahead

In this first part of the series, I've dealt mainly with the process of songwriting. I've argued that, in pop music, one of the most basic functions of a good lyric is to provide hooks, in just the same way as melodies and riffs do. I've also outlined a way in which you can create the words to a song by starting with the hooks, and in future instalments I'll be considering what makes some lyrical phrases 'hooky' and others not. Next month, however, I'll be looking in more detail at some of the general features of a verse or song lyric. Consistency of tense and voice, which I touched on above, are basic requirements for grammatical correctness and for your lyrics to make sense, and therefore essential. However, there are other crucial choices that can be made about the general form and purpose of your song lyrics, and next month's instalment will be devoted to understanding and making these choices.

Opening Up

Perhaps the most important lyrical hook in a song, with the possible exception of the chorus, is the first line. As well as introducing the subject of the song, and helping to establish the mood, it is the best opportunity to grab the listener's attention — so make the most of it! A good first line can often do this in several ways. It can make a powerful statement or declaration, like John Lydon's 'Anarchy In The UK': 'I am an antichrist/I am an anarchist' is one of the most memorable first lines ever, because of its obvious shock value. It's not subtle, but it's certainly effective.

You can use a first line to say something surprising or unusual, which instantly tells the listener that this is going to be an individual record. Catatonia's 'I Am The Mob', for instance, starts with the line 'I leave horses' heads in people's beds' — the kind of bizarre but diverting claim that forces its way into your consciousness.

If your song takes the form of a story, the first line should hook the listener in, so that they want to know what happens next. Pulp's 'Common People' uses its first line to introduce the song's central character: 'She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge'. Hearing it for the first time makes you wonder who came from Greece, and what that person's thirst for knowledge led her to do. Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' likewise hooks the listener into its story straight away with the classic opening 'At first I was afraid, I was petrified'. You're immediately curious about what was so petrifying!

On Draft

When is a lyric finished? Some maintain that there is something sacred about the first draft — that it's somehow the most pure expression of what you have in your mind. Others, more pragmatically, just keep writing until they've got enough lyrics to fit the number of verses and choruses they think the song needs, then they stop.

However, it can be valuable to force yourself to write more than you need, and then to pick out the best bits. There is also no reason why you shouldn't revise draft lyrics. Just as you might come to think that a C sounds better than an F in a certain place, so you might decide that your original lyric is weak in places and needs to be modified.

Brainstorming: Alternative Sources Of Inspiration

I've suggested that a good way to approach lyric writing can be to start with a single hook, which you then develop. Sometimes, these lyrical hooks can come from the most mundane or obvious source. Coldplay's hit 'Yellow', for example, was derived from a first line that came about simply because the band happened to be in the studio at night, as producer Ken Nelson explained in October's SOS: "'Yellow' was written at Rockfield when we were there. The studio we were in is called the Quadrangle Studio — the studio is along one side of an open courtyard about 50 yards square, and we went out one night, and because there were so few lights, the stars were just amazing. And Guy just came up with the line 'Look at the stars'." (It's interesting to speculate how the song might have turned out if something else had caught his eye at that point!)

This isn't the most original line in the history of pop, and you'll often find that you need to look beyond the obvious if you want to come up with a fresh and interesting lyrical hook. So how can you generate these lyrical ideas? Well, you could try the sort of brainstorming exercises that are beloved of creative‑writing courses...

One approach is to rely on random or 'aleatoric' methods to generate a whole collection of phrases, then search through for one that inspires. The advantage of this method is that it can lead you in totally unexpected directions; the disadvantage is that you may have to produce hundreds of randomly generated phrases before you find one that is usable. There are lots of ways of coming up with ideas at random. You can try, for instance, chopping up newspapers or other documents and pulling the pieces out of a hat, recording snippets from the radio or TV and chopping them up at random in an audio editor, using one of those sets of fridge magnets that are supposed to create 'fridge poetry', or putting any old word into an Internet search engine and looking at the results. If you're collaborating with other people, you could try playing word‑association games (writing down the results), or games such as Chinese Whispers or Consequences which can produce unexpected results.

Another idea is to use an existing song — yours or somebody else's — as a starting point. You could try, for instance, taking a line from a song and then using the opposite as a starting point (for example, 'Look at the ground', or 'Don't look at the stars', or 'Look away from the stars'...). Alternatively, you could try to write a song on the same subject without using any of the same words, write an 'answer song' in response to it, or try to develop a minor feature or character in the song into the central element of your own. You could even take an incomprehensible lyric from another song, transcribe what you hear phonetically (remember the old TV adverts for Maxell tapes?), then use the results as a starting point.

Of course, taking another song as your starting point means that you risk ending up with a song that's very similar to someone else's. The same risk doesn't apply, though, if you base your song on a novel, painting, TV programme, or film. You can simply use a line, idea or character as a place to begin, or you could be more ambitious and use your song to retell the story or describe the scene. No matter how you come up with your ideas, the most important thing is that you write them down. There's nothing more frustrating than remembering you had a great idea, but forgetting what it was; and all you need to do is keep a notebook around where you can jot down lines or subjects that might make good songs.